This project's funding goal was not reached on July 11, 2013.
About this project
Please watch our 10-minute video above. Below is our project description and to the right are the rewards we are offering. Thank you for your interest.
I wrote, produced and directed a TV movie for PBS in Arkansas in the 1980s, Summer’s End. While I was in the state, the Director of the Arkansas Humanities Council told me they had never given funds for a film, but if I would choose an Arkansas novel and make the film in the state, they would like to give me a grant to option the underlying material. She suggested five books by Arkansas authors and I fell in love with Mary Medearis’ Big Doc’s Girl, a novel Mary wrote about her father, a doctor during the Depression, who gave his life to save the lives of others. The book was a huge success when it was released in 1942. The reviews were great, the book was a New York Times best seller, and both the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune chose it as one of the “Top Ten Books of 1942.” Mary, only in her early 20s at the time, was sandwiched on the list between John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair.
No movie has ever been made of the material, but in the 1950s, the U.S. Steel Hour aired a one-hour production of it on live television starring a young actor, Gene Hackman, in his first television role.
I optioned the book in 1987 with the AHC grant, and have renewed the option every year since then with my own money because I so believe in the material and feel that it is the kind of movie with positive role models and something meaningful to say that we need more of today. It is an uplifting story about character, sacrifice, community and values. It is a To Kill a Mockingbird kind of family story with an Atticus Finch father figure.
We have been close to getting the movie made over the years. CBS Films, separate from the television network, came close to choosing Big Doc for one of its first slate of feature films when the company was formed in 2007. In 2008 our screenplay won First Place in the “Inspirational” category of a Hollywood screenplay competition with over 5,000 submissions. More recently, Sony Classics, an autonomous division of Sony Entertainment that acquires and distributes independent feature films, has expressed strong interest in the material depending on the actor who is cast in the title role.
We plan to offer the role of Big Doc to Jeff Bridges, who in 2010 won an Oscar for his brilliant performance in the screen adaptation of another Arkansas classic novel, True Grit, by Charles Portis.
For the female lead, a 17-year-old character, we will cast an exciting young Hollywood actress and would love to hear any suggestions you might have for this role. If by chance we can’t find the right young actress in Hollywood, we’ll do a talent search across the south to discover a brilliant new talent instead.
If you think we need more uplifting movies today to help balance the amount of violence in movies, video games and television, please help us reach our Kickstarter goal. If 200,000 people pledge at least $10 to our project, the movie will get made. We need your help to spread the word about the project. We’ve got to reach an awful lot of people.
I’m excited about having an opportunity with Kickstarter to tell you about our project. I’ve always believed there is a huge audience that wants to see other kinds of movies than Hollywood’s staple diet of action adventure and comic book franchises. I’ve always felt that if there were just a way to make enough people aware of the story of Big Doc, those of us who want to see more intelligent, heart-warming movies that make us laugh and cry and inspire us could get the movie made. Some of the themes suggested by the story are coping with hardship and adversity, either to be defeated or to gain strength of character from them; choosing a life path and who is to accompany one on that path; the power of community; and that a humanistic spirit is crucial to both social harmony and individual well being.
I will direct, and top Hollywood production personnel have expressed interest in making the movie with me. You can see who they are on our web site at http://www.luminousfilms.net/bigdoc/the_team.htm. You’ll be impressed with their credits. For example, Thomas Newman, who as a young composer did the score for my PBS movie Summer’s End, has 11 Oscar nominations by now for movies such as Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, and his 2013 nomination for Skyfall.
If you can help us push our 2M Kickstarter goal over the top, we will film the movie in 35MM in Little Rock in the spring of 2014 with a production team from Hollywood and release it in theaters in the fall of 2014. If you join us, we will keep you as an intimate and important part of our team to make an uplifting movie of Mary Medearis’ wonderful novel, Big Doc’s Girl.
Briefly, the story is about a doctor who gives his life to save others. He takes care of mostly poor people, blacks and whites that other doctors won’t treat because they pay with produce. He struggles hopelessly with a malaria epidemic that has killed more people for decades than the next three deadly diseases combined. The only way to eradicate the disease is to eradicate the malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and the only way to do that is to eradicate the swamp where they breed. The doctor, who serves on the city health board, wants Federal funds to build a 2-mile concrete canal to drain the swamp. But the county’s share of those funds, made available to put the state’s 35% unemployed to work, have been allocated by the state senate to build and pave roads. A powerful highway commissioner building a real estate development is determined those funds will not be taken away from paved roads that will benefit his development and put into “a ditch.” The story is told by the doctor’s 17-year-old daughter who has her own dream—to attend a music conservatory and become a piano teacher like her mother. She is the character who has lessons to learn and will be transformed over the course of the story.
Here’s a detailed synopsis of the story:
We are introduced to swarming mosquitoes over the putrid, green water of a swamp and see a lone fisherman so driven crazy by the mosquitoes that he jumps into the water to avoid them. Then we see the same man being given a hypodermic by a doctor in his 60s while the man, delirious with high fever, screams for his family to leave the house because of flames he thinks he sees in the ceiling.
A voice-over in these opening scenes by an “Older Mary” tells us that her father devoted his life to fighting a malaria epidemic that killed more people in Arkansas during the Depression than the next three deadly diseases combined. In his office, Big Doc, as his patients call him, examines a blood sample in a microscope through which we see parasites multiplying at an alarming rate. The Older Mary leaves us with the thought that 1934 was to be the longest year of her life.
We then meet the character who has been speaking, now a spirited 17-year-old Mary, who is something of a narcissistic 1930’s Scarlet O’Hara. We meet the rest of Big Doc’s family, Robbie, 16, whom the family calls Little Doc because he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, and two younger sisters, Melie Kate, 8, and Ruthie, 6. We see the wisdom of Myrtle, the mother, as she coaxes a frightened little retarded boy cowering in a corner, to her piano bench for a lesson.
Mary’s dream is to attend a music conservatory in the fall to become a piano teacher like her mother, but no sooner does she begin preparing for her audition than Myrtle is diagnosed with a touch of tuberculosis and must be sent to the state’s sanitarium for a rest cure. Now Mary must take care of her two little sisters, Melie Kate, 8, and Ruthie, 6, and fill her mother’s place in the home. Especially a feisty Melie Kate is a challenge for Mary who informs her that they don’t need to mind her because she isn’t their mother.
Big Doc is concerned that the malaria season is starting earlier and promises to be worse than ever before and no one knows where the deadly mosquitoes are coming from. Then he learns that areas of a 10-square-mile swamp that the city health board, on which he serves, has kept drained near residential areas, have filled with water. The water is coming from the overflow of lakes being dug as part of a new real estate development by Hudson Kaley, a powerful state highway commissioner.
Big Doc writes a letter to the editor about the seriousness of the health problem and of Hudson’s lakes filling the swamp, which appears on the front page of the state newspaper.
Hudson’s reaction is to speed up building seven lakes for his development and tells a group of poor blacks who are behind on their rent to him that he will give them script toward their rent if they will work one of three 8-hour shifts for him. The men are disgruntled to work for no money but they don’t want their families thrown out on the street.
Mary and Little Doc go door to door for Big Doc who wants to determine how many citizens are infected with the malaria germ. They gather data from families living on farms and in low-lying areas near the swamp and Big Doc follows up with blood samples.
He shows the mayor and city attorney clogged ditches dug in the past that are inadequate for keeping the swamp dry. Big Doc says the only way to drain the swamp properly is with a 2-mile concrete canal to the river. Although acknowledging the problem, the mayor doesn’t believe the city council will oppose the powerful Hudson Kaley. Paved roads will benefit Hudson’s new ritzy development, and his development will help the city attract a better class of people.
Big Doc makes a presentation to the city council about his canal idea. When Hudson vigorously opposes it, Big Doc silences him by revealing that he has dug wells to fill his lakes without getting a required permit to do so. Interpreting Hudson’s silence for support, the city council and mayor agree to help seek funds from the state senate.
Since childhood Mary has planned to marry an older Bill, a protégé of Big Doc who is finishing up his residency at a St. Louis hospital. But Bill’s values have changed. Instead of joining Big Doc’s practice, he has decided to stay in St. Louis where he can make “a lot of money” with a plastic surgeon. He wants Mary to marry him and play her piano for the elite of St. Louis. He patronizes her when she says she doesn’t want to be a concert pianist but a teacher. He tells her that In St. Louis with him she can have the biggest Steinway and can pick and choose her students and not teach just anybody. Mary says angrily that her mother never chose a pupil and her father never chose a patient and ends up slapping Bill when he insists that he knows better what is best for her and that she hasn’t grown up yet.
Big Doc, the mayor and city attorney make a presentation to the senate health committee and ask for an amendment to the senate’s appropriation bill to fund a canal that will solve their county’s decades-old health problem. Only one senator is supportive, and he cautions that he doesn’t know how much support he can garner for a big health project that will take away funds from paved roads that the state needs to attract industry to put men to work.
Hudson, who knows the senators, begins to lobby them to vote against the amendment when it comes up for a vote, promising that the highway commission will give preference to their cities and counties for paved roads.
An accountant comes to see Big Doc who read his earlier letter to the editor. He was working for the state government until he was fired for wanting to expose mismanagement of state funds by highway commissioners who have enriched themselves and their friends by paying inflated prices for shoddy road materials. Big Doc asks if he would be willing to go public with his information.
When an article is published about the accountant’s claims, Hudson works to maintain support with senators now reluctant to appear as accomplices to a corrupt highway commission.
Big Doc must get permits signed by country people if the canal is to go over their property and he meets stiff resistance from some who get their livelihood from the swamp with catfish and frogs.
Mary and Little Doc go backcountry with Big Doc for a wedding and dance at the farm of Old Phineas Granther, the respected patriarch of the backcountry. Mary meets a well-educated new preacher, John, from Kansas whom all the country girls are agog over. John’s values are similar to those of Big Doc. He even quotes from some of the same classics Big Doc reads to his children in front of the fireplace. There is excitement during the wedding, when a rejected boyfriend of the bride is drunk and shoots a gun toward the outside gathering. Little Doc’s shoulder is grazed but no one has noticed. He insists to Big Doc that they keep it a secret so as not to spoil the wedding day. During a dance in the barn, a haughty Mary is the belle of the ball and oblivious of wallflowers whose boyfriends make a fuss over her and ignore them. In the meantime, one of the Granther children collapses with malaria. Although Big Doc tries to save her, he can’t do so and she dies. We see how tired he is when he is almost incoherent after the child’s death. Old Phineas tells Big Doc not to worry about the permits he needs for the canal, that he will get them for him.
When they get home that night, Mary is full of herself about the attention she received at the dance, but Big Doc points out that she was oblivious of the wallflowers whose boyfriends crowded around her. She is at first defensive, but when Big Doc reveals that Little Doc was shot that day and kept it a secret rather than spoil the wedding day, she realizes how insensitive she was as the city girl, dressed better and more sophisticated than the country girls who couldn’t compete.
The night of the senate vote, Big Doc comes home exhausted. Mary is alarmed that he plans to go back out into the cold to take care of a sick patient. He lifts the atmosphere with a favorite country song that he likes to sing and the children join in. He then goes outside while Little Doc shows Mary on a map how the canal will run if the vote goes in favor of the amendment. When Little Doc realizes he hasn’t heard Big Doc’s car start up, he goes outside while Mary turns away to answer a ringing telephone. When she excitedly goes out the side door to announce to Big Doc that his amendment passed by one vote, she discovers he has collapsed on the running board and is trying to get quinine to his mouth. She and Little Doc help him into the house where the younger sisters are washing and drying the dinner dishes. Big Doc doesn’t want the girls to see that he’s ill, and the two older children help him upstairs and call a doctor. But he dies that night.
Mary’s world is shattered. Of course there is no more hope of attending music school, but more upsetting is her belief that the governor won’t sign Big Doc’s bill now that he’s gone. She appeals to Bill, who comes for the funeral, to ask Hudson Kaley, who plays golf with the governor, not to oppose enactment of the bill into law, but Bill refuses to get involved. She then turns to John, the backcountry minister, telling him that her biggest upset is that her father gave his life for a dream that won’t come to pass if the governor won’t sign the bill.
A couple of mornings later Mary is serving her brother and sisters breakfast when they hear wagons and coughing jalopies on the street outside. Little Doc goes out to speak with John, who is on a horse leading a caravan of hundreds of backcountry people to the state capitol to pressure the governor into signing Big Doc’s bill. Mary sends the little girls off to school and she and Little Doc go with the caravan that blocks traffic as it snakes through downtown and crosses the river bridge to the state capitol. A hoard of farmers and their wives swarm up the marble steps of the capitol with secretaries and politicians gawking at the motley group.
A delegation, led by John and Old Phineas, goes into the governor’s office while the others sit on steps and crowd the hallways. Hudson comes up the steps. Mary runs along beside him pleading that he not oppose the bill. She follows him into the governor’s office where Old Phineas intimidates the governor with his quiet authority, noting that “Big Doc sed 85% of our people already has the malaria germ in them and we want something done and we want it done now.” The governor motions for Hudson to come away from the others. At a window he looks out and sees horses grazing on the capitol lawn and jalopies and wagons blocking traffic. Moreover, a reporter and photographer are documenting the situation. “Damn, the press has already gotten wind of this thing!” the governor exclaims, “ The next thing I know this bunch’ll be demonstrating on the capitol lawn!”
Mary and Little Doc come running out of the governor’s office. He has signed Big Doc’s bill and everyone celebrates Big Doc’s success.
“Swamp to be drained in Spring” is the headline of a newspaper article that Mary reads at Big Doc’s grave while we see but she can’t see her father appear and sit on his gravestone to listen.
In the spring Little Doc drives Myrtle home. They pass the site where men are digging the canal. As the children go upstairs with Myrtle’s suitcase, she takes a moment in the living room, touching the back of Big Doc’s chair. Then upstairs in her bedroom alone, she looks at the bed. Big Doc appears behind her and lightly kisses her hair. Myrtle’s hand goes unconsciously to her head.
When they are ready for bed, Mary comes into her mother’s room. Myrtle pulls Mary into her lap and acknowledges all she has sacrificed to take her place in the home. “Every night while I was away I thought of one little girl of mine who had no one to tuck her in.”
Jake Granther, Old Phineas’ eldest son, comes to the side door and asks to speak to Myrtle. The country people have acquired an organ for their church and they want Mary to teach some of the children how to play it. Some have saved up money for lessons. Mary is excited but frightened, thinking she isn’t ready to teach since she hasn’t been to the conservatory. Myrtle reassures Mary that she hasn’t watched her teach all these years for nothing.
Mary goes with Jake in his wagon backcountry. He tells her that everyone plans to gather at the church that evening to hear “teacher” play their new organ. She is stricken with fear, not having expected to play the organ so soon.
In the church, while the people gather, a little slow girl, Dorcas, whom we have met earlier, picks out notes on the organ next to Mary on the bench. She plays by ear and Mary shows her the notes for the country ditty that Big Doc sang earlier. While Mary plays with Dorcas and leads the full church in singing Big Doc’s song, which most of them know, Big Doc taps his foot in the back corner.
Afterwards, John walks Mary back to Jake’s house and tells her that one day their paths might come together to make one. She agrees, and they are playful with one another on the path.
The Older Mary tells us over these images that her aunt made it possible for her to go to the conservatory the following fall, that she and John raised their children in the city, but it was here in the backcountry that she learned the important life lessons she needed to learn.
If you would like to read Mary’s novel, you can get it on Amazon. It is short and you can read It in an afternoon. If you’d like to read my screenplay, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll email it to you. Thank you for your interest.
Risks and challenges
Our biggest risk will be in the casting of "real people" in the roles of country characters. We have a very big cast and a lot of the characters must be believable as farming types in the 1930s. These roles can't be cast with Hollywood actors but must be cast with non actors in Arkansas who look the way the characters should look. Fortunately I have taught acting and coached actors and have a proven record as a director in my three TV movies of getting believable performances of just such "real people" and blending their performances with those of the professional actors. The key is to cast people who I can see will be natural and believable with some help from me. In casting sessions I improvise and also have the people read the lines for the character I'm considering them for. I can tell through this process if I will be able to get what we will need from them.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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