Rory Ledbetter received a pleasant surprise in his inbox recently. According to the out-of-the-blue email, the University of Mississippi theatre arts professor is making an unexpected appearance in this year’s Nashville Film Festival, set to take place virtually starting Thursday (Oct. 1).
“Son of Sun,” a narrative short film that Ledbetter had acted in three years ago, had been named a selection of the festival, which is, in the category of narrative short films, a qualifier for the Academy Awards. The festival’s Grand Jury Prize-winning film will be eligible for Oscar consideration.
Ledbetter had relegated the film to the back of his mind, having since added two children to his family and worked on other projects.
“I would Google it every once in awhile, and I just thought, ‘Well, this kind of went to the boneyards,'” Ledbetter admitted. “You hear about movies that get scrapped or shelved, or something happens and they don’t get finished.
“Then, lo and behold, here’s this email saying, ‘Hey, I wanted to let you know it’s finished, and it’s been submitted, and it’s an official selection of the Nashville Film Festival.'”
The sender of that email was Anthony Short, the film’s writer, director and producer, a multihyphenate veteran of the film and television industry who is based in Atlanta and has worked on such high-profile programs as Showtime’s “Homeland” and AMC’s “Turn.”
“Son of Sun,” which Short described as a “passion project,” is about a struggling musician named Alex who discovers his own passion project: to track down and rerecord an obscure song written by the father of a dear friend. He had worked at Memphis’ legendary Sun Studio, known as “The Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” where iconic musicians such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded the music that made them famous.
Alex’s friend, on her deathbed, is the only person who still knows of the song’s existence, and Alex is determined to make sure her father’s legacy isn’t lost.
Short conceived of the film after a conversation with his brother and was inspired by a song his brother had written on the theme of deathbed regrets.
“What would have happened if that song had disappeared into history and nobody ever found it, and no one ever heard it?” Short said of the half-century-old song around which the film’s plot revolves. “That idea inspires any musician to go out and create, in order to leave that legacy behind.”
Ledbetter portrays the bass player in the studio’s session band, which will record this long-forgotten track – a gig that turned out to be interesting for two reasons. First of all, Ledbetter doesn’t play the bass.
“The cinematographer, Chris Calnin, knew how to play the bass, so he gave me a crash course with chord progressions to work on so that I could cheat it well enough,” Ledbetter said with a laugh. “Luckily, the majority of the scenes I’m in are more about discussion.”
Ledbetter said the real thrill in working on this movie was that they filmed inside Sun Studio.
“The guitar that you see me playing is actually one of the guitars on display” in the recording studio’s museum, Ledbetter said. “That was what was so cool – being a musician in Sun Studio, playing one of the guitars from Sun Studio was just awesome.”
Ledbetter said he believes they used one of Elvis Presley’s microphones in the film, as well.
“Believe it or not, you can rent it out like a regular studio,” Short said. “So we decided to record there, and it was just awe-inspiring.”
Though Ledbetter might not have had much experience with bass guitar going into the role, he does think another musical talent might have helped him land it. Short found Ledbetter on one of the major casting sites where Ledbetter maintains a profile, and Short reached out for an interview after reviewing his reel.
“I have a clip of my one-man show, ‘A Mind Full of Dopamine,’ in which I’m wearing one of my signature flat caps and I’m playing the harmonica,” Ledbetter said.
“Something about that must have spoken to him, because a big part of our conversation was my connection to music: playing the harmonica, other instruments I play, how I feel about music … and why the flat cap!”
A flat cap is similar to a newsboy but with a slimmed-down profile and smooth, flat top; Ledbetter’s students will confirm that it is his headgear of choice.
Ledbetter, who teaches classes in voice and acting in the Department of Theatre and Film, said it was gratifying to be chosen for the part based on his casting profile rather than going the traditional – and potentially nerve-wracking – route of booking open auditions and showing up to try out cold.
“It’s kind of the ideal,” Ledbetter said. “You hear about elite actors, especially the A-listers and, to some extent, the B-listers, especially in the past – they would never have to audition. They would just be offered a part, or they come in for an interview and it’s offered to them afterwards.”
Ledbetter won the part, and now, more than anything, he’s looking forward to finally seeing the film he had tucked away in a dusty mental cabinet.
“If we were not in a pandemic, this would have been a great opportunity in October to go see the world premiere in Nashville, to show up and be a part of a Q&A, to connect and reconnect,” Ledbetter said. “It’s going to be really interesting now, figuring out how this happens on a virtual front.”
The Nashville Film Festival takes place online Oct. 1-7; “Son of Sun” will be available to watch on-demand during that time. Ticket prices vary and are available for the full festival of more than 200 films or for individual screenings.
A trailer for “Son of Sun” – in which Ledbetter wears his trademark cap – is available to watch here.
By Katherine Stewart