White Lightnin' or just white trash?
Shocking, terrifying, gruesome – just some of the adjectives used to describe White Lightnin’ when it premiered at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. Miles Fielder meets first-time director Dominic Murphy and the film’s star Edward Hogg
Watching White Lightnin’ you wonder where its makers came up with the idea for their gloriously demented film. At once a biopic about a hillbilly dancer and a tale of revenge that plays like a seventies American horror movie, it’s the story of Jesco White, a messed up kid from backwoods West Virginia whose life was saved when his famous Appalachian mountain dancer father D Ray taught him how to hoof it. And it’s also the story of the gruesome revenge Jesco exacts on the white trash drunks who brutally murdered his daddy and thought they’d got away with it. It’s a monstrous amalgamation of film genres and styles and of fact and fiction and it makes for one of the most idiosyncratic, uncompromising and arresting cinematic visions to grace the screen in years.
In Edinburgh for the film’s UK premiere in June, debuting director Dominic Murphy explained: ‘It’s a re-imagining of Jesco’s life as written by the screenwriter Shane Smith. Jesco’s not the sort of guy who would make a film. He’s a wild guy who lives in the woods. So he was an inspiration and we interviewed him and got a lot of stories from his life. And some of the things in the film came out of improvising with Jesco, with him imagining himself as the character who had done all of these terrible things, and in a way they’re things he would like to have done. We could have written and filmed the story without ever going there, but it added a lot. I can’t even remember now what’s real and what’s not. Interestingly, the real stories are quite a bit more outrageous than the fictitious ones. There were some quite extreme things that we didn’t use.’
If the film plays fast and loose with the facts of White’s life (he never killed a man let alone roll one up in chicken wire and drown him in a cess pit full of maggots), the representation of him is, from dancing showmanship to psychotic rages, apparently spot on. Which makes it all the more of a surprise to meet the disarmingly nice young English actor from Yorkshire who plays him. ‘There’s lots of stuff about Jesco on YouTube,’ Edward Hogg says, ‘but it doesn’t do him justice. In real life, when you meet him he’s magnetic. He’s one of those people whose light burns a bit brighter than everyone else’s. I was fortunate enough to be in America touring with a Globe production of Measure for Measure, so I was able to fly out to meet Jesco. I spent the day with him and his family. He was as crazy as you’d want him to be: his mates came round, they got drunk, stripped off, started shooting guns in the forest. You should have seen my face.’
Meeting White helped Hogg deliver an extraordinary performance. ‘It was about operating on a different level to everyone else,’ Hogg says. ‘Jesco’s on ten when everyone else is on five, because he’s amped up on speed or whatever. So it was about working myself up before the camera started running - I’d shout and scream and run around.’
‘Ed’s got quite a dramatic performing style,’ Murphy says. ‘There’s something innocent about him, childlike, a bit lost, and at other times pure evil. And that’s what we wanted for our version of Jesco White.’
White Lightnin’ is on selected release from Fri 25 Sep.