Branson documentary to show at Jefferson City venue

After a successful run on the film festival circuit, two Mid-Missouri filmmakers will bring “We Always Lie to Strangers” to Capitol City Cinema in downtown Jefferson City.

The feature-length documentary about Branson opens May 7 for a five-day run at the High Street venue. The film follows four families who perform in the live music shows that dominate the Branson strip.

The film premiered at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where co-directors David Wilson and A.J. Schnack won a special award for directing. It then went on to play at festivals in Nashville, Dallas, New York and the St. Louis International Film Festival. After a screening last Sunday in Branson, the film opened at the Ragtag Cinema in Columbia on Friday; both events were homecomings for Wilson.

“It’s been a thrilling week for me, said Wilson, 39, a co-founder with Paul Sturtz of Ragtag and the True/False Film Festival, an internationally known festival that draws documentary filmmakers to Columbia from all over the world.

“Showing the film in Branson, hometown of the film, and then showing it in Columbia, my hometown, at a theater that I helped start made for a very emotional weekend,” he said. “I can’t wait to bring the film to Jefferson City and be a part of the launch of the Capitol City Cinema with my longtime friend Jami Wade.”

Wade, the owner of CORK and Provisions and founder of Capitol City Cinema in downtown Jefferson City, met Wilson and Sturtz 15 years ago in Columbia.

“I volunteered to help at the film series they created at The Blue Note that morphed into Ragtag,” said Wade. “I would have never thought then that he would make a feature length documentary and it would play at the independent cinema I founded in Jefferson City.”

Sturtz is currently the programmer at Capitol City Cinema, which officially opened April 23 at 126 E. High St., with plans to show foreign films and documentaries, with programming for children, too.

For Wade, “We Always Lie to Strangers” is exactly the kind of movie that fits into their mission of bringing independent cinema to Jefferson City.

Wilson will introduce the film, which begins at 7 p.m., on the opening night and stay for a question and answer period afterward, where he will share his and Schanck’s five-year journey to make the film.

Schnack, 45, grew up in St. Louis and graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, but has lived in Los Angeles for most of his career and directed the critically acclaimed documentary “Kurt Cobain: About a Son.” When one of his other documentaries played at True/False, he met Wilson and they decided to collaborate.

“I had made a short film on Moberly and was interested in doing a feature film on small town life, and Branson offered that but on a much larger scale,” Wilson said.

Both a setting and a character in the film, the small town of Branson is home to roughly 10,500 people, but plays host to more than 7.5 million tourists each year and has been called the “Las Vegas of the Ozarks.”

While Silver Dollar City has long been a popular tourist attraction, many also come for the area’s natural beauty with mountains, caves and Table Rock Lake. When CBS’ “60 Minutes” aired a two-part feature on Branson in 1991, Morley Safer called Branson the live music capital of the world. His segment featured Mel Tillis and The Presleys’ Country Jubilee, considered the first variety show on the Branson Strip.

In the next few years, Branson was booming. The late Andy Williams brought the first non-country act on the strip and opened his Moon River Theatre. The Osmond Brothers, Wayne Newton, Bobby Vinton, Ray Stevens, Roy Clark and Tony Orlando followed with their own shows and built their own theaters.

Today, there are 50 live music venues on the strip, and in 2007, The Branson Landing, an upscale outdoor mall development on the banks of Lake Taneycomo, opened. In recent years, though, there have been economic struggles with theaters sitting empty and a decline in ticket sales.

Wilson and Schanck wanted to tell Branson’s story through specific performers like the Presley family whose 47-year-old live variety show continues to be a big draw with its mix of classic country, patriotic and gospel tunes and sometimes corny comedy bits. Raeanne Presley, who’s married to drummer Steve Presley and is the first female mayor of Branson, is also featured in the film. There’s also the more liberal Lennon Brothers, siblings to the famous Lennon Sisters who appeared on “The Lawrence Welk Show” for 13 years. Bill Lennon, his wife, Gail, and siblings Dan and Joe moved from Venice, Calif., to perform in a long running show on the strip and stayed.

“Earning our subjects’ trust took us at least a year because they were leery of how Branson had been portrayed in the media and what we would do in the film,” Wilson said. “Even though the Presleys perform almost every night of the year and have their public face, they’re actually really private and what you see in the show isn’t always who they really are.”

The film’s title, “We Always Lie to Strangers,” comes from a 1950s book of the same name by Vance Randolph, who shares his observations about the people living in the Ozarks. He witnessed the locals often telling tall tales and exaggerated stories to “city slickers.” When he questioned them on why they do this, they responded, “we always lie to strangers.”

Wilson’s and Schnack’s first visit to Branson as filmmakers was in November 2007 and in 2008 they rented a condo for six months. For the next 2½ years, they made regular trips there. During this time, Wilson met Matthew Mills, a graduate of University of Missouri and Stephens College and founder of SpaceStation Media, who made an initial investment of $25,000 but that expanded to six figures during the filmmaking process. He serves as executive producer of the documentary along with Vicky and Willy Wilson, Chad and Jacquie Benestante, Peter Schneider and Sarah Riddick, who grew up in Jefferson City and whose son, John Wright, is a state legislator.

In early 2009, Nathan Truesdell, 34, a native of Clark, Mo., who also graduated from the University of Missouri, joined the team. All three spent time behind the camera and by late 2011 Schnack began editing the more than 400 hours of footage. That process took about a year and in November of 2012 they took a rough cut of the film to Branson Visitor TV to screen it for the subjects before entering it into film festivals.

Now the film has come full circle. Prior to their Branson screening a week ago, The Missouri Film Office, a part of the Division of Tourism, hosted a small brunch on Sunday for the subjects, filmmakers and press at the Worman House at the Big Cedar Lodge.

Dan Lennon works in Jefferson City and is now the deputy director of strategic communications for the Missouri Division of Tourism. The Lennons and the Presley family have become close, too, this slice of their lives forever captured on film.

“We Always Lie to Strangers” plays through Sunday, May 11, at Capitol City Cinema. In addition to opening night on Wednesday, the showtimes are:

• Thursday, 7 p.m.

• Friday, 7 and 9 p.m.

• Saturday, 7 and 9 p.m.

• Sunday, 1 and 3 p.m.

After playing at Capitol City Cinema, “We Always Lie to Strangers” moves to the Moxie Cinema in Springfield, Mo. The film comes out on DVD on June 3, and will soon be available for digital downloads on iTunes.

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