“(Jack Boucher) drove north and the earth flattened and the night opened up her wide, welcoming mouth and took him in. Stay awake, he thought. Stay hot. Rumble through the dark with abandon.”
These words appear near the close of chapter 2 of Michael Farris Smith’s 2018 novel “The Fighter.” The final sentence — “rumble through the dark with abandon” — became one of Smith’s favorite lines in the entire book.
Turns out, he isn’t alone. Brothers Graham and Parker Phillips took an interest in directing a film adaptation of the novel two years ago. They, too, loved the line.
“We knew soon after we met that we would have to change the title (to make it into a movie),” Smith said.
“They said, ‘You write down four or five ideas for a new title, and we’ll write down four or five ideas for a new title. Then we’ll compare lists,’” he remembered. “I came back with ‘Rumble through the Dark,’ based on that line, and they said, ‘You’re kidding … that’s on our list, too. We love that sentence.’”
“That’s when I knew … they’re the right guys for the job.”
Smith, Phillips and Phillips — the “right guys for the job” — will begin filming the movie in Mississippi next month.
“We will be filming with Natchez as our home base,” Smith said. “We’re working with Crooked Letter Picture Company and Tate Taylor. But some scenes will be shot in and around Clarksdale.”
A sense of place
The location is a familiar one to Smith, who grew up in McComb. He lived in Columbus for 10 years before moving to Oxford in 2017, where he currently lives. Many of his novels are set in Mississippi.
The fact the Phillips brothers selected a project set in the South is no coincidence, Graham Phillips said.
“My brother and I read a lot,” Graham said. “And we knew after our last project that we wanted to adapt a book, specifically something Southern Gothic.
“There is just something about how the landscape projects what’s going on inside the character’s head,” he added. “It’s really quite beautiful.”
So two years ago, the brothers began reading Southern Gothic literature in an attempt to find their next movie. They knew they might have a winner when they saw the cover of “The Fighter.”
“The cover of the book shows a field on fire. That 80’s iconography immediately caught our eye,” Graham said. “My brother read it first and told me to read it. (In the novel), Jack’s memory is shattered. He was abandoned as a child. And you get a sense of that from the setting.
“I was only 50 pages in when we emailed Michael to ask whether anyone had the rights to the book (to make it into a movie),” he added.
Someone did, in fact, have the rights to the book. That person was Cassian Elwes, British film producer and brother of “Princess Bride” leading man Cary Elwes.
“We contacted Cassian and his team and told them our ideas,” Graham said. “They responded, ‘That all sounds good, but we don’t know who you boys are,’” he laughed.
Graham and Parker sent Elwes evidence of their past work. They also sent their ideas for “The Fighter” in the form of a “pitch deck,” a presentation showing a summary of their ideas for the project.
“They responded really positively,” Graham remembered.
By the time Elwes had blessed the project, Smith had already written the screenplay for it. It was his first.
“Turning a 300-plus page novel into a 110-page screenplay takes a lot of work,” Smith said. “You learn to trust that there is a director on the other end who is very visual … (the director) makes it possible to turn two pages of novel into two lines of screenplay.”
Jack Boucher comes to life
And, of course, a movie has to show — rather than tell — a character’s internal conflict, memories and thoughts. Accomplishing that requires not just the talents of the director but also those of an actor.
The book and film focuses on Jack Boucher, the grown foster son of a woman named Maryann. Jack is a part-time fighter and gambler and full-time pill addict.
He owes thousands to a woman called Big Mama Sweet, a woman who places a bounty on his head to get her money. Boucher, though, is on a mission to redeem the mistakes of his past and snatch Maryann’s land and home from the jaws of foreclosure.
Bringing the title character to life is now the job of Aaron Eckhart, perhaps best known for playing Two-Face in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”
The Phillips brothers are confident Eckhart will do the job well.
“(Eckhart) can play vulnerability but also has that guarded thing,” Graham said. “Plus, he came down to Mississippi a month and a half early, to immerse himself in the area: the accent, the pace of life, everything.”
Significantly, Smith is equally confident.
“I have complete faith that Eckhart will bring Jack’s story to life,” he said.
That faith is not easily won. Of all the characters in Smith’s six novels, Jack is the one he feels closest to.
“I found myself more emotionally attached to Jack Boucher than any other character I’ve written,” Smith said. “All my characters are like family, but there’s just something about Jack. There has been from the first day he came onto the page.”