Southern audiences react to KU filmmaker’s ‘Fall from Grace’

Director K. Ryan Jones records a protest by Westboro Baptist Church members while making Fall

Members of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church mount numerous protests in scenes from Fall

K. Ryan Jones was watching at a sports bar in Austin, Texas, when his Jayhawks conquered the hometown Longhorns in the Big 12 Tournament championship game.

“I had three pieces of KU apparel with me, and I’ve been wearing them every day in some fashion,” Jones says.

“(Monday) I was walking to go eat lunch. This guy standing next to me goes, ‘All right. I like that you’re wearing a KU shirt here in Austin.’ I looked over and it was Paul Rudd.”

Like Jones, movie star and fellow Jayhawk Rudd was lured to the Texas capital because of another tournament of sorts: the South by Southwest Film Festival. Jones was invited to the prestigious event to present his documentary, “Fall from Grace,” which takes a provocative, close-up view of Topeka’s infamous Pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church.

The Lawrence resident’s film screened three times during the festival week (which ended Wednesday), and Jones was delighted by the response.

“It’s just a great atmosphere down here. The audiences are so active and into it. They have so many good questions and feedback,” Jones says.

“We were close to full capacity. We’re screening all three nights in a theater voted by Entertainment Weekly as the best place to see a movie in the country: the Alamo (Drafthouse Cinemas).”

Jones, a 22-year-old KU senior, first embarked on “Fall from Grace” as a short project for a video production class. Then things began to snowball.

“I’ve been saying at the beginning of the screenings that it started out as a student project,” he says. “Last night a guy came up to me and said, ‘When you said you were a student, I kind of groaned on the inside. But it was totally amazing.’ I don’t know if they lower their expectations or not when they hear it’s a student film.”

Myth maker

Southern audiences are generally reacting to “Fall From Grace” in the same fashion as those who saw the film when it screened in Lawrence.

Jones often has to field many of the same questions, such as, “Where does Phelps get his funding?” and “Does Phelps react so violently against gays because he is a closeted homosexual?”

But one subject was all but ignored at SXSW.

“What I get less of down here is the mythology stuff about Phelps,” he explains. “I get none of the questions, ‘Is it true that …?'”

The SXSW festival selection helped land Jones a marketing consultant. In fact, his rep, Liz Manne of New York City’s Duopoly, accompanied him to the festival.

Buyers from HBO and Netflix reportedly attended screenings of “Fall From Grace.”

“Obviously, the big goal would be to pick up some kind of distribution. I’m not too picky about what that might be – whether it’s TV or straight to DVD or theatrically. Any of those would be great. That would make me an established filmmaker, and makes me more bankable in other people’s eyes for future projects.”

Super buzz

The buzz about the film has already spread to some heavyweights in the industry.

Jones recalls, “I was going into my hotel, and I was religiously handing out these postcards with all the screening info and stuff on it. I saw a group of guys outside the hotel with badges on. I went up to them, and this guy with this big beard said to me, ‘Oh, you’re from KU. I think I met your professor at Sundance.'”

Looking at the man’s badge pass, Jones realized it was filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, whose Oscar-nominated documentary “Super Size Me” screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. That same year, KU professor Kevin Willmott took his picture “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” to Sundance and apparently talked up some of his students’ projects.

Jones says, “(Spurlock) was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard all about it. I hope I have time to check it out.’ Because he knew all about Fred, as many people do.”

“We felt that ‘Fall from Grace’ was a powerful and important document of a highly disturbing and controversial figure,” says Matt Dentler, producer of the SXSW Film Festival. “Through well-constructed doc filmmaking, Ryan created a portrait of a madman without seeming too biased. Like all good doc filmmakers, he simply let his subjects shock us on their own.”

Very small fish

“Fall From Grace” didn’t win any awards at SXSW this year. But that hasn’t stopped Jones from exploring other film festivals. He just shipped a DVD entry to the Cannes Film Festival.

“This experience has been so good because of the compliments and kindness and building up I’ve received,” he says.

“But at the same time, when I arrived here I saw all the other films and filmmakers that were here. It just reminded me that I’m a very small fish in a very large pond. Being up there in Lawrence and doing all the screenings in Kansas City and various places, I worry that I was coming close to getting this unrealistic sense of my importance. … It brought me pleasantly down back to the reality that the hard part isn’t over yet, and I’ve gotten amazingly lucky with what has happened so far.”