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Clark Duke Gets His Directorial Debut in 'Arkansas'

May 20, 2020
3 min read time

Arkansas is a movie that feels all at once familiar and surprising. In Clark Duke’s directorial debut, the man mostly known for his off-beat comedy acting points his camera at a cast of simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary characters who make up generations of southern drug dealers. With notes of Tarantino, Western stand-offs, with a spritz of Miami Vice, the film is strange—but in the best possible way. The audience’s way into this tale of misdeeds and mistrust is through the characters of Kyle (the operation’s muscle, played by Liam Hemsworth), and Swin (the heavily Miami Vice fashion-influenced Clark Duke himself).

The unlikely duo finds themselves in a partnership after an arranged drug drop doesn’t go according to plan. Enter corrupt Park Ranger and drug trafficker, Bright (played by the incomparable John Malkovich). Bright enlists the pair to work for him, while he in turn works for the faceless Frog (ultimately portrayed by Vince Vaughn), and he sets the men up undercover as park rangers at a neglected state park in Southern Arkansas.

Duke spoke about what his home state means to him, which ultimately led him to adapt John Brandon’s debut novel “Arkansas”.

“I wanted to set a movie in Arkansas, and not have it be the type of movie you would expect in that environment. There’s not a lot of gangster movies set in the south. Also, my grandfather was a tertiary mafia character back in the day, and I always wanted to write about him in that world. The book felt exactly like what I wanted to do.”

Much to Duke’s chagrin, a lot of the movie was actually shot in Alabama, except for one of Clark’s favorite scenes. “The bar where the Flaming Lips play is this bar, Maxine’s, in downtown Hot Springs,” Duke reveals.

The location is beyond fitting as it was once a brothel owned by Maxine Temple Jones, who lived by the mantra, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” The mantra for Duke’s film could instead be, “It’s not what you do, but who you trust.”

Because soon in over their heads, Swin and Kyle are forced to trust only each other as their lives become filled with trafficking drugs to the highest of the high and lowest of the low of the South. While Swin may not look trustworthy on the outside, his character proves to have a heart of gold.

“I knew what I wanted with the wardrobe and his look before I had anything else,” says Duke on how he crafted the memorable ne’er-do-well, Swin. “I knew because I was directing and acting at the same time, so I needed to do something from the method acting side to have a shortcut into the character. For me as an actor, it was important to disappear visually and transform.... Swin had a mix of Russian gangster and pro wrestling, and item by item, I saw that stuff pop up in pop culture, so Swin became accidentally fashionable now that the movie is coming out.”

While Arkansas features an off-beat love story between Swin and Johnna (played by the charming Eden Brolin), the heart of this movie lies within the friendship of Kyle and Swin (and the on-screen chemistry of Hemsworth and Duke). And Duke wants the world to know that Hemsworth is very funny in real life.

“It was a pleasure working with Hemsworth every day. I like the vibe of the two guys together because their partnership makes one functional person. Liam is tough, and stoic, and quiet, and my character talks way too much.”

If Arkansas is about partnership, it is also equally about belief in the unknown and the idea of intuition. As Kyle and Swin dutifully carry out drug deals for the mysterious Frog, their trust in the unknown is both admirable and foolish. Duke says their undying trust is somewhat of a mystery, even to himself.

“That’s probably more human nature; why do people trust someone they haven’t met in general—humanity at large? These two characters? I’m not sure,” muses Duke. Sadly, for Swin and Kyle, the trust does not pay off.

Fortunately for Duke, he did have the trust of the original writer of “Arkansas”, novelist John Brandon, and Duke heavily followed the plot of the novel in his adaptation. “An easy part of the adaptation was that the dialogue was what I really loved about the book, and I tried to keep as much as I could.”

Duke found the biggest adaptation challenge to lie in the structure. “Once I landed on five acts, I had a roadmap. The book also has Kyle and Swin’s childhood in it, but then it’s a miniseries or a TV show. For the sake of the film version, the dialogue and the character should tell you all their backstory without needing to know their life story.” Duke says he was ultimately very grateful not to have the existential terror of staring at a blank page.

He also states that the melding of tones and influences was both intentional and unintentional. “Tone is tricky. You can try to be really conscious of it, and work towards it, but at the end of the day, the thing just becomes its own thing. The tone of the script you write, the movie you shoot, and the movie you edit. Some of the stuff I love is the stuff you can’t identify. like the Coen Brothers and Tarantino, Altman… I like stuff that has comedy built into drama. The Sopranos is my favorite tone of anything I've seen. There’s this horrible violence and then someone will say the funniest shit you’ve ever heard.”

While Arkansas undoubtedly veers away from some of Duke’s innate comedic sensibilities, it does embrace Duke’s excellent sense of expecting the unexpected; perhaps a gift most comedians forget they innately have. Duke certainly followed the theme of his own film—to follow intuition. His most valuable piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers is also, “You just gotta believe in yourself and fuck what everybody else says. No one else is gonna see the movie the way you see it. Don’t let anybody talk you out of it. Just do it! Get your boat out in the water.”

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