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Roguish and charming, Ward Allen was one of Savannah's most colorful characters in the early 20th century. He isolated himself in the wild country, along his beloved Savannah River, where he fished and hunted ducks to supply the local markets.
An expert marksman, he was known as the Buffalo Bill of the River.
Armed with this information, and precious little more, Annette Haywood-Carter and her husband, Ken Carter, set out to re-create Ward Allen's story for the movies.
Savannah, their independent film about the life and times of a legendary local hero, opens in 10 markets — including Savannah — Aug. 23.
"Ward," says Ken Carter, "was to the manor born. He was the only son of a plantation-owning family. He had an uncle who was an ambassador and a famous attorney in Savannah. He was educated in Edinburgh and Oxford. He had all the advantages.
"But he had a connection, from childhood, to nature and the Savannah River. To what he considered to be a more honest place. Whenever given a choice, he chose to live his life closer to those elements."
Through local businessman John Cay, whose father had written a small book (Ward Allen: Savannah River Market Hunter) about Allen's exploits, the filmmaking couple learned about Allen's unorthodox friendship with a freed slave named Christmas Moultrie.
As a young boy, Jack Cay had sat at the aging Moultrie's knee and listened to stories about the duck hunter and his unconventional ways.
"Ward was also a wildman, a drunk," Haywood-Carter explains. "He was bigger than life. He changed people. People loved him on the one hand, and on the other hand they were always dragging him into court for breaking the law."
In his later years, Allen — who'd gamely tried city life, only to decide it wasn't for him — repeatedly found himself on the wrong side of Georgia law by hunting out of season. And various other things.
He was also vocal about the dangers of industrialization, about which he wrote often — and eloquently — to the local paper and to the state legislature.
The world that he cherished was disappearing out from under him.
For the Carters, the challenge was clear. "The book is a collection of anecdotes about Ward and Christmas," Haywood-Carter says. "Ken and I had to create a narrative from scratch, so perhaps 60 to 80 percent of what's in the movie is fiction.
"You have to ask yourself 'What makes this a movie?' There's a difference between something that works really well as a book and something that works really well as a movie."
Adds Carter: "We have to make a connection with the characters, and think about them in the larger sense, beyond what we read in the story.
"There are little events in the book that for us were huge — they opened doors to huge considerations in terms of what this man's life must have been like. And you just start walking down those paths, trying to walk in his shoes. Ultimately, the process gets far enough down the road to where he starts talking to you."
It was Haywood-Carter's idea to frame Savannah with scenes of John Cay, as a boy, learning about Ward and Christmas from his dad. "The theme was universal — passing stories down through the generations, and a certain set of values that has to do with loyalty to a friend," she says. "And also a loyalty to, and a caretaking of, the environment. And a love of nature.
"So we started off with these two really wonderful characters, and added to it the universal themes."
John Cay himself financed Savannah — although it's a low-budget movie, it cost slightly more than a paltry few million — and Haywood-Carter, who'd directed the 1996 feature Foxfire, starring a young Angelina Jolie, decided to direct from the script she and her husband wrote.
Savannah was to be more than just another story about an enigmatic hermit in the rough. "For me, as a woman who's not a hunter, this had to be a movie that I would want to go see," Haywood-Carter says.
From there to here
Mississippi-born, Annette Haywood grew up in Macon. Ken Carter was an Army brat whose family moved around a lot; he spent his formative years in Atlanta.
When they married and moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s, they both dove neck-deep into the film business. As aspiring writers, they hoped to learn as much as possible by steeping in the culture of Hollywood.
He worked various crew positions, and eventually became an in-demand still photographer. Her job was script supervisor, a key role in any production. The script supervisor knows the movie, and its day-to-day operations, better than anyone. The job requires a thorough study of shot-by-shot continuity, dialogue changes and a thousand other things invaluable to the director.
Haywood-Carter worked on dozens of big-budget movies, including Driving Miss Daisy, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Cliffhanger, Queens Logic and The Flintstones.
Some weren't so great. Often, she says, she would have to bite her tongue while a particularly badly-written scene was being shot. "How could anyone actually write this stuff?" she'd think, using the experience to learn just one more lesson in screenwriting.
"The bad ones gave me confidence," she remembers. "But the good movies, and the good directors, actually taught me how to do it. So in terms of writing and directing, my graduate school in film was entirely on the set."
In 1994, Annette and Ken co-wrote a short film called The Foot Shooting Party (Official synopsis: "Set in 1970, the members of a rock band decide to shoot their lead singer in the foot so he won't be drafted."). She directed; Leonardo DiCaprio starred.
Eight years later, with their children growing up, the couple decided Los Angeles was no place to raise a family. Haywood-Carter was offered a teaching position in the SCAD film department; Ken was hired to manage the Lucas Theatre.
The cast is key
Savannah was filmed, in Savannah, over 21 days in early 2011. "We were able to get the film on the budget, and in the 21 days, because of Savannah being Savannah," Carter says proudly. "One particular home interior was shot as it is, as it's furnished. There was no set dressing required — we just shot this home, because it was absolutely authentic to the period."
Their casting efforts were surprisingly easy. Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ, Pay it Forward) agreed to accept the pivotal role of Ward Allen.
"When you're making a low-budget film, and you're not paying an actor their normal salary, you have to think about what's going to attract them to the movie," Haywood-Carter explains.
"And what will usually attract an actor is a character that they haven't done before.
"Jim not only had not done this character, he had been typecast as the solemn, moody, quiet guy. That's all he was being cast in. So when we offered the role to him, he was very excited. What I saw in Jim was that he had a fantastic sense of humor. He's really funny. And when he lets it go, he is this kind of big, fun, bigger than life character."
Christmas Moultrie is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster, Love Actually); other names in the cast include playwright/actor Sam Shepard (Fair Game, Black Hawk Down), Bradley Whitford (an Emmy winner for The West Wing), Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) and the venerable Hal Holbrook.
And Jaimie Alexander (The Last Stand, Thor) stars as Lucy Stubbs, the well-to-do woman who stole Ward Allen's heart.
This part of the story is absolutely true.
"Lucy," explains Carter, "was the one force of nature that he could not overwhelm. They had a tumultuous relationship."
Ward and Lucy married and moved into a comfortable house on Liberty Street. But their only child was stillborn, and Lucy never recovered from the emotional trauma. She was sent away to Milledgeville, to convalesce.
When she died in the mental hospital, her distraught husband abandoned the city once and for all. In his later years, Christmas Moultrie was his constant companion and his only friend.
"He saw his river and the city that it had nourished turning into something he didn't recognize," Carter says. "And he couldn't go there."
The reel world
Things started rolling for Savannah, and the Carters, in 2012. With positive advance buzz on their movie, and their kids old enough (and eager) to travel, they left their jobs in Savannah and re-located to New York City, the center of independent filmmaking in the United States. They're already hard at work on their next project.
In May, Ketchup Entertainment picked up Savannah for national distribution; the hope is that after the limited Aug. 23 opening, word of mouth will result in wider demand.
As the marketing machine is greased — you'll start hearing a lot about the movie in the coming weeks — Annette and Ken are feeling pretty good about their Ward Allen project.
"When you make a niche film, you have no idea how broad your audience is going to be," says Haywood-Carter. "And we've just been overwhelmed at how powerful the response to this film has been.
"We've been at three festivals, and in two of these markets there was a second screening at the festival because the first one sold out."