Grad student Scott Thurman's documentary is getting noticed on the festival circuit

Scott Thurman

He has the red sequined jumpsuit and gold-rimmed glasses. He has the hip swivel and swagger down pat. He has adoring fans who love to see him perform. And now, Smokey Binion Jr. – Elvis impersonator and tiny Stinnett, Texas, native – has graced the silver screens of Los Angeles.

When Scott Thurman heard his friend tell a story about a man who travels across the Panhandle performing classic Elvis tunes at schools, senior centers and small-town founder's day picnics, Thurman knew he'd found a story with appeal. Thurman, a third-year documentary filmmaking graduate student at UNT, decided he’d found the perfect subject for his first-year documentary.

"Smokey's been an Elvis impersonator for 30 years, but Elvis impersonators are a dime a dozen," Thurman says. "I knew that I needed to develop Smokey's character a little more and give an explanation of who he is and why he does what he does. When the film opens, you see that he looks nothing like Elvis, but he knows how to cater to each audience and connect with the people. Great characters make great films."

His short film, simply titled Smokey, was screened June 26 at the Los Angeles Film Festival as part of the Houston Film Commission's Texas Filmmakers Showcase.

Becoming a filmmaker

While working toward his bachelor-of-arts-degree at Texas Tech University, Thurman studied photography and developed an interest in performance art and alternative media projects

"A documentary photography class in my final year opened my eyes to the ordinary but interesting everyday events and people that seem stranger than fiction," Thurman says about his gravitation toward documentary filmmaking. "In 2007, I started the master of fine arts program at UNT and Smokey was an obvious choice for my first year film." 

How Smokey got started

Smokey film poster

Billy Loftin is Thurman's friend who shared his memory about Smokey performing at his school when Loftin was a youngster. Loftin crossed paths with Smokey in 2002 while producing a television news segment about the performer. 

"Billy began filming Smokey's performances a few times each year with equipment we purchased from doing wedding videos," Thurman explains. "My work began with viewing the footage continuously, putting together short sequences.  Then I started making trips to Stinnett to film Smokey at work and at home, building his character beyond the stereotypical Elvis impersonator.  I chose not to include any Elvis music in the film because Smokey lip syncs and I felt the copyrighted Elvis songs detracted from the actualities of his life."

Thurman says his favorite scene in the film is when Smokey explains why he performs for free.

"I hope this is a moment when the audience is compelled by the quality of his character and realizes that the filmmakers aren't out to make fun of another Elvis impersonator," Thurman says.

Dreams for the film

Thurman found out a few weeks prior to the L.A. Film Festival screening that the film would be shown as part of the Houston Film Commission's Texas Filmmakers Showcase.

"I've been vigorously celebrating ever since," Thurman admits.

Smokey has played at several other film festivals, including last October at the Indie Memphis and Hot Springs film festivals, and last November at the Dallas Video Festival.The film won first place at the Reality Bytes Independent Film Festival and Thurman is waiting to find out if the film will be screened at Fort Worth's Lonestar International Film Festival in November.

And while he hopes the film short will be included in more film festivals, Thurman says his biggest dream is to keep filming Smokey's performances and produce a feature-length film by the time Smokey's ready to retire. 

Learning experience

Thurman says his years at UNT have taught him about the importance of feedback through the filmmaking process.

"Films can be for the masses and though some artists can get away with disregarding public response, I benefit most from understanding how the audience interprets my film while I'm making it," Thurman says. "I'd like to communicate to as many people as possible and I benefit most from combining weeks of independent work with periodic review from my peers and the public.

"My fellow grad students and department faculty members Ben Levin and Tania Khalaf helped with feedback throughout the entire process and they were a big part of this film," Thurman said.

And filming Smokey has taught Thurman a great deal as well.

"I've learned to plan better," he says. "Although many of the situations in documentary filmmaking are ultimately left up to chance, good filmmakers learn how to approach each situation with a head full of hypothetical ideas about how potential actions can be cinematically interpreted."

Thurman's advice for fledgling documentary filmmakers? Read a few good books about storytelling and become a good listener.

"And don't worry about copying your favorite artists," Thurman advises, "because it takes a while to develop a distinct style and documentary films rarely turn out the way you plan."

On to the next project

These days, when he isn't traveling to festivals where Smokey is being screened, Thurman is working on a new film.

"Teaching Evolution in Texas features conversations with educators, scientists and State Board of Education members about the relationship between science, religion and politics as well as following the political process of drafting science standards for Texas public schools," he says. "I'm planning to screen the finished project at UNT next May."

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Smokey trailer

View Smokey trailer on YouTube