Oklahoma Musician Goes on Journey to Find "Oklahoma's Favorite Son" Will Rogers

Jun 12, 2015

Credit Matt Goad

The 15th annual deadCENTER Film Festival kicked off yesterday and lasts through Sunday. One film making its world premiere at deadCENTER.

That’s the sound from the cabin of an airplane descending into Barrow, Alaska. On board are two Oklahoma filmmakers—Beau Jennings and Bradley Beesley—heading to shoot footage for a documentary that retraces the footsteps of “Oklahoma's Favorite Son” Will Rogers.

Two Oklahomans, that is, flying into Alaska to shoot a scene on the fateful 1935 plane crash of two other Okies—Will Rogers and Wiley Post.

"We made a number of jokes about a couple of Okies flying back to Barrow, Alaska and wondered how smart we were to do so."

Beau Jennings grew up in Inola, Oklahoma, just about 26 miles southeast of Will Rogers’ hometown of Oologah. He remembers visiting the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore when he was young and he recalls stories of Rogers, as told by his grandfather Merle.

Jennings refers to Rogers as his hero, but he was very careful not to aggrandize Rogers’ legacy or turn the film into an obsessive quest to bring Rogers into the forefront of everyone’s mind.

"I wasn't necessarily trying to praise Will Rogers or promote him. He's someone that I admire greatly and someone that I do take a lot of inspiration from, but I wanted to approach it from a very objective and open-minded perspective."

Instead, the film, titled The Verdigris: In Search of Will Rogers, comes off as an endearing and sincere journey by Jennings to learn as much as he can about his hero. And, it was a journey. The Verdigris was shot on location in Oklahoma, Arkansas, New York, California, and Alaska. The latter trip included an adventurous 15-mile ride to the actual crash site.

"We had to take four wheelers along the Arctic Sea, on the beach. Our guide, as he was picking us up, he said, 'oh, I gotta run by my house and get my clip.' And, I'm thinking, 'why do we need guns out here?' But, there were polar bear sightings - we were in the wild for sure."

The film was also a journey in regards to time and the barriers of being a first-time filmmaker. Since forming the initial idea for the project in 2007, Jennings, who is mostly known as a musician, moved from Brooklyn to Austin, and back to Oklahoma again. He also got married and became a father of two.

Music was the starting point in this project for Jennings. He performs several original songs in the film at locations of their inspiration and recorded a total of 13 songs for a companion album that’s been released on vinyl.

But, making a film was an entirely different challenge. Jennings needed the know-how and experience, which he found abundant in Beesley, a friend and producer well known for his own documentaries, such as Okie Noodling and Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo.

"He asked a lot hard questions of me, saying you need to figure these things out. You need to answer this question and this question or you don't have a film. This isn't just going to happen. So, I'm really indebted to his expertise and the degree to which he challenged me to find the narrative."

The primary focus of The Verdigris is aimed at Will Rogers, but it also seems to also tell a larger tale of how people pass down stories through generations.

Whether its Perry Okpeaha retelling his grandfather Clare’s story of witnessing the fateful crash in Alaska or Chris Trail recalling family stories of Will Rogers eating at the downtown Tulsa location of his family’s restaurant Ike’s Chili, the telling and retelling of stories is central to the film.

Through stories, ideas and memories are kept alive, not only of their subjects, but also of, as Jennings says, the connections we make between storyteller and listener.

"The connection that those stories create between people is what it really comes down to. A lot of what I remember about my grandfather are the stories he told me—some of those were about Will Rogers. I think that's kind of the meat of what the film is about—it's exploring what those stories mean to you and to what degree that they do."

The Verdigris: In Search of Will Rogers makes its world premiere at the deadCENTER Film Festival on Saturday at 12:30pm and Sunday at 5:45pm. Both screenings take place inside Harkins Theatres in Bricktown. More information can be found at theverdigrisfilm.com or deadcenterfilm.org.