'Feral' Creator Morgan Jon Fox on Telling One's Own Story
Fox discusses art, illness, community, and the importance of not losing touch with one's roots.
FeralCast: Jordan Nichols, Seth Daniel Rabinowitz
Subtitle: Season 1
Air date: 2016-10-06
Over the last ten or so years, Morgan Jon Fox has been steadily making a name for himself in indie cinema. His feature films have won a number of regional and national awards, and he’s been identified on more than one occasion as an important newcomer to independent filmmaking. His latest project, Feral, an eight-part television series made exclusively for the streaming channel Dekkoo, follows a group of 20-somethings living in Memphis and attempting to grapple with life, love, and professional ambition. I sat down with Fox to talk about the his experience making the show, as well as its treatment of mental illness, queer coming of age, and the Memphis art community.
Can you talk a little about your choice to set the show in Memphis?
I've lived in Memphis all of my life. I've spent time in Chicago, New York, England, and Los Angeles, and I love all of these places, but every time I spend time away, my affinity towards my home grows even more. I have a passion to tell stories that I identify with, and my relationship with this region is really intimate. One thing about Memphis that's really shaped my identity is the fact that we're all kind of smushed together here. Growing up here as a filmmaker, it blew my mind that I was immediately accepted into the arts scene, and supported and encouraged by the greater film community at large. The specific targeted resources afforded to the GLBT artistic communities in larger cities don't exist here. In Memphis, you're grouped in with other artists, accepted and nurtured in a way that might surprise many. That's the world in which Feral’s characters exist. Don’t get me wrong; we have our issues, and backwards politics, but when speaking towards the Midtown community where I found my "family" and a real sense of community, it's magical. This tight-knit community where the world of Feral exists is more progressive than folks generally perceive the South to be.
The show has a strong sense of place, something I think is really facilitated by your decision to use people from the community in the show's production. The music's done by Memphis musician Julien Baker, and I've read that the cast is all from Memphis too. What was it like working with the community to make this show? How did people react when they learned that the city was going to feature so largely in it?
Memphis pride is a real thing. We’ve always felt like an underdog. There’s a true us vs. the world mentality here, and people get really excited to tell our stories, and let our talent speak for itself. There's nothing I enjoy more than working with the incredibly talented pool of folks here and having the opportunity to put that on an international level. I also travel and work as a producer and AD on larger productions around the US, and I get great joy out of working with actors and crew from all over. It's just that for a show like Feral, it really only made sense for me to cast and crew up locally. Luckily for me, it wasn’t a matter of compromise. If I couldn't find the talent I needed here, I would've cast or crewed up from LA or NY, but the truth is, I didn't need to and that’s something I'm very proud of.
You grew up in Memphis yourself. How much of your own experience is reflected in the show?
I certainly began my career as a filmmaker writing from a strictly experiential emotional level. As I've grown as an artist and writer, I begin to work more with layers and subtext rather than strictly autobiographical content taken at face value. That said, the experience of Feral's characters in their 20s striving to figure out what the eff they're doing with their lives isn't dissimilar to my own. The bars, coffee shops, midtown bungalows, and nearby rural terrain are all a part of my life, and there’s nothing more fun than being able to put these characters in those spaces and have a real sense of relationship to the spaces to work with. Most of these actors were cast because they're also familiar with these spaces and can relate to the journeys of their characters in one way or another.
It seems as though most of the stories being told about the LGBTQ community in the Bible Belt revolve around conflicts with religion, either in the form of personal guilt or church intolerance. Religion actually doesn’t feature in the first season of Feral at all, which, as a queer Southerner myself, I found really refreshing. The religious coming-out story often feels more about an urban fascination with Southern religious culture than a genuine reflection of queer experiences in the south. Was that something that you thought about when writing the show?
Yes! I thought a great deal about it. I spent six years making the documentary This Is What Love in Action Looks Like, which is about a 16-year-old teen forced into a religion-based "straight camp" after he came out to his parents. So, I got that out of my system. It's a real thing that does exist here, but it's also a real thing that times are changing and people are finding ways to either find non-oppressive religious settings, or to escape falling victim to the grasp of church intolerance in general. I think there's a real danger in continuing to tell stories surrounding religious intolerance in that we are essentially telling stories about THEM as opposed to US. In that way, Feral was an intentional exercise in telling a Southern story about us.
One of the things I thought was so powerful about the show was its treatment of mental illness. Often in media, queer people aren't allowed to have psychological or spiritual issues that aren't directly related to their being queer. I'm curious what factors influenced your decision to make mental illness such a central theme in the show.
This was also intentional. The queer kid with depression issues is always sad about being gay or about being bullied, which are real things. But, I’ve known many GLBTQ folks who've dealt with mental illness completely unrelated to their sexuality in any way. It's an incredibly painful experience, as the person experiencing depression and for their loved ones. I just wanted to tell it as accurately as I could in a way that didn’t stigmatize it. We're people; we deal with issues like all people deal with issues. It's quite simple, and the more people can see that the better.
The show is also about trauma, about learning how to move on after something unspeakably awful has happened. I thought this was a really fantastic thematic decision given the show's commitment to the south, which is constantly trying to come to terms with its own dark past. Do you see the characters as mirroring in some way the region that they grew up in -- as sharing similar spiritual pains?
This is where my personal brand of storytelling comes in. I lost my mom to cancer when I was in 8th grade. It was so devastating to me. There was a point, though, that coincided with me coming out and working through a pretty dark phase in my life, when I realized I sort of owed something to her. She was so young when she lost her fight, and so I have no choice but to push through and do everything I could to turn that pain of loss into something productive, and hopefully beneficial, for others. This also most certainly reflects my deep love for Memphis. Memphis has no doubt experienced dark times, and we’ve had a lot of tragedy here. Yet Memphis is a town where magic rises from the pain, where soul seeps through the cracks in the concrete, and dreams emanate in the humid heat waves that rise up from the bluffs that contain the massive Mississippi River. Nothing’s easy here, but we find our own way, and I love that so much.
Finally, I was really interested in the way that Billy (Jordan Nichols) used filmmaking as a way to come to terms with his pain and eventually move forward with his life. That decision seems to contain a pretty powerful belief in the restorative capabilities of art and, specifically, visual storytelling. Do you see your own work as offering the same kind of therapeutic potential, either for yourself or the queer community?
I wrote my first feature-length script (Blue Citrus Hearts) as a way to come out when I was 18. There’s absolutely no question that writing that film and making a commitment to figure out how to make it saved my life, and gave me some kind of hope for a future. It's always been an emotional journey for me, and I find that the artists I gravitate towards have similar connection to their work. Julien Baker is a great example; when I first saw her perform her music, it resonated with me on such an intrinsic level. Then I began to talk with her and understand the place from which she wrote. It's so powerful for me to witness someone translate the experience of their lives into art that gets shared and becomes a new language for others to interpret and react to and relate to and feel things about and be inspired by. That's what drives me.
People who get their start telling small regional stories and experience some success or attention or money often gravitate towards New York or LA, only to find years have passed and the very voice and ingrained identity that made them special in the first place has become a afterthought. I understand all of the reasons why this happens -- money, the poisonous allure of fame, and so on -- but I really and truly want to believe that there’s another way. I'd love nothing more than to figure out a way to continue to tell intimate regional stories in the place that I love, with my "family" right there along with me.