July 9, 2008
A MAN NAMED PEARL is the story of Pearl Fryar, a prolific topiary artist in the small town of Bishopville, South Carolina. Fryar, who comes across as one of the most giving and sincere (not to mention talented) people on film in quite a while, was courteous enough to chat with us, as was director Scott Galloway about the making of the documentary. Both men will also be at the Angelika New York on July 18th (opening night) for an additional Q&A with the audience, and we really recommend that you go – A MAN NAMED PEARL is a refreshingly genuine story that may just renew your faith in the human spirit.
Scott Galloway, Director
Q: How did you first hear about Pearl’s garden, and why did you think it warranted its own documentary?
A: I owned a production company and we produced a show for the Turner network on the best gardens of the south. One of the four featured stories was Pearl Fryarâ??s topiary garden. My good friend Brent Pierson produced the piece and he called me at the end of the shoot and said, â??Thereâ??s more to this guyâ??s story than five minutes of television will allow.â? I was a bit skeptical. You hear that occasionally from a producer right after a shoot and over time their enthusiasm wanes. But Brent is different. Heâ??s an excellent story-teller and he didnâ??t relent. Every two or three weeks heâ??d bring up Pearl. â??You have to go down and see him. He lives just two hours from Charlotte. Iâ??ll fly out from Los Angeles.â? Finally, I agreed to a weekend in Bishopville.
Q: What was your first impression of Pearl?
A: I remember getting out of the car in front of the Fryar home as Pearl stood watching. My first impression was, â??This guyâ??s in amazing shape!â? We shook hands and his hands are huge and strong. I also learned early on that Pearl was, by his own admission, â??old school.â? He told me, â??If you feel you have to email me, email me your phone number.â? One other old school exampleâ?¦ We went straight into his dining room for our initial talk. In the Fryar home the dining room is next to the front door. Pearlâ??s wife Metra made us tea. Not two minutes into our conversation someone knocked on the front door. Pearl turned to the kitchen and said, â??Metra, door.â? She came from the kitchen through the Dining Room and answered the front door. Nowâ?¦if we were in my home and I had that proximity and yelled, â??Monica, door.â? Not only would she not answer the doorâ?¦
Q: In the film, Pearl comes across as completely sincere and full of genuine passion and goodwill – did you know in advance how well his personality would translate to film?
A: He was really good in the Turner piece. You could see it then, and certainly recognize it in person, heâ??s a commanding presence. His message of peace, love and goodwill is very important to him. It is a message he passionately and genuinely believes. There really werenâ??t any concerns that it would translate. When you see him with kids or visiting groups it really comes across.
Q: Although there is a prominent horticulture/topiary theme throughout, A MAN NAMED PEARL ends up being just as much a showcase of Pearl as a human being as it does of his incredible talent for topiary – did you intend for that from the beginning?
A: The short answer – yes. The longer answer – because this is one my favorite questions to field – is the followingâ?¦ In my first meeting with Pearl we sat in his dining room for well over an hour â?? maybe two hours. He spent the first thirty minutes talking about his love of children, particularly children that come from the projects, broken families â?? the kids that donâ??t have any opportunities. Pearl referred to them as â??kids that society overlooks.â? As he talked about nurturing and encouraging these children through various programs he runs, I looked out onto his front yard marveling at the beautiful works of art that towered more than 30 feet above. And then I had a bit of an epiphany. The plants in Pearlâ??s yard were initially rescued from a trash dump behind the Bishopville city nursery. These were plants that nursery goers didnâ??t want – plants that were overlooked. Pearl took plants from the trash heap, planted them, restored them to health and then shaped them into beautiful works of art. When I made that first allegorical connection I knew we had a film. Pearlâ??s garden is absolutely amazing but the gardener is even more so. The garden would provide stunning visuals, the story would be Pearlâ??s.
Q: The South Carolina community where Pearl lives seems very small-town and a tad old-fashioned – how did they react when you told them you would be filming a documentary about them?
A: Bishopville is a small, sleepy southern town. It actually looks old-fashioned. The signage on the pharmacy and stores is right out of the 1950s. The town welcomes visitors with a sign that proclaims: â??Bishopville home of Heisman Trophy winner â??Docâ? Blanchard.â? â??Docâ? Blanchard won the Heisman in 1945! There are places like the Yogi Bear barbecue joint (Iâ??m not kidding), and the cotton fields right off the main roads that definitely take you back. I write all this to illustrate the point that Bishopville has stagnated. As is mentioned in the film, the mechanization of the farm industry and the decline of textiles and tobacco have taken a toll. The community believes in Pearl. They are excited for him and hopeful that his story will revive the community. Chamber of Commerce Director Ronnie Williams arranged for our crew to have free accommodations at the local fire houseâ?¦the FORMER fire house. Ronnie and his wife made us dinner. Pearlâ??s neighbors often made lunch for the crew. We were able to get our shots on high from a bucket truck donated by a local cable company. We all really enjoyed the people of Bishopville. They are a great group. It is a tight-knit community, remarkably positive given the financial hardships they face.
Q: Were you nervous to show the finished product to Pearl?
A: Pearl saw the film for the first time in Bishopville in an auditorium at the Lee County High School. We brought in a projector and audio equipment â?? there are no movie theaters in Bishopville. Was I nervous? Somewhat, but not completely. We worked hard to tell Pearlâ??s story as accurately as possible. We spent a lot of time documenting his family, friends and neighbors just as they areâ?¦even down to the pace and rhythms of Bishopville. That written, I sat several rows away from Pearl and looked over at him many, many times during that first screening.
A MAN NAMED PEARL opens July 18th at the Angelika New York, and August 22nd at the Angelikas Dallas and Houston.