Like many that came before it, Toogoodoo is the story of a man scorned. In Lee Waldrep's short film, we meet the protagonist, Jackson, as he's being left by his fiancee. He retreats to a friend's home on the Toogoodoo River, where he grins and bears it and privately copes with pills. And then, what Waldrep describes as a simple day-in-the-life tale dissolves into something unexpected, something a bit jarring, possibly upsetting or possibly uplifting, certainly surreal while simultaneously meditative, and ... we're not going to give the ending away. Even if we could — Waldrep intentionally left it open to interpretation.
"For not one second do I ever think that movies have to end on a happy note," he says. "I don't think it's not happy. I just think it's kind of leaving on a thought-provoking note." Audience members at the 2010 Indie Grits and Charleston International Film Festivals, where Toogoodoo screened, came up with a range of guesses, but Waldrep won't give a definitive answer if asked.
The filmmaker wrote and directed the 10-minute movie as part of the South Carolina Film Commission's 2010 indie grant program. After organizers Brad Jayne and Tom Clark reached out to him, Waldrep submitted the script and, along with five other recipients, was awarded one of the $10,000 grants. He filmed the short over five days last November, using the house he lived in on the river as the main set piece. "Originally when I started writing the story, it was kind of almost about the river first," he says. "It was weird, because it was starting backwards ... It was one of those things where I wanted the river itself to be a character."
Throughout high school and college, Waldrep made movies on a more casual level. Even though he was goofing off with primitive techniques, he was learning how to construct a story. He got his bachelor's degree from the College of Charleston in marine biology and eventually worked as an observer on fishing vessels in Alaska, monitoring catches for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "From that, I was taking still pictures, documentary still pictures, and it kind of moved from documentary stills to wanting to do documentary wildlife," Waldrep explains. He came back east and attended the Documentary Institute at the University of Florida.
"Initially, I went into grad school thinking I wanted to do more wildlife documentary stuff, but then I got interested in more social and character-driven documentaries." For his thesis project with partner Jake Springfield — the director of photography on Toogoodoo — Waldrep co-directed Why Me, Lord?, a story about the Hammond State School Strawberry Jammers, a 30-plus-year-old mentally disabled rock band, and its efforts to play in the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival despite funding cutbacks. It was shown locally in 2006's Charleston Documentary Film Festival and on ETV's Southern Lens.
For his indie grant film, Waldrep obviously could have gone the doc route, but he knew it would be difficult to develop a proper narrative in the 10 minutes the rules required. "With the types of documentaries I like to do, which are more observational, verite-type stuff, you have to wait for the story to unfold ... it's not as self-contained, whereas with narrative films, you control it more," he says. And while he finds inspiration in documentarians like Errol Morris and the Maysles brothers, he's just as big a fan of indie director Todd Solondz. "For as many documentary ideas that I want to do, I also have scripts that I have on the back burner and things that I am trying to fund now. They're of equal importance to me."
Between freelance work for Dateline NBC, a contract project with the Centers for Disease Control Foundation, and the occasional local commercial, Waldrep is currently able to pay his bills and, hopefully, fund future projects. Part of the criteria of the grant program is for winners to promote their films, and he wants to fulfill that obligation by submitting Toogoodoo to as many festivals as he can. He's got a 22-minute version of it to work with, one with long scenes that have more of a chance to develop characters, with little moments of Jim Jarmusch-like juxtaposition worked in. "I love small details like that in movies. That's what makes movies for me."
He also has a narrative script, a short, that he's trying to find funding for, and another potential project with a friend. He wants to make sure everything's in place before he moves forward, because unlike with Toogoodoo, he won't have $10,000 readily available.
"I just enjoy stories, the journey that sitting in a theater takes you," he says. "From a child up until now, I still have that same feeling."