Award-winning feature, “The Issue with Elvis,” Finds a Place for Lost Souls
“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me/I once was lost, but now am found/Was blind, but now I see…”
In the opening of the heartfelt and poignant film, The Issue with Elvis, the first line of dialog is “Even lost souls have a place.” The movie, the feature debut of writer/director Charlotte Wincott, which co-stars her husband Jeff Wincott and their son Wolfgang, then incorporates Charlotte’s own Ph.D father Bryant Mangum playing the often mournful hymn “Amazing Grace” on harmonica.
That first line about “lost souls” finding a place and the original hymn’s lyric about being lost and then “found,” sets the tone for this touching meditation on abandonment, on friendship and on fatherhood.
The movie is also an examination of the struggles of people with mental health issues. Ultimately, it’s a feel-good movie where the two main characters (Jeff as Dr. Mercer and his real-life son Wolfgang as runaway “Elvis”) form an unlikely bond.
Charlotte, who has a day job as a medical scientist, also sang her seductively catchy song “American Dream,” and, humbly suggests: “I am blessed with a very talented family. My dad is an English professor, but he also plays piano, guitar, and harmonica so I asked him if he’d do a rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ on harmonica for the opening. My brother Wrenn is an incredibly talented singer and musician and has a collection of clever, wonderful songs. I asked him if we could use ‘Planet G- Spot’ from his band Frog Legs and the band allowed it. I think it just makes the film as it plays over the end credits. Apart from directing my son (Wolfgang) and husband (Jeff), the whole movie was a family affair. This is a sweet movie where the main characters save each other. It also shows that we need to be compassionate toward people who struggle with mental illness. The film is getting this incredible response. It’s really exciting.”
Indeed, to date, the film has earned over a dozen awards including three best actor awards for Jeff — Toronto Beaches Film Festival, Hollywood Women’s International Film Festival and the Montgomery International Film Festival.
The basic storyline for The Issue with Elvis goes: Set in West Virginia, the story tells of a fungi biologist who encounters a child who has run away to escape traumatic circumstances related to his father’s mental health. The two main characters quickly form a bond.
About the two main characters finding and saving each other, there’s some dialog that sets this plotline into action:
Elvis: “I’m no expert but you need to try new things…You’re a walking contradiction. You say you believe in science but don’t go to doctors. But doctors believe in science. You say you’re not good with kids but you’re actually pretty good…You’re the worst wizard in the state of West Virginia.”
Speaking of wizards and Charlotte’s filmmaking alchemy, I spoke with both she and Jeff about The Issue with Elvis:
— I love Charlotte’s story about a woman viewer crying at the end of a screening, so could you guys expand on her comment: “That’s what it’s all about…doing something that will touch someone or move them to change.”
— Charlotte: We spend our lives looking for avenues to reach people. I started making music as a young adult that had real meaning to me at that time — then things coming full circle, I got to use some of that music in the film. After my stint as a struggling musician, I went back to school to become a scientist, hoping I could reach people that way through research. I’ve always had this internal drive to contribute something to society and interestingly, making films has been the closest I’ve felt like I’ve gotten. Hearing about and watching people respond so strongly to a film we made is very fulfilling. Can we make art that impacts people and makes them think about their relationships, their perspectives, or their own purpose? If so, we’re doing something right.
— Charlotte has been dealing with important social issues like addiction (“Fall Fight Shine”) and mental health (“Elvis”), so coming out of the pandemic, Jeff, what opportunities do storytellers now have to do entertaining films with a message?
— Jeff: The pandemic has created so much tragedy in the world. We’ve all witnessed a lot of suffering over the last two years that I think has made us look inside ourselves a little bit more. I think we have realized collectively that health and money and well-being can be really fleeting, so we have a limited amount of time on this earth to make a mark. What can we do about it? Not much, but we can comment on what we observe, we can make art, and we can tell stories that help others to come to a deeper understanding of why we’re here.
— Charlotte, did you have basically a two-person “play” in mind when you wrote the script?
— Charlotte: That’s a great question. It wasn’t a story I’d been planning, it was a story that came to me while Jeff, Wolfgang, and I were walking through the woods at the beginning of the pandemic. We were taking a lot of hikes as a nuclear family and Wolfie was asking me about fungi. I remember pulling my college biology book from the shelf to explain it. Having been around academia for so long, I just started thinking of a professor teaching a child about science. That child became a runaway named Elvis and the story was born. When I was a kid, my mother struggled with alcohol use disorder, and I spent a lot of time roaming about Charlotte, North Carolina alone. It was exhilarating having all of that freedom as a child, but it was also lonely. I drew on some of my own experiences to craft the character of Elvis and the story continued to unfold. Logistically, it was probably the only kind of film that could’ve been made at that time with all the constraints of the pandemic, but it was within those limitations that we were able to make a simple story that I think turned out remarkably relatable to real people in the world. You don’t need millions of dollars, explosions, and special effects to tap into people’s hearts.
— As a seasoned actor with some regular TV series (Night Heat and Sons of Anarchy) and several martial arts movies in your CV, how did you guide your son, a rookie actor, and give us some details on the shoot?
— Jeff: Wolfgang is a natural. It’s easy for him to just be, to say the lines, and he is very believable when you watch him. He hasn’t been programmed by acting teachers or courses that make him self-conscious. If anything, he’s taught me a thing or two. The shoot itself was mostly done in Virginia and a little in West Virginia. A wonderful cabin owner let us stay at and film in her cabin and the setting just made the film. It was so beautiful and gave a lovely backdrop for the story. We filmed over a handful of weekends in the fall of 2020.
— Charlotte: We had to do a lot of planning to make this movie because I work full time and Wolfie was in school during the week, so Jeff was pretty much focused on the logistics of the film at all times. He had to remember his lines, coordinate what outfits everyone was wearing, fill out paperwork, and make sure we had enough batteries. It was probably hardest for him to leave the story when we weren’t filming.
— Got any fun stories while shooting?
— Charlotte: I think the funniest thing that we were confronted with while filming was that we are straight up city people and we drove directly into the Virginia mountains thinking it would be a piece of cake. I spent a portion of my childhood in rural Virginia, so I am not altogether unfamiliar with country and mountain settings, but we’ve been in NYC, DC, and LA for most of our adult lives. When we got to the cabin, we were reading a printout of how to make sure edible items are tucked safely away from wild animals. We were immediately frightened and realized we were totally out of our element. Later we got quite a chuckle out of the whole thing.
— Charlotte, with your background as a scientist, and many today not having faith in science, can you add to your intriguing comment: “I thought it would be helpful to use film to tell stories with scientific undertones. I feel we need to share our knowledge and science with the world so everybody can understand it.”
—Charlotte: Science can seem like a club that you don’t belong in if you aren’t smart enough. It can have a snobby, exclusive feel to it. I remember how I felt when I was studying science in high caliber institutions; that it was reserved for the elite, and I always kind of felt like an outsider in those places because of it. That’s something that I think really needs to change if we want people to buy into it. We can make it accessible and interesting, so that it doesn’t seem so alien to non-scientists. Science is so damn interesting, and if it’s turning people off, we aren’t doing a very good job at communicating.
— Jeff, how has your acting arc progressed from your breakout role in Night Heat to this wonderful project?
—Jeff: Being in Night Heat was great and it was also fun getting to do martial arts in so many films after that. Those parts were wonderful, and I loved it but I had always hoped that one day I would get to work on a cool independent film and play a character with this kind of depth. Charlotte built this sweet, enduring story where two characters come to life when they meet, and give each other purpose and meaning. Charlotte trusted me to become Dr. Mercer and encouraged me to “be.” She prefers acting to be understated and natural, and it was easy to let go in these Virginia mountains with so much nature around us. It was not that easy learning all the scientist’s jargon, but I felt like I had this chance to live inside the mind of an introverted professor, and I’ve never gotten to do that really.
— What’s your hope for this movie and then what’s next for all of you? And, did rookie Wolfgang get bitten by the acting bug yet?
— Charlotte: We hope people get to see it and hope it gives other filmmakers the inspiration to bring relatable stories to the screen with limited resources. We also hope the theme of having compassion for those with mental illness comes across.
— Jeff: To echo Charlotte, we hope people see it. We believe in it, and we think it puts good into the world.
— Wolfgang: Maybe I’ll keep acting, if my mom writes a cool part for me.
Finally, near the movie’s end, there’s a refrain of “Amazing Grace” sung this time by Michael Goodwin, just before some dialog that just burrows into the heart of human connectivity and the relatability of this story:
Elvis: “You want to go fishing?…You got anywhere else to be?”
Dr. Mercer: “No, I have absolutely nowhere else to be but to be with you.”
Elvis: “Perfect, that makes two of us.”
Random Media is releasing Hollow Metropolis Films’ drama feature The Issue with Elvis, starring veteran actor Jeff Wincott, along with Wolfgang Wincott, Heather Bowling, Erek Richarde, and Bill Meisenzahl, and which is available across digital platforms March 15, 2022.
‘The Issue with Elvis premiered at the Big Bear Film Summit in June 2021 and has gone on to win over a dozen festival awards including Best Original Film at the Poe Film Festival in Richmond, Virginia and Best Feature Film at the Toronto Beaches Film Festival in Toronto. Jeff and Charlotte’s son, Wolfgang, has also won a number of awards for his performance, including Best Young Actor and the Rising Star Award.