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Virginia team comes together to tell cinematic Appalachian story

Mike Still • Oct 11, 2019 at 9:45 PM

BRISTOL, Va. — Take a Wise County film student, add a University of Virginia graduate and a Lynchburg, Va., native film director, and you get a slice-of-Appalachian-life film getting attention at festivals across the U.S.

“Ladies Most Deject,” one of several short films screening Saturday at the PUSH Film Festival at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, is a collaboration between UCLA film school student Connor Wharton, producer Mark Salyer and director Martha Elcan.

Wharton, a John I. Burton High School graduate now in her third year at UCLA as an English literature major and film and television minor, doubles as the film’s co-writer with Salyer and as the lead character, 17-year-old Charlie.

Charlie finds herself trying to look after three younger siblings as their drug-addicted mother becomes unable to take care of the family, Wharton said. Charlie looks for help from a teacher who tries to find the children shelter and other community help.

“I wrote a creative writing drama piece when I was in high school and started writing a script when I was 19, and I’m 21 now,” Wharton said of the idea for “Ladies Most Dejected.” She met Salyer, a Coeburn native and UVa graduate with several years’ experience in theater, in Los Angeles, and they began developing the script and looking for ways to turn it into a film.

“We wanted to voice strong children and women without dwelling on Appalachian stereotypes,” Wharton said. “It’s a film about the duty the community has to fill to take care of these children.”

Wharton said she drew upon her own experiences and observations growing up in Wise County.

“Not everyone in Appalachia is an addict,” Wharton said. “It’s tricky, because we’re telling a story about a negative aspect of Appalachia. It’s a negative stereotype but not one that was in the forefront of my mind. They say to write what you know.”

Elcan said she became involved after Salyer and Melissa Palmer, executive producers of Appalachia Right At Ya Productions, came to her with Wharton’s developed script in 2018.

Salyer and Palmer had attended a conference where a board member of the L.A.-based Alliance of Women Directors had told them of the organization’s database of directors, Elcan said, and found her.

“Mark lived less than a mile from me. We hit it off and they hired me,” Elcan said.

Elcan said she had been looking for a Virginia project to film despite years of success working with directors on films such as “Steel Magnolias,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Next of Kin.”

“The script was ready, and it was the kind of story I wanted to do,” Elcan said. “I was working on a Warner Brothers film. While they worked on location choices, I finished up on the film on a Thursday and flew up on a Friday.”

Elcan and the Appalachia Right At Ya team completed filming in less than a week at the end of June 2018. After editing and sorting out rights for the film’s music, the finished product was ready by January.

Elcan and Wharton each credited actor Robin Mullins, who plays Charlie’s teacher, with a strong performance in trying to help Charlie and her siblings. Elcan said the performances helped make the film the kind of character-driven story she likes to direct.

Elcan said the script and her time in Wise County filming “Ladies Most Deject” also educated her about the welcoming nature of people and of the script’s subject matter.

“After working in L.A. for so long, it was refreshing to come to an area where people come out and say, ‘What can I do to help you?’ ” Elcan said. “Everyone was so warm and welcoming, but behind that, so many have their lives being destroyed under the surface.”

Wharton said her involvement in “Ladies Most Deject” draws upon her love of movies even before she went to UCLA.

“My dad, Jerry, influenced my desire to work in film,” Wharton said. “Movies connected us, going to the Central Drive-In all the time.”

Elcan said “Ladies Most Deject” has gotten strong positive reaction, with its screening in more than 20 film festivals across the country. While Elcan and some actors will be at Saturday’s PUSH screening, Wharton and Salyer are in Duluth, Minn., for another screening and Palmer is attending festival screenings in Arizona and Charlottesville this month.

“The fact we’re getting in festivals shows that it’s a strong film, since getting entries in festivals is very competitive,” Elcan said. “They’re trying to show it to people to make them aware how teachers are having to be more than teachers, because teachers often have to be like social workers.”

The PUSH Film Festival opens Saturday at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s performance theater in Bristol. “Ladies Most Deject” and other shorts will be screened from 3 to 6 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.pushfilmfest.com for $25.

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