Nashville Film Festival continues May 13 with screenings beginning at noon, Sunday. As the festival nears the halfway mark on Day 4 of nine, here’s a conversation with local filmmaker Matt Riddlehoover, who’s returning to Nashville Film Festival with his latest offering, the drama-filled feature film, Strategy and Pursuit. Co-written by his husband, Dustin Tittle, the film stars James J. Faeroes, Tiffany Montgomery, Parker Arnold, Emily Landham, Brian McPherson, Matt Williams, JesseJames Locorriere and Leslie Mills, the film focuses on emotionally fragile Ellie as she spends the summer back in her childhood hometown. Hoping for a romance with her handsome tenant, Paul, Emily comes to realize he may be more into her best friend, Sarah. Meanwhile, neighbor, Max seems to enjoy drowning his lovesick status in booze and snark. Adding to the brooding summer tensions, Ellie’s estranged stepbrother, Joe, and his wife, Vivian, arrive unexpectedly, igniting deep-seated resentments. The combination of emotions and desires within this tightly knit and tightly wound group come to a head setting off an unsettling chain of events with dire consequences.
RAPID FIRE 20 Q WITH FILMMAKER MATT RIDDLEHOOVER, LATEST FILM ‘STRATEGY AND PURSUIT’ SCREENING AT NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL SUNDAY, MAY 13
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: It’s a chamber piece about people who react differently to the challenges life throws at them. They’re all running away from something, and drowning their sorrows, and trying to figure things out… and now their summer is coming to an end.
JP: You not only directed Strategy and Pursuit, but you also co-wrote the screenplay. What’s that about, convenience or control?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: Neither. It always begins with the script. When I start writing, it’s very early on… sometimes during post-production on the last one. So, really, directing the feature and then editing it is more about convenience and control. It’s practical, it keeps the costs down, and it’s become like clockwork for me. Making a movie is problem solving, but it’s not Goldbach’s conjecture. If you write the story, you know how it’s going to play out, and what it should look like, and you hope for the best. Sometimes you get lucky and it turns out, and then the problem shifts to something like trimming it down to size. Strategy and Pursuit was over two hours and, after removing a few benign tumors, I got it down to a manageable hour and a half.
JP: As was the case with your two most recent films, your writing partner is also your husband, Dustin Tittle. Did you guys divide and conquer areas of the script, then come together to tweak it, or was it all written together?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: In the past, we’ve divided and conquered or I’d have Dustin tweak something that just wasn’t working for me. Strategy and Pursuit got messy at times. I outlined the first act and wrote that up quickly, and then I’d get stuck. We’d discuss different possibilities of where it could go, and then we’d get back to work. Honestly, it’s all a fog now. We’d just bought a house, and were moving in and getting settled while working on the script. There were at least four different versions and we finally settled on one and sent it to the producers. But Dustin’s contributions are invaluable. All of these characters are tremendously flawed, and he can swoop in and sprinkle the right amount of flavor, sometimes in a matter of minutes, to make the character somewhat if not completely likeable.
JP: How did a guy born in Bermuda end up in Nashville, TN?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: Originally, Watkins Film School. And then many years later, Dustin Tittle.
JP: What are your fondest memories of attending Watkins?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: My editing professor, Denine Rowan, was so dear to me. I’d find any excuse to huddle in her office to listen to her stories, and seek out her film recommendations. She’d sign off on equipment rentals so I could pursue my own projects on weekends, and then watch an edit, and question everything I’d done… and then she’d sign off on another equipment rental so I could go out and completely reshoot the material. I learned so much from her.
JP: Unlike your more recent writer/director credits, you were actually in front of the camera in your earlier films. Do you feel acting aides in your abilities as a director?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: Here’s the thing, and this goes back to what I said about directing the script and then editing it… it just seemed practical. I was in my earlier films because it made sense. The budgets were a hell of a lot smaller than they are now — I mean, they were virtually nonexistent back then. If I hadn’t been in them, they might not have worked out. But to answer your question, I think being in the film hinders my ability to direct. My mind is already all over the place on set, worrying about time or the weather or how much coverage we need. Adding more to that, like having to regurgitate dialogue, get in and out of wardrobe, and hair and makeup… it’s a nightmare. Throw me in some old t-shirt, a hoodie, a comfy pair of pants, without any lines to memorize, and I’m good to work.
JP: Tell me about your Strategy and Pursuit cast?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: What an incredible group. Just incredibly talented, lovely people. When you get such strong performers, with sharp instincts, you have to step back and let them play.
JP: Astute movie-goers will no doubt notice a few familiar faces among your Strategy and Pursuit cast, as you’ve worked with some of them in your previous features. Is there an ease that comes with working with some of the same actors?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: Absolutely. It’s like going to your favorite restaurant and trying something new from the menu, knowing you won’t be disappointed.
JP: Of those you’re working with for the first time, even some of their resume’s overlap with shared shows like CMT’s Nashville and Still the King. Had any of the first-time Riddlehoover cast members worked together prior to Strategy and Pursuit?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: I believe so. I could be wrong, but I know our crew had worked with many of them before.
JP: Most, if not all of your previous films have been comedies, but Strategy and Pursuit is billed as a dramatic thriller. Having had great success as a comedy writer/director, were you hesitant to tackle this genre?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: Not at all. I knew it’d be risky from a business standpoint… it’s my first serious dramatic film, and is in no way LGBT-themed. But no, no hesitation in deciding to write the film and make it. Maybe it’s my age, or looking around and seeing what’s been going on in the world, but I’m kind of tired of everything being a joke or being played for laughs. Life’s not always light, and right now I’m more interested in exploring the serious sides of the human condition.
JP: Being based in Nashville, you tend to shoot here. In your previous two films, locals could easily spot some of Music City’s favorite backdrops, but this time it’s quite different, right?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: Right, unless of course anyone’s stayed at the charming Woodbine Retreat. This film is extremely claustrophobic, meaning we never so much as leave the yard. That being said, the house is a very important player in the story. We needed a location that was warm and homey, and with lots of perspectives that were interesting. We had the house before any of the cast… in fact, while Dustin and I were still writing. It was so helpful to know the floor plan, how to block it, and to write all of that on the page.
JP: Other that sleeping in your own bed at night, and what I would imagine would be budgetary benefits of filming local, what’s the best part of shooting in Nashville?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: Again, it’s practical. It’s home. And it’s entirely possible to live and work and make movies here. I get why people go to L.A. or New York or even Atlanta, and I lived in L.A. for many years and worked on projects out there, but Nashville’s been very good to me.
JP: How long did it take you to shoot Strategy and Pursuit? I heard nine days… is that true? What challenges/advantages are there on such a short shoot?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: Yes, true story. We started May 1st of last year, and wrapped May 9th. It was nuts, and just wonderful. When you’ve got actors in these heavy, emotionally-weighted scenes, and lots of camera movements, and some stunt work, and complicated lighting set-ups, and rain storms to manufacture, and a piano being delivered one day and then later hauled off, and the sound recordist is busy trying to avoid airplanes every few minutes because we’re so close to the airport… the only way to get through it is teamwork. And to top it off, it was cold. Unseasonably cold. The whole point of shooting it in May was, we thought, having everything in bloom for this summer-set story, and to not have to deal with the ungodly heat of a Tennessee summer. But it was so cold, and the actors were dressed in short sleeves, short shorts, skirts, boat shoes, and sandals. They’d have to wrap themselves in blankets, and sip hot tea, and then suck on ice cubes to eliminate foggy breath for the night shoots. Troopers. Honestly, the only advantage to shooting a film in nine days is to keep costs down, which we absolutely had to do. Dustin and I funded this one entirely, without investors, knowing this was outside of my wheelhouse and a colossal risk in terms of sales.
JP: I understand Emily Landham was awarded the Houston Film Society Critic’s Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress. How exciting was that for you, your film and Emily?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: We’re beyond thrilled for her. I received the call literally half an hour before she and her husband came over for dinner, so it was a treat to be able to share the news with her in person.
JP: Houston accolades aside, how excited are you for the Nashville Film Festival?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: I always look forward to the festival, and we’re so excited to be attending with the film and to see it with an audience.
JP: How many times does this make that you’ve had a film screen during the festival now?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: Strategy and Pursuit is the third, following Paternity Leave and What’s the Matter with Gerald?
JP: Now in its 49th year, what is it about Nashville Film Festival that sets it apart from other festivals?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: I’m biased because I live here, but what sets the Nashville Film Festival apart from all the others to me is simply that it’s my hometown festival. There’s really nothing like being able to go to a theater you’ve visited countless times and see your own movie there. Then added to that you’ve got friends, family, and colleagues amid strangers? It’s an incomparable experience.
JP: What’s next for Strategy and Pursuit?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: We’ll have to wait and see.
JP: A little peek at your IMDb page reveals that your next project is a documentary about your husband’s maternal grandmother, Vivian Liberto, better known to many as the first Mrs. Johnny Cash. What can you tell me about your vision for that film?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: Jonathan, it’s been like a massive jigsaw puzzle and such a learning experience. No matter how many months of preparation you put into a documentary, or how neat and tidy you think your outline is, when you sit down to do the interviews, you’re bound to be blown away. It’s like the project takes on a life of its own and directs you and tells you what to punctuate and how it should be cut together. But, simply put, as told by her daughters… it’s the story of a young woman from San Antonio, TX, who lived through a strict upbringing, a storybook romance, a rocky marriage, motherhood, public notoriety, multiple moves, heartbreak and resentment, isolation, rage, and various humiliations… all before thirty.
JP: Back to Strategy and Pursuit for my last question… what do you hope audiences take away after having seen the film?
MATT RIDDLEHOOVER: I don’t know that I have an answer for that. I just hope nobody walks away wanting those ninety two minutes of their life back.
If his previous entries at Nashville Film Festival are any indication, audiences will definitely not wish to have those ninety two minutes back after seeing Strategy and Pursuit, if anything, they’ll likely stick around after the credits to see if there’s a hint of a continuation.
Of course RIddlehoover’s film is just one of the more than thirty options during Day 4 of Nashville Film Festival. For the full day’s schedule, Click Here.
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Be sure and check back tomorrow morning for details about Day 5. In the meantime, you can always follow my personal Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as I’ll be checking in from time to time direct from the festival thru May 19!