Some 1,200 miles from New York’s Broadway and half a country away from the Las Vegas strip sits Branson, Missouri. Population: 10,500, but boasting an annual tourist influx of more than 7 million.
The attraction to this remote town in the Ozark Mountains? Over 100 “staged music shows” that come in all shapes and sizes. From musical revues with a variety hour feel to dinner theater entertainment aboard a riverboat, Branson’s brand of showbiz is as American as apple pie -- a hokey haven of song and dance that seemingly never ceases to fascinate.
Certainly that was the case for filmmakers AJ Schnack and David Wilson who spent five years documenting the town’s cultural pulse and its more prominent residents for their movie, We Always Lie to Strangers. After casting a wide net, they focused on four distinct storylines: The Presley family (no relation to the King), a multi-generational crew with firm roots in the community (Raeanna, daughter-in-law of Presley patriarch Lloyd, is mayor of Branson); The Lennons, California transplants made famous after numerous appearances on the Lawrence Welk Show in the 1960s and 1970s; The Tinocos, whose self-financed Magnificent Variety Show is struggling; and single dad Chip Holderman, a performer grappling with being gay while living in an ultra-conservative zip code.
The characters, like the productions themselves, are colorful and curious. “We could’ve made two other movies with the people we met,” says Schnack, who grew up in Southern Illinois and first visited Branson with his family as a kid, as did Wilson, a Columbia, Missouri native. Careful to steer clear of mockery, the two directing partners made a promise to the town’s inhabitants -- to present life in Branson honestly. “We never pretended it was going to be glossy and we didn’t do a hack job on the town,” Wilson explains. “We got it.”
Indeed, Schnack describes to THR the town’s “very specific public face” -- a Vaseline-smeared smile that beckons kids and grandparents alike to come enjoy the show. But underneath the veneer lie challenges. “Being a founding family like the Presleys and taking leadership in the town ever since it existed, or the Lennons, who came in the 90s with a wave of entertainers, or the Tinocos, who for the first time decided to go out on their own in a tough economic climate,” says Schnack.
Perhaps most impactful, however, is the story of Holderman who, like that glossy façade, is forced to hide his sexuality. Although the town has gotten progressively more liberal over the years -- Wilson adds that it’s long been a libertarian community, particularly in light of the fact that the Ozarks were “one of the last parts of America to be urbanized or go mainstream” -- Branson's gay residents "don’t try to be in your face to the tourists," says Schnack. "They actually play down their sexual identity because they feel like that’s how you’re a good host."
Still, the times may be a-changing. Although in a recent election, Republicans still outnumbered two to one, that meant “35 percent of the people were Democrats,” says Schnack. Compared to neighboring towns, Branson is “definitely more cosmopolitan,” he adds. “There’s a sophistication there -- to how they run their businesses and their shows. You should assume that they’re very good at those things, but you get there and see how really good they are.”
We Always Lie to Strangers has its world premiere at South by Southwest on Monday, March 11 at Austin’s Stateside Theatre.