Thursday, February 27, 2014

Creator of SNL's Mr. Bill planning a TV series set in New Orleans on the JFK assassination

Mr. Bill creator Walter Williams planning New Orleans set JFK assassination TV series.

[ This is not from The Onion.  It's real folks. ] 

The shadowy unknowns surrounding the John F. Kennedy assassination that have played out so unceasingly on TV during the past couple of weeks — and during the past five decades in the world’s imagination came to life Thursday (Nov. 21) in a rehearsal space inside a Harahan soundstage. Jack Ruby and Guy Banister, both favorites of conspiracy theorists, met twice to discuss fire-bombings, one intentional conflagration intended for the Dew Drop Inn. Banister also delivered an incendiary monologue to a Klan fundraising crowd.

The scenes came from scripts for a prospective TV series set in New Orleans in the years leading up to the Kennedy assassination, their words from Walter Williams, known recently for his wetlands-restoration advocacy (he’s on the board of John Barry’s Restore Louisiana Now nonprofit) and more widely as the creator of Mr. Bill, a breakout character from the early years of “Saturday Night Live.”

“Crescent City,” Williams’ title for the series, intends to tell a story that folds fictional characters with real people like Ruby, Banister, Lee Harvey Oswald and Clay Shaw, among many others. Its setting, Williams’ hometown, is the place where the people who some believe conspired to kill Kennedy intersected. Its stories incorporate many of the usual suspects in the assassination — the Mob, Castro, agents of the U.S government among them — and also live in the current events of the period in which it’s set. New Orleans music history also plays a part.

“It goes back to being 10 years old and hearing in class that Kennedy had been assassinated, then finding out the guy three blocks down on Magazine Street did it,” Williams said. “It’s (about) living with the effects of that whole event, and thinking about the conspiracies. The idea itself of the series didn’t really strike me until about two or three years ago.

“I just got the idea of, wouldn’t it be a great dramatic series to play all these conspiracy games? But not only that, it’s New Orleans of that period. It’s the Civil Rights movement. So, Dutch Morials one of my recurring characters, actually one of the heroes of the story. It’s the music scene, too. So Mac Rebennack is one of the recurring characters. I have an 18-year-old cast as him.

“I have fictitious characters that drive the stories, and they interact with all these multiple real characters and actually help influence the situation.”

Rebennack, or Dr. John, has, in fact, been an inspiration to Williams in plotting his stories.
“Dr. John is on board,” said Williams, adding that the musician has committed to score the project. “He knew Clay Shaw. He used to play piano at his parties. He knew everybody — Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby. I’m going to have a lot of fun with it. It messed me up, so I figured I might as well make some entertainment out of it.”

The series for now is 10 scripts, enough for a first season, though Williams has plotted a five-season story arc and business plan. He’s begun computer-storyboarding the scripts to make for economical filming. Key characters have been cast with experienced local actors, including Steve Reed as Ruby, Dane Rhodes as Banister, Michael Arata as Jim Garrison and Scott Jefferson as Clay Shaw. Chantal Koerner and David Jensen will play fictional characters. 

Providing, of course, "Crescent City" ever becomes more than scripts, storyboards and a sprawling idea from Mr. Bill’s dad.

Williams says he’s seeking private, independent funding for the project with some backing already on board. With further backing, the project could begin production early next year and be ready for distribution — not necessarily the hurdle that broadcast- or cable-network-affiliation would’ve been in the past, given the burgeoning digital-distribution modes now available to a writer-producer-director — by fall.

“I know that getting a series like this off the ground by someone of my status would be virtually impossible, at least retaining any kind of control,” Williams said. “It’s a period piece, but we’ll be shooting on location, so we don’t have to build ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ I’ve organized it in a way that it takes minimum finding in the first season.

“This is not a studio, Hollywood production, and it’s that way by design, because I want it to be what I want it to be. I’m a good filmmaker and I grew up here and I know the story.”

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