The Strongest Man director Kenny Riches talks Sundance and scary Miami palm fronds

June 24, 2015

TSM_1Sheet_Final-260x385Miami has a bit of a local hero in the indie film world. Kenny Riches wrote, produced and directed The Strongest Man, a film he shot in Miami with a local artist (and casual BMX stunt rider) in the lead role. The film went on to have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival before coming back to Miami for a couple of packed screenings at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival and signing a distribution deal with FilmBuff (though the film has yet to appear on the site).

The film follows a character simply named Beef (Robert “Meatball” Lorie) who has his gold BMX stolen, and heads off into the mean streets of Miami to find it. On his way he struggles with other searches that involve friendship, love and his spirit animal: a chicken. The film has a unique view of Miami, something Riches tuned into when he moved here a little over three years ago from Salt Lake City. I’ve gotten to know Riches personally, so it’s weird and feels like a conflict of interest to review his film. I have interviewed him twice for the Miami New Times, however. The latest Q&A appears today on the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog. We talk about the reaction to his film at the festivals and more. Read it by jumping through the blog’s logo below:

NT Arts

We also talked about a curious quirk in his work, a humanoid figment of Beef’s imagination made up of dead palm fronds and glowing red eyes. I asked Riches about the similarity of this creature and the “ghost” in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 movie Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a personal favorite of this writer (Film Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). Riches admitted that I wasn’t the first to make the comparison, but he has yet to watch the film.

Here’s a film still from Uncle Boonmee:

PR still from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

And this is the creature from The Strongest Man posing for a photo with actor Patrick Fugit, who plays a meditation guru with a German accent who guides Beef to his discovery of his spirit animal in Riches’ film:

Patrick Fugit on the set of Strongest Man

During two interviews with Riches (here is the first, also from The Miami New Times: Miami Filmmaker Kenny Riches on His Selection to Sundance), I checked whether Riches had caught up with Weerasethakul’s film, but he admitted he hadn’t. During our second chat, he offered details behind the inspiration of this lumpy creature with glowing red eyes that haunts Beef throughout the film. It’s actually grounded in a personal late-night experience he had in Miami.

“Just driving around Miami, you see those piles of dead palm fronds,” he says. “They’re just lying by the side of the road waiting to be picked up, and the leaves turn black. One night in particular, I was driving home with Cara [Despain, the film’s art director] from our art studio, and there was one of those leaves — a huge one — hanging on a pole somewhere. We stopped at the light, and we didn’t know what it was as we were pulling up to it. It was just this kind of looming figure. It was really scary because we couldn’t really tell at all what it was until we got close.”

It was the vision Riches needed to plant the seed of this creature in his imagination. “I started talking about how it would be cool to have something signifying Beef’s anxiety, something that can represent a physical manifestation of it, and just picking up one of those palm fronds, you hear the rustling of it.”

The eyes came from the after-hours flashing red lights of traffic signals that many who go out late at night in Miami might be familiar with. “It started because of the blinking red streetlights in downtown,” says Riches. “We don’t have that in Salt Lake City. The lights are just always normal. They don’t switch over late at night instead of flashing yellow and flashing red lights.”

Hans Morgenstern

The Strongest Man will have a week-long theatrical run at O Cinema Miami Shores, beginning this Friday, June 26. It is also opening in limited release in Tampa, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. In Miami, Riches will host a filmmaker workshop at FilmGate Interactive, on July 10, to talk about his Sundance experience (details and ticket info here). All images are courtesy of Kenny Riches. Except the still from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (courtesy Strand Releasing).

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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