CHAMPAIGN – A few years ago, actress Joey Lauren Adams experienced an epiphany after meeting two horticulturists at a trendy bar in Los Angeles. They asked what she had been doing since she starred in Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" (1997), and they expressed surprise when she invited them, at 2 a.m., to a friend's house.
"I realized I didn't have a job to go to the next morning. I didn't have a script to read," Adams said Friday in Champaign. She woke up the next morning and saw "Notting Hill," starring Julia Roberts. Even though she loves Roberts, Adams said she didn't see in that movie a female character she could relate to.
"I really got this sort of helpless feeling of not being in control of my life," she said. "I knew as an actress I couldn't change the number of roles given to women. I decided to become proactive. I decided I'm going to write a female character I can relate to, who's complex."
The result was Lucy Fowler, the protagonist in "Come Early Morning," shown Friday at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival. Adam's writing and directorial debut tells a slice-of-Southern-life story about a 30-something Arkansas woman who has a difficult time with intimate relationships and relating to her emotionally distant father. Ashley Judd, who, like Adams, is an Arkansas native, gives a spot-on portrayal as Lucy.
Ebertfest blogger Lisa Rosman, who moderated the post-screening discussion with Adams, actor Scott Wilson and festival guest and writer/director Eric Byler, said she was struck at how complex Lucy is as a character.
Adams said that like most people, Lucy does well in some aspects of her life, while other parts are a mess. She makes small steps toward emotional growth, eventually accepting herself and finding a way to mature without leaving her small town in Arkansas. The film was shot in Little Rock and North Little Rock, Ark., where Adams grew up.
Raised as a Southern Baptist, Adams also avoided another cinematic cliche in the way she respectfully rather than disdain-fully depicted Southern Christianity – Lucy attends church with her father. The preacher comes off as intelligent, not smarmy or hypocritical.
Adams found funding for "Come Early Morning" from a Russian billionaire and other financiers. "They were great in the sense that they were not around," she said. "They were not giving me notes on the set."
The trickier thing was finding a distributor.
"Come Early Morning" got a boost when it was accepted into the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for a grand jury prize. But it didn't immediately find a buyer at that marketplace for independent films.
"Sundance has turned into such a machine," Adams said. "If a film doesn't sell the first night for $10 million, then you feel like a failure."
There was early interest, but the financial backers wanted more money, she said.
"We didn't sell it until six months later,"she said.
Although the movie has been overlooked by the general public, most critics have praised it. And "Come Early Morning" won Adams the Dorothy Arzner Directors Award from the Women in Film Crystal Awards and best narrative feature award at the Memphis Indie Film Festival.
Adams admitted she didn't know what she was doing as a first-time director. The night before shooting began, she called her cinematographer, Tim Orr, to ask where she should show up. He told her to find him. She didn't know much about camera work, either.
"I let him do his job," Adams said. "A lot of times I would say, 'I don't know, Tim. Do what you do.'"
However, Wilson told Adams she was being modest.
"You also had a lot to do with it. I watched you," he said, also praising her screenplay. "It's a grace to write dialogue like that, and actors respond to that."
Wilson, who portrays Lucy's father, said Adams also put together a wonderful cast. Besides Judd and Wilson, it included Stacy Keach as Lucy's boss, Diane Ladd as her "Nana" and Laura Prepon ("That '70s Show") as Lucy's roommate.
Adams said she tried to act like she knew what she was doing.
"Robert Altman once said he learned more about filmmaking by watching bad movies," she said. "I've learned more by working with a lot of bad directors."