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Ex-UT football player making debut at AFF

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Twenty-two players made up the entire roster of Jeremiah Jones' Crawford High School football team his senior year. His graduating class in 1995 had 31 students. To call Jones' chances of making the University of Texas football team a long shot would be a massive understatement.

Unrecruited by major football programs, the three-sport high school letterman received a track scholarship to the University of Texas. At 5 feet 9 nine inches, the 160-pound Jones would walk onto the football team and eventually lead the team in punt returns his senior year while pulling in 14 passes as a receiver. The man who won UT's Whatever It Takes Award his senior season knows something about defying the odds. So while it seems hard to fathom a former football player who had never set foot on a film set making a gripping and haunting feature debut, it was just another exciting opportunity for Jones to test himself.

The oldest of five children, Jones, named after Jeremiah Johnson, Robert Redford's titular character in Sydney Pollack's 1972 film, would often travel with his father to see movies at the cineplex in nearby Waco.

"Looking back at it, I realize that my dad and I did two things growing up: We threw the football and we watched movies," Jones said recently at a coffee shop in South Austin. "And he raised us to chase down anything, regardless of how impossible it might seem. He taught us that you could do anything that you want, just pick something lofty."

With no production experience or film school education, the 34-year-old Jones figured there was only one way to get started. "If you want to make movies, you have to make one," he said.

After several years of working in advertising after college, Jones decided to write a screenplay. His background with writing? "I'd never written anything," he deadpans. "My name, I'd written my name, that's about it."

That screenplay would serve as the backbone for "Restive." The harrowing story of an abused woman desperately trying to protect herself and her son from her deranged husband and his maniacal friends, the atmospheric film grabs the audience by the throat in the first scenes and refuses to let go.

"Restive" begins with a tense moment that builds toward violence. There is no backstory, but the intensity of the scene elicits an emotional investment. The story jumps in time, the move briefly offering a small space to breathe, before the ominous dread of peril returns to suffocate.

The film uses flashbacks, flash-forwards and foreshadowing to manipulate time. Jones recognizes the nontraditional narrative can be challenging, but he says he never intentionally manipulated the script to that effect. From the moment the idea of the screenplay came to him, Jones says, he saw the story in a nonlinear way.

As Jones originally conceived, the story was not as dark as the pitch-black end result, a development he attributes to his cast, whom he credits for helping carry the movie with intense and wonderful performances.

"I wanted to create a situation where the actors could come in and just try to give amazing performances, and based up on what they did, let the story kind of come together," Jones said.

Many actors expressed interest in the project after reading the script but were hesitant to work with a rookie, Jones said. Jones eventually cast Scottish actress Marianna Palka, Michael Mosley ("Pan Am") and Christopher Denham ("Shutter Island") in the lead roles, and he made honesty and open communication the foundation of his relationship with the actors.

"You're flying into Crawford, a town of 600 people, to work with a guy who's never made a movie," Jones said. "There was no smoke and mirrors. But the things that we could promise them were that we were going to treat them like family; we were going to feed them well, and we were going to work hard. They were absolutely fearless. To not only tackle the characters they had to tackle but they tackled it with a first-time director."

Getting the cast and crew on board, as well as the private equity financing, required Jones to be a "one-man" band. In his search, he says, he consistently relied on the "power of Google" to find talent ranging from lighting to acting to musical composition. Jones communicated with German musician Ben Lukas Boysen via Skype for six months to complete the film's searing score.

Jones knew he would need to surround himself with an experienced team. He relied on his time playing football as a blueprint.

"Filmmaking and sports are very similar," Jones said. "Being at UT, I had the opportunity to be around great leaders, great people. It's a system. ... Being an athlete you have to have a short memory, if you make a mistake. Same thing in film, because you're constantly hearing ‘no.' "

Actress Palka eventually started calling Jones "coach," and Jones said he never let any of the multitude of negative responses discourage him during pre-production. If he heard the word "no," he said, he figured he was heading in the right direction.

Although he entered filming with no expectations, Jones came to love filmmaking during the 18-day shoot. With the pressure of deadlines looming, every decision served as a potential landmine that could derail his micro-budget debut.

"It's the only thing I've found since football that rivals catching balls in front of 90,000 people. For me, personally, it's the same. Same pressure, same feeling. To see everyone working toward that goal and doing their job, it's great. I love that environment."

As his contagious excitement builds, you can almost hear the Longhorn Band striking up "Texas Fight."

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986