TO hear Brian Friedman interview cast members of ‘The King of Herrings’ on WWNO public radio, click here.
Anita’s Grill sits on Tulane Avenue directly across from a massive construction site. While it once served up liver and onions, pork chops, and signature pancakes 24 hours a day, construction on the L.S.U. and V.A. hospitals led Anita’s to a temporary 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. schedule.
Those abbreviated hours, however, led to a different type of opportunity — it allowed Anita’s to be one of the main sets for The King of Herrings, a selection in this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, taking place Oct. 10-17.
“It has to do with a socio-economic class that no one else talks about,” said David Jensen from a booth at Anita’s – after closing time, the same time the crew came and shot many scenes of the film. “Guys that hang out at the track, they hang out here at Anita’s, they drink coffee, they’re not family guys.”
Jensen plays Gat, one of the movie’s four main characters, whose daily struggles for respect, affection, a few bucks or a cheap thrill generate the bulk of the film’s story.
“It’s like the only thing they have is their machismo,” said Joe Chrest, who plays the Professor, a scholarly magazine salesman who, in one hilarious scene, finds a unique way to mix his business with pleasure. “It’s like they just have to talk; they don’t have the means to do anything, really, except have coffee and talk and dream. And they try to, they fantasize about it and actually try to, screw each others’ wives, but they would put it a different way.”
Chrest and Jensen are part of a core group of five actors who met 25 years ago at LSU’s MFA acting program, studying under their mentor, the late theater professor John Dennis. The crew also includes John Mese, who plays Augie in Herrings, and Eddie Jemison, who wrote and directed the film and plays the combustible Ditch. (Wayne Pere, who plays the throat cancer-surviving Leon in Herrings, befriended the guys while an LSU undergrad.)
While the five pursued their acting careers in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and New Orleans, collectively racking up hundreds of different roles, “John has been the glue, the point of which we all still connect together,” said Jensen.
Dennis passed away in February 2012, but not before once again bringing the crew together one last time. Jemison had originally written Herrings as a play that he wanted Dennis to direct.
Everyone flew in from Los Angeles, New York and Chicago to begin rehearsals, which they held after AA meetings in a church in Baton Rouge.
Unfortunately, Dennis’ poor health forced him to reluctantly back out of the project. But Jensen had an idea.
“As he became more fragile, I said to Eddie, ‘What do you think about shooting it as a movie?’”
Chrest was on board.
“We never would’ve come together if it weren’t for him,” he said. “We did it for him. And he got us all together, and because we were there, it’s like, well, we bought, we got the tickets, we’re here, I mean, let’s do this.”
While it would be the first time all five of the guys would be working together on one movie, their decades of friendship helped filming go smoothly.
“It has such great energy,” said Jensen “It’s like playing basketball with Michael Jordan when you’re with your friends and Eddie and Joe; it’s, you have that shorthand — you’re comfortable with them and you trust them.”
“The trust is really what made things sing in this,” said Chrest.
While The King of Herrings is set in New Orleans, it doesn’t feel the need to constantly remind its viewers they are in the Big Easy.
“There might be a little Saints stuff in the vague background,” said Chrest, “but we’re not peeling crawfish and drinking Abita.”
“There’s no gumbo in your face or anything like that,” said Jensen.
Still, the experience of filming in the Crescent City proved to be a moving experience, particularly for Jensen.
“When you grow up in New Orleans, and you feel like wherever you are in the city is home, when you’ve ridden your bicycle on every street, it’s a different comfort level.”
Down the road, the gang will be taking The King of Herrings back to its roots, performing it as a play in Los Angeles. They are also looking forward to filming Jemison’s next screenplay, The Affair, which centers on the BP oil spill.
“Eddie is so prolific,” said Jensen, “and his second screenplay is so good we’re just kind of chomping at the bit to do that one.”
So look out for The King of Herrings next month at the New Orleans Film Fest. And if you get to Anita’s, they say the pancakes are their pride and joy.
For a complete listing of show times and events during this year’s fest, visit www.neworleansfilmsociety.org. To learn more about the film industry in New Orleans, visit www.wwno.org.