Homecoming Jubilee: 'We Always Lie to Strangers' Bows in Branson

 

After more than a year on the film festival circuit, the directors of We Always Lie to Strangers finally brought their feature-length documentary about Branson, Missouri to its de facto hometown.

The Branson premiere, April 27, was a homecoming of sorts for co-directors David Wilson and AJ Schnack. The two made their first filmmaking trip to the small Ozark town in November 2007. Five years later, they returned to screen their rough cut for the four families featured in the film, all performers in the live music shows that dominate the Branson strip, often called the Las Vegas of the Ozarks.

"The town of Branson plays a pretty large role in the movie, so showing it there felt like such a milestone for us," says Wilson, co-founder (with Paul Sturtz) of the Columbia, Missouri-based True/False Film Festival, which draws documentary filmmakers from around the world.   

We Always Lie to Strangers premiered at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival, where the filmmakers won a special award for directing. It then went on to play at festivals in Nashville, Dallas, New York and St. Louis, where Schnack, who grew up in the area, received the Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award. 

While some of the performers traveled to the various film festivals over the past year, the Branson screening was the first time they all attended together. In honor of the occasion, Wilson and Schnack invited family and friends to join in the weekend activities so they could meet all of the subjects and see Branson.

Both a setting and a character in the film, Branson is home to roughly 10,500 people, but plays host to more than 7.5 million tourists each year, many of whom also come for the region's mountains, caves and Table Rock Lake.

When CBS' 60 Minutes aired a two-part segment on the town in 1991, journalist Morley Safer called Branson the live music capital of the world, a description that stuck-as did his description of its hillbilly culture in the "buckle of the Bible Belt." His segment featured Mel Tillis and the Presley family of Presleys' Country Jubilee, the first show launched on the main drag of Branson, known as Highway 76.

 

The Presley family performing in their Presleys' Country Jubilee. From We Always Lie to Strangers.

 

After the Presleys built their theater in 1991, Branson continued to boom. The late Andy Williams was the first non-country act, and he later opened his Moon River Theatre there; the Osmond Brothers, Wayne Newton, Bobby Vinton, Ray Stevens, Roy Clark and Tony Orlando followed and also built their own theaters.

Today there are 50 live music venues on the strip; recent years, though, have seen economic struggles, as evidenced by empty theaters and declining ticket sales.

Wilson and Schnack chose to tell Branson's story cinema vérité style through specific performers, like the Presley family. Raeanne Presley, who's married to drummer Steve Presley, one of the brothers who own the show today, is the first female mayor of Branson and has a prominent role in the film. Then there are the Lennon Brothers, siblings to the famous Lennon Sisters, who appeared on The Lawrence Welk Show for 13 years. Bill Lennon, his wife, Gail, and siblings Dan and Joe moved from Los Angeles to Branson to perform in a long-running show on the strip, and stayed. Other characters in the film include the Tinoco family, who struggle to keep their Magnificent Variety Show alive, and Chip Holderman, a gay performer trying to raise his two sons in Branson.

"Earning our subjects' trust took us a long time because they were leery of how Branson had been portrayed in the media and what we would do in the film," Wilson says.

 

Members of the Lennon family singing the national anthem on July 4, 2009. From We Always Lie to Strangers.

The film's title, We Always Lie to Strangers, comes from a 1950s book of the same name by Vance Randolph, who shares his observations about the people living in the Ozarks. He witnessed the locals often telling "tall tales and exaggerated stories to 'city slickers'," and when he questioned them on why they did this, they'd respond, "We always lie to strangers."

"Even though the Presleys perform almost every night of the year and have their public face, they're actually really private and what you see in the show isn't always who they really are," Wilson explains.  

So, to kick off the We Always Lie To Strangers homecoming weekend, on Saturday night, the cast and crew attended Presleys' Country Jubilee. Today the 47-year-old live variety show continues to be a big draw with its mix of classic country tunes from Patsy Cline and George Jones and patriotic and gospel tunes and sometimes-corny comedy bits. Although it's definitely a bit out of touch with more liberal values, there's a lot of talent up on that stage beneath those sparkly costumes, and the Presley family gives their audience what it wants.

After the show, the group headed to the Rowdy Beaver, a bar on the strip. Driving down the strip after the shows let out, it was bumper-to-bumper traffic rolling past all the other businesses and the Indian, Thai and Sushi restaurants that have sprung up alongside regular attractions like the Titanic Museum and the New Shanghai Circus  Acrobats of China.

The hotel room in the Hilton Convention Center in downtown Branson offered a view of The Landing, an upscale outdoor mall development on the banks of Lake Taneycomo that opened in 2007. The fountain show there was designed by the same company that created the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Prior to the screening on Sunday afternoon, The Missouri Film Office, part of the Division of Tourism, hosted a small brunch at the Worman House at Big Cedar Lodge, which has been featured in Travel + Leisure. We had a great view of Table Rock Lake. "A.J., Nathan and I met here on many Sundays and spent many hours relaxing and talking about the film and what we were going to shoot," Wilson recalls.

Holderman was the first person the filmmakers interviewed during their initial visit, and in 2008 they rented a condo for six months and immersed themselves in Branson culture. Nathan Truesdell, a native of Clark, Missouri, who also graduated from the University of Missouri, joined the team in early 2009.

Matthew Mills, a graduate of University of Missouri and Stephens College and founder of SpaceStation Media, made an initial investment, which expanded during the filmmaking process. He serves as executive producer of the documentary along with Vicky and Willy Wilson, Chad Benestante, Peter Schneider and Sarah Riddick, who grew up in Jefferson City, the state capital,  and whose son, John Wright, is a state legislator.

The filmmakers made regular trips to Branson throughout 2011, and The Hilton Convention Center offered them a deal on rooms.

By late 2011, Schnack began editing more than 400 hours of footage. Given other films on his docket, including Caucus, which follows eight Republican nominees leading up to the 2012 Iowa Caucus, that process took about a year. Wilson and Schnack then took a rough cut of the film to Branson Visitor TV and screened it for the subjects. While the filmmakers were nervous, after the credits rolled they uncorked champagne in celebration.

 

Members of the Presley family. From We Always Lie to Strangers.

The grand premiere screening filled three theaters at the Branson IMAX Entertainment Complex. Seeing the documentary after spending time with the subjects was a bit strange, given the seven-year production period. Tamra Tinoco's daughter, for example, a toddler in the film, is now 10 and looking all grown up.

So much had changed, in fact, that the film almost needed a coda. Gail and Bill are now part of the Lennon Cathcart Trio, along with Peggy Lennon's son, Mike, and they sing music made famous by Peter, Paul & Mary and The Beach Boys. In the film, Bill has short hair, but now, in keeping with the era of the show, he's sporting a pony tail. Dan Lennon and his wife now live in Columbia, and he serves as the Deputy Director of Strategic Communications for the Missouri Division of Tourism in Jefferson City. Holderman no longer lives in Branson.

As Truesdale said at one of the Q&As, "Life goes on; we just stopped filming."

After the screening, Gail and Bill Lennon hosted a wrap party at their house, and the musicians held an impromptu jam session. Steve Presley drummed while Dan played guitar along with Peggy Lennon's son, Mike. Joe, Bill and Gail sang. Other members of the Presley show were there, too, including Cortlandt Ingram on the fiddle. Tamra Tonoco sang the Patsy Cline classic "Walking After Midnight." Even Schnack got into the action, performing the Billy Joel song "She's Got a Way."

"This was the first time we had all been in one place, and it was a beautiful moment and one that happened entirely because of the film," Wilson enthuses.

The next day, Schnack and Truesdale headed back to Iowa, where they are shooting a series on mid-term elections. After the Branson premiere, the film opened at Ragtag Cinema, the art house cinema in Columbia that Wilson co-founded. 

"It's been a thrilling week for me," Wilson exclaims. "Showing the film in Branson, hometown of the film, and then showing it in Columbia, my hometown, at a theater that I helped start made for a very emotional weekend."

 

The We Always Lie to Strangers team, left to right: Nathan Truesdell, producer; AJ Schnack, director/producer; David Wilson, director/producer.

 

We Always Lie to Strangers is available on iTunes  and comes out on DVD June 3.

As a child, Shelley Gabert, a native of Mid Missouri, loved spending Saturday nights watching Lawrence Welk with her great-grandmother, Grace Gabert, who loved the Lennon Sisters.

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