By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 19, 2004
Milam McGraw Propst’s love and respect for her grandmother is forever written on her heart. That love was captured in her first award-winning novel “A Flower Blooms on Charlotte Street” and now in the novel’s screenplay adaptation entitled “The Adventures of Ociee Nash,” which opened in metro Atlanta theaters on Valentine’s Day weekend.
As a girl, Propst always admired the spirit of strength and perseverance in her grandmother Ociee Nash, who grew up in the late 1800s. After the death of her mother, Nash was sent on a train from her farm in Mississippi to Asheville, N.C., to live with her aunt.
Propst recalled how, when she was in high school, she had taken her grandmother back to Asheville and to her Charlotte Street home, which had been turned into a florist shop.
“She was the most important person in the world to me. She always encouraged my writing,” said Propst, a member of Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, and a graduate of St. Pius X High School. “She was always a very strong, courageous woman … She had a lot of things she overcame with great grace. She was a widow at age 40, worked until she was 80 years old, very independent. She was the first woman in Memphis to get a permanent wave in her hair.” She dressed “to the nines” and was a beautiful seamstress who made her own dresses.
Propst returned to her writing interest as her children went off to college, eventually taking a public relations job for a health care company. She also signed up for a children’s book writing class. It was like opening “Pandora’s box” as she discovered the fun of writing fiction. Always having a latent desire to write about her grandmother, she wrote about her bravery, humility and triumphant spirit, while filling in the gaps by imagining what her life was like. The Mississippi farmhouse was based on the Alabama home of her husband’s grandmother.
“It was like my grandmother was whispering in my ear and telling me things,” Propst said. “I wished I could call her in heaven. It was almost like a mystical experience.”
The message is “yes, bad things do happen, but my goodness, I can get through that. Look at what this little girl went through with losing her mother but also the triumph of crossing the country to be with her aunt. It’s a book and movie about triumph. It’s an encouragement.”
Propst believed in the book but received “a bunch of rejection slips” from publishers. After encouragement from Mercer University Press, which does not publish fiction, a year later she received a call from an editor there who would publish it.
“One of the first things he said was ‘wouldn’t it make a beautiful movie?’” The book went on to be recognized by Georgia Writers in 2000 as best first novel and received a national Parents’ Choice Award for children’s work in fiction.
Film-Making Sisters Meet Author At Art Exhibit
At an art exhibit of Catholic artist Beverly Key, wife of actor Tom Key, Propst met sisters Kristen and Amy McGary, who have worked together since 1997 and had decided to move out of Hollywood art departments and start their own film company called CineVita Productions—a nod to their Italian and Irish heritage. The sisters, both University of Georgia graduates, have worked in the film industry for over 20 years, traveling between Los Angeles and Atlanta. They read the book and were hooked, asking for the rights to write a screenplay. Propst was thrilled. “We all hit it off. They read the book and liked it and decided to make a movie. I impaled myself on a tree (when they told me their intention). We were eating outside at a restaurant. It was like getting an Oscar. It was the best moment until it opened at the Fox,” she said, referring to the G-rated movie’s selection to open the Fox Theatre’s summer film festival last year.
Kristen and Amy, in an interview in their small two-room office in a hip, converted warehouse style building off Briarcliff Road, shared their take on the book.
“We felt strongly about the character of Ociee Nash. What appealed to us was that this little girl could make an impression, and the impression she created for us was one of bravery and persistence and love,” Kristen said.
The sisters had actually been raising money to produce a rich, multi-layered screenplay they had written about Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor when they decided to switch gears and start writing the screenplay for Propst’s book, as with the amount of money they had through investors they could actually begin the children’s project. Kristen, who directed the film while Amy produced it, noted how it has the themes of redemption and resurrection that also permeate O’Connor’s work, but this film is on a child’s level.
“Flannery O’Connor is our hero … We’re still hoping to make ‘Flannery’ next spring too. Spring because there are many, many peacocks in ‘Flannery,’ and peacocks are in mating season in the spring and the end of February,” said Kristen, who has a stack of Flannery books in her bookcase. They’re also currently working on another screenplay, “Amanda’s Gift,” based on a book by a local author about his daughter who was diagnosed with cancer but overcame it.
This project was their first big fund-raising venture as they had before never raised much more than $100. But, as the heroine Ociee speaks of “finding your bravery,” the McGarys did that in stepping out to create their first feature film. They won the 2002 Southeastern Media Award, which gave them an additional $120,000 for filming.
“If we waited till we absolutely knew we had the money, we would have never made the film … It was all the right time,” said Amy.
Leaving the more secure salaries of the art department has involved sacrificing financial security, fancy cars and dinner parties. Both rent their homes, with Amy living in an apartment in Virginia Highland with black cats Roma and Boo and Kristen, in an apartment in Los Angeles. And while they share the same film sensibilities, the sisters say it’s an ongoing learning process in working together. “Kristen and I both decided at the time if we were going to make the move we needed to do it. We kind of dove in. It’s taken longer than we ever imagined … but this is a wonderful ending, not really an ending but beginning. It’s really incredible to see the film now going out into the theatres,” said Amy.
“We really took a big cut in salary because now there was, like, no salary,” added Kristen, with bittersweet laughter. With their offices, “people walk in the door and think it’s going to be like this big space and it’s a hallway.” With the sacrifices comes the chance to savor the moment. “It’s a very long time to do everything you want to do and hit the goals you want to hit so you’ve got to really set yourself up for joy in the disappointments and joy in the joys,” said Kristen.
So did they share the joy in writing together? “Picture us smashed up together trying to look at this (laptop) screen,” recalled Kristen of the pleasure and pain of creating. The cinematic sisters wrote all of “Flannery” together. As for “Ociee,” each worked on writing selected scenes and then came together before the laptop where they “rewrote it and reworked it and made it work.” They created a more spit-fire version of “Ociee” and, to show the excitement of the time period, added in the cameo characters of the Wright brothers, President William McKinley and the world’s pioneering female investigative journalist Nellie Bly. Historically speaking, Asheville was a center of activity with the Vanderbilts living there and with paved roads and electricity.
The movie, with a crew size of about 50 and cast of around 30, was filmed in the fall of 2002 in Orchard Hill, Ga., Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood, which has Victorian era homes, and at the Tennessee Valley Railroad in Chattanooga. Working out of that hallway-sized office, the sisters auditioned some 300 girls for the part of Ociee before coming back to the second Atlantan to try out, Skyler Day.
Oscar winner Keith Carradine and Emmy winner/Oscar-nominee Mare Winningham came on board at the last minute to fill roles of Papa Nash and Aunt Mamie Nash, and leading Atlanta actors filled supporting roles, including Catholics Tom Key, Anthony Rodriguez and Mary Welch Rogers. Associate producer Stephen Dirkes is another Catholic, who has a child at Christ the King School and another at St. Pius.
It is truly a family film, as Day’s brother appears as one of the boys at the creek scene where tomboy Ociee is warned to leave before she swings over the water on a rope. It’s Day’s favorite scene—and she gets to tell the bossy boys off. The McGarys’ dad, Chuck, appears as a train conductor, their sister Kellie appeared as an extra and worked wardrobe, and their mother, Dolores, made over 2,000 cookies. Propst and Dolores and Chuck McGary attended nearly every day of shooting. Mr. McGary is a proud dad and was glad to also help with product supply.
“They started right after college, did ‘Terminator’ and ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and a lot of ‘B’ movies. They really paid their dues for a while … My wife and I never really doubted that Kristen and Amy could do it because they know their way around the business,” said Mr. McGary, who has a special appreciation for the story, as his own parents died when he was a boy. With this project “they started with a number of roadblocks, but they maintained a reasonable amount of optimism” as some doubted they could do it.
God’s Presence Experienced In ‘Miracle Movie’ Production
Amy, who grew up “the Saturday morning movie kid,” had always wanted to go into film. Having co-founded a design firm, she noted how even having been on movie sets throughout her career, crisis management is different when you’re running the show. “There’s always something going on. But we had one of the most experienced crews we could ask for.”
While Amy’s the less church-going of the two, her prayer was “constant” for the independent project made on less than $2 million. “The obstacles were so huge and amazing at some points … I think there was definitely a divine hand pushing us through.”
Both women found Propst, a daily Mass-goer, to be a strong spiritual presence. The author is grateful for the behind-the-scenes support from her prayer group, which prayed both for the book to be published and for the movie to be made, and for the sisters. And she also believes in God’s role, bringing her to the McGarys for the collaboration.
“This movie is God’s movie, none of it should have happened … Everything just fell into place, the investors that came on board, all the kinds of last minute things, actors jumped into roles. Just when it looked like things were falling apart things came together. They let me be such a part of it. They made me feel so special,” Propst said. “They just had so much faith in the project and strength and courage to work 20 hours a day forever and a day. It’s just a miracle movie.”
Amy, who along with Kristen attended Catholic school in Akron, Ohio, before moving as a family to Atlanta, commented on how their Catholic values influence their high moral standards in choosing scripts and projects. The movie for Amy is about celebrating the individuality of the human spirit.
“Kids have really taken to this little girl. With these screenings, to see the kids come out and their moms saying they’re finding their bravery to go the doctor, to take a test, it’s really exciting to hear that.”
Message Is ‘Find Your Bravery’
The kids are what kept Kristen going and the message of “finding your bravery in the face of no agreement.”
“If it was just for me I would have stopped by now. I had to think ‘who am I in service to, who is this project in service to?’ It’s really for the kids. When you see them light up and tell you it’s the best movie they ever saw or they love Ociee Nash or they love Skyler Day as Ociee Nash, when you see all that happening, it just lights you up and your ego gets out of the way and let’s that happen … The parents are saying ‘thank you for giving us this film … It’s nice to have a film you can put in and just walk away and not worry about any image on there.’”
Since filming, they’ve been keeping up those 12-15 hour days relentlessly promoting the film. In fact, they had their first junket, they said with a laugh of “promo” fatigue, the day before at a Dalton mall which three TV and two radio stations attended. “We were so happy, our first junket in Dalton, Ga.,” Kristen said, smiling as she seemed to process the fact that she is actually now a junket producer. And they rejoiced when Tony Rhead of Carmike Cinemas, who didn’t even want to look at the film originally, gave in and then “offered what Carmike Cinemas could do. It put it out there.” They, Propst and Day have also been making school appearances, recently speaking at Ocee Middle School in Alpharetta and before that, minus Amy, at Christ the King School. “Mostly, they all want to know everything about how does it feel to be an actress,” Kristen added.
As they all relish the film’s opening around the Southeast, Propst recalls how she first had the idea to write a book some 20 years ago and how, when she would see TV movies that were adapted from a book, she’d always superimpose her name as author. “I know my grandmother is sitting in heaven pleased as punch. As happy as she is for me, I am just as happy for the girls. They’ve been producer, writer, director. They are just amazing,” said the ebullient author, who has since written a follow-up book about Ociee. “There was something in me that wanted to write about my grandmother. It’s been led by God, now I see, and (come about by) just sort of listening to the Holy Spirit. And look what happens if you work hard and listen to the Holy Spirit. Look what happens.”