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Ray McKinnon reigns as one of the South's most insightful filmmakers 

His new Georgia-based series "Rectify" debuts April 22 on Sundance

DEAD MAN WALKING: After two decades on death row, Daniel Holden (Aden Young, center) is released from prison when new DNA evidence surfaces.

Courtesy Sundance Channel

DEAD MAN WALKING: After two decades on death row, Daniel Holden (Aden Young, center) is released from prison when new DNA evidence surfaces.

On the Sundance Channel's new drama "Rectify," premiering Mon., April 22, Georgia death row inmates wear white scrubs that look incongruously pristine, given the magnitude of the convicts' crimes. Consistent with actual Georgia prison garb, the white costume proves appropriately symbolic for the show's central character, Daniel Holden (Aden Young). New DNA evidence secures Daniel's release from prison after nearly 20 years on death row for the rape and murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend. The white garments emphasize the saintly, enigmatic aspects of Daniel's personality, which seems more Buddhist monk than stone-cold killer.

On set last August, the actors weren't the only ones wearing the scrubs. "Rectify" creator and showrunner Ray McKinnon donned the inmate wardrobe as well. A native of Adel, Ga., and former Atlanta-based actor, McKinnon began his career as the kind of colorful utility player who could always find work. Perhaps he was wearing white on the set to show solidarity with the incarcerated players, even though he doesn't appear on camera during the six episodes of "Rectify's" first season. Or possibly his choice of outfit was a little on-set joke along the lines of "the inmates are running the asylum."

While "Rectify" takes place in the present, Daniel often flashes back to death row's antiseptic white cinder blocks, replicated for the program, along with the rest of the sets, in a Griffin, Ga., warehouse formerly used to tan alligator hides. I visited during the filming of a particularly wrenching scene in which Daniel watches, through the window of a cell, as a fellow inmate smashes his own face in an act of self-destructive defiance. While sitting alongside episode director Romeo Tirone, McKinnon called directions to Young, guiding him through Daniel's emotions. "Look down, buddy. He just wants you to stand up and bear witness for him," McKinnon said as prop blood splashed on the glass. On a tiny monitor in a room separate from the scene, the shock and sorrow on Young's face registered powerfully.

Something about Young's performance — his almost birdlike attentiveness, his soft-spoken delivery, the cagey way he holds his mouth tight — subtly evokes McKinnon's own acting style. The lanky 55-year-old actor launched his career at Atlanta-area playhouses, including Marietta's Theatre in the Square, and broke into film and TV through Georgia productions such as Driving Miss Daisy and "In the Heat of the Night." McKinnon always comes across as an offbeat but authentic son of the South, whether playing a coach in The Blind Side, a NASA engineer in Apollo 13, or a sketchy U.S. Attorney on "Sons of Anarchy." So it's no surprise that his demeanor would influence Young, an Australian actor born in Canada.

Mostly, though, Young's stranger-in-a-strange-land performance comes from McKinnon's writing. McKinnon began writing "Rectify" after hearing about a spate of cases in which DNA evidence sprung men convicted of capital crimes. "I kept seeing these press conferences from guys who'd gotten out of jail after 10 or 15 years. I started wondering what his first real day would be like, and that's what started me thinking about this story," McKinnon says.

"Rectify" explores how a dead man walking responds to unexpectedly finding himself alive. "It's symbolically a dead man trying to decide if he wants to live, and the societal and emotional challenges he finds himself faced with," McKinnon says. "I think in some strange way that in that severe, cloistered world, he found a kind of ... peace is not the right word, but homeostasis, a kind of acceptance. It's hard for him to flip the switch and get back into the guidelines of society."

"Rectify" is about Daniel's release, but also, in an unexpected way, about the potential liberation of McKinnon himself. As an actor, writer, director, and producer, McKinnon may be the most original and insightful observer of the New South working today. He's amassed a body of thoughtful, knotty cinematic work that explores Southern Gothic dramas and quirky rural comedies that could be different facets of the same gemstone. McKinnon's work has never found the audience it deserves, but "Rectify" could provide an overdue correction.

When McKinnon's short film "The Accountant" won the Oscar for Best Short Film in 2002, the actor gave a short but characteristically colorful acceptance speech: "We'd like to thank the Academy for this wonderful honor in a category that still allows for a person who is just burning to make a movie to load the camera in the back of his daddy's old truck, gather up some talented dreamers and do it. And if the stars align and the fates conspire, that person might find themselves standing right here at the good God Almighty Academy Awards."

McKinnon shared the stage with his producing partners on "The Accountant," both actors: Walton Goggins of "The Shield" and more recently "Justified," and McKinnon's wife Lisa Blount, possibly most famous for playing Debra Winger's best friend in An Officer and a Gentleman. The trio produced more films over the subsequent decade via their company Ginny Mule Pictures, but the stars never aligned in quite the same way.

McKinnon wrote and directed two feature films, the drama Chrystal (2004) and the comedy Randy and the Mob (2007), but despite rich performances and a truthful, expansive vision of the South, the films never became art-house breakthroughs. That Evening Sun (2009), a drama produced by and co-starring McKinnon, won awards but never achieved the kind of crossover success enjoyed by something such as the magical-realism-influenced indie Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Even compared to the creative and financial struggles involved in making an independent film, McKinnon says that finding an audience can be an insurmountable challenge. "It's just too hard to get them seen," he says. "Maybe one day I'll do one that's even more low-budget, even more experimental. I don't know how to make them more viable — I don't think 'viable' even applies."

PARTY'S OVER: Daniel and his family and friends, including sister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens, left), struggle to deal with the emotional implications of his release from prison.
  • Courtesy Sundance Channel
  • PARTY'S OVER: Daniel and his family and friends, including sister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens, left), struggle to deal with the emotional implications of his release from prison.

McKinnon found a responsive audience for "Rectify" in television producers Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein. The Emmy-nominated partners have helped shape the landscape of basic-cable dramas with "Breaking Bad," the beloved, brutally intense AMC crime show about chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White. McKinnon and the producers successfully pitched "Rectify" as the first original series for the Sundance Channel, which AMC has owned since 2008. "It's a wonderful fit for Sundance. It's like an indie film made for television," Bernstein says.

On set, Bernstein contrasted the creative styles of McKinnon and "Breaking Bad" showrunner Vince Gilligan: "Ray comes from independent film, and Vince comes from network TV. They're both wonderfully talented writers. Ray's an actor, so he's very improvisational. Vince writes for act breaks — he drops some kind of bomb before every commercial. There's less blowing up on 'Rectify,' for sure."

She added that McKinnon's background as a struggling filmmaker prepared him for the cable production. "Ray comes from independent film, making movies on a shoestring. Poor Vince — he worked on 'The X-Files' with millions of dollars per episode and weeks to shoot, but for 'Breaking Bad,' Vince was dropped into the budget and schedule of basic cable."

McKinnon makes "Rectify's" route to cable TV sound like a happy accident. "I'm not sure how that happened!" he says. "I started becoming more inspired by shows: 'The Sopranos,' 'Six Feet Under,' and especially 'Mad Men.' I thought that tonally, this fit in that same world. People don't have to change in an hour and 45 minutes. The changes can be much smaller over time."

Even by the standards of cable dramas with slow-burning, season-spanning narrative arcs, "Rectify" downplays the central murder mystery of who killed Daniel's girlfriend (assuming he's innocent). The first four episodes introduce a likely suspect and circle the details of the murder investigation, but mostly explore the ripple effects of Daniel's release on his family and the town of Paulie, Ga. It's more like one of Robert Altman's ensemble films than the usual plot-driven cable cliffhanger.

McKinnon is particularly motivated by the chance to dig into so many characters. "The other thing that's so interesting is this family marked by this event, and 20 years of the deepening of those marks. Daniel's return brings all of it into flux," he says. "It's one thing for his sister to say, 'When my brother gets out, everything will be wonderful.' But when he gets out, everything isn't wonderful."

"Rectify's" second episode, titled "Sexual Peeling," uses sexuality to touch base with its multiple subplots. Daniel's crusading sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) questions her affair with Daniel's lawyer (Luke Kirby) amid prying small-town eyes. Daniel's careerist stepbrother (Clayne Crawford) pressures his devoutly religious wife (Adelaide Clemens) for sex. Daniel's former prosecutor turned state senator (Michael O'Neill) renews his affair with a waitress who has the inside scoop on the whole town. The episode touches on masturbation and prison rape, and generally reveals how desire can short-circuit better judgment. In contrast to the overheated clichés of Southern melodramas, "Rectify's" uncomfortable sex scenes feel more akin to those on Lena Dunham's "Girls."

McKinnon likens making a TV series to running a marathon, as opposed to the relatively sprint-like pace of producing a film. "With a movie, the period of intensity is shorter. This has been pretty intense since January," he said on set in August. "Once the production starts, it's seven days a week, day or night. [But] you have more of a support system after the fact, and hopefully more people will see it over time." He enjoys sharing the burden with "Rectify's" creative team. The show's episode directors include Keith Gordon, a respected indie filmmaker in his own right with A Midnight Clear.

McKinnon developed "Rectify" without his Ginny Mule partners. Blount passed away in 2010 at the untimely age of 53 from complications with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, an autoimmune disorder that prevents blood from clotting. Meanwhile, Goggins' acting career has taken off. He recently appeared in both Lincoln and Django Unchained and plays one of the regulars on "Justified," the title of which irks McKinnon slightly for its similarity to "Rectify." "'Rectify' came first," he says. "The other show was going to be called 'The Lawman,' but Steven Seagal took that name for his show. Then they picked 'Justified' and I said, 'Are you serious?'"

During the 37th Atlanta Film Festival this March, McKinnon brought "Rectify's" first two episodes to the Plaza Theatre, along with much of the show's cast, for a Q&A that turned into a mutual love-in. The theater was filled with McKinnon's colleagues, admirers, and family — he even made jokes about his mom being in attendance. Over the years, he's found that his local film productions feel like family reunions. "When you get older, you get to come back to Georgia and see people who are still working in the film business. You see sons and daughters following in the trade. It gives a little purpose to life," he says.

BACK TO REALITY: Daniel is confounded upon re-entry into civilian life.
  • Courtesy Sundance Channel
  • BACK TO REALITY: Daniel is confounded upon re-entry into civilian life.

Communities seem to gather easily around McKinnon, both real ones made up of his creative peers and fictional ones that mirror the South. "Rectify" gave him a chance to create characters from the ground up in a way he hadn't attempted before. "All of my stories until now were excuses for me to be in front of the camera and write roles for people I loved," he says. Just as he brought fewer preconceived notions to his writing and casting for the TV show, he wanted audiences to be similarly open-minded. "I didn't want to know that much about the actor playing the role. If we don't have celebrity and baggage that goes with celebrity, it will be easier to suspend disbelief and believe in this little town," McKinnon says.

His cast uniformly confirms the richness of his writing and his understanding of the South. "I started reading the 'Rectify' script and began to wonder if [Ray and I] shared the same chromosomes. I felt like I was reading my own Southern experience. Five pages in, I could hear Amantha's voice and know who she was," says Florida-born Spencer.

The introductory prison scene from "Rectify's" pilot provides an example of McKinnon's ability to accumulate details that convey the complexity of the present-day South. In the foreground, a callous white guard strip-searches a new African-American prisoner. In the background, Daniel waits on the verge of release and receives his civilian suit and tie from a polite, solicitous black guard. The difference in treatment of the new prisoner and the exonerated one conveys the region's legacy of bigotry as well as the racial disparity of prison sentencing.

"Ray's main focus was to find the truth of the characters and not overdramatize it. When Daniel left jail, it could've been clouds parting and light shining in and rainbows and unicorns," Crawford says. "Instead, the scenes of Daniel's release, while powerful, feel deliberately anticlimactic, as if deferring the catharsis Daniel's friends and family have been waiting for."

McKinnon also uses "Rectify" to explore the 21st century changes in small Southern communities. He picked Griffin, Ga., for the show's location because "We wanted to be in a town that reflected more of what I see, like the loss of manufacturing. Griffin has a cross-section of what I see in real small towns, and what fictional ones so rarely capture. Small towns are becoming gentrified, because the nearby cities have expanded so much. If you were doing an archeological dig, you'd have the center of town, then branch out to the strip malls, then out to the perimeter and the big box stores. Whatever's the real town, I wanted that, and Griffin offered that," he says.

Daniel perceives many of these changes with his Rip Van Winkle-style reaction to his hometown's metamorphosis. A teenager when imprisoned, he's nearly 40 upon his release. During a visit to a Walmart, he boggles at the high-definition devices of the brave new present. At one point, he visits a convenience store where teen bullies approach him. Instead of picking a fight, however, one poses with him for a quick camera-phone photo without his permission — an invasion of privacy that's much more confusing to Daniel than a straight-up beating.

The most condescending quality of Hollywood depictions of Dixie is the notion that the South goes somehow untouched by the sweeping transformations in America and the rest of the world; that it's either a land of quaint, frozen-in-amber Mayberrys or seething, backwards enclaves on the brink of violence. McKinnon's work appreciates the roots of Southern culture and how it adjusts over time.

In an email, he offered his perspective on the contradictions and extremes of Southern society: "Culture develops partly to create a sense of continuity. Of ritual. At its best, it can help us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. But culture is always bumping up against the friction of change. In some cultures, that friction is more like on a slow burn. But in the South, it can quickly get white-hot. These two contradictory forces have always been a part of what makes the region so compelling and confounding."

The South serves as a stage for both the colorful eccentrics of comedy and the untamed, wild impulses of drama. "I don't think consciously of these extremes of human nature when I am writing. If I were to analyze it, I would agree with the assertion that they are 'kin,'" he says. "I guess it just depends on what prism you are looking through at any given time as to whether it tickles or scares. Certainly, it has yet to stop intriguing me. For that I am grateful."

Despite his busy schedule as an in-demand character actor, he tries to keep in touch with the South as it really is. "I still make trips through the two-lane South as often as I can, as well as the usual interstate suspects. Both routes can be fine guides to what has changed in the South and what has not," he says.

"Rectify's" family in flux, and the small town surrounding it, could be an expansive canvas for McKinnon to continue examining his home region after the revelations planned for the show's season finale. "I'm very fortunate to have the tools to tell this story for six episodes. I do have a bigger picture beyond this season of what I'd like to explore," he says.

But that's if the show gets picked up for a second season, a prospect that's currently up in the air. "I don't know what's going to happen beyond this," says McKinnon. "I try to stay in a place of not caring in the right way. I try to keep in a place of acceptance and gratitude. It takes that pressure off. Hopefully, I'll tell a great six-part story. That's what I want more than anything. If it ends here, it's a great place to end. If it doesn't, it's a great place to begin."

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