If you got to Melissa Kirkendall’s Internet Movie Database page, you’ll find that she has been busy: During the past few years, the former Fort Worth filmmaker/concert booker has been working various crew positions on movies and TV series, including the DFW-filmed Fox shows “The Good Guys” and “Prison Break.”
She also directed and co-produced the acclaimed documentary “Teen a Go Go: A Little Film About Rock and Roll History,” about the 1960s garage-rock scene in Fort Worth. Her filmmaking career was rolling along, but she sensed that she needed something more.
“I’m actually having a bit of success, which is great, as a hired producer/production manager,” says Kirkendall, who is now based in Austin. “But I realized last year through a series of events that I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve worked my ass off to get to this place where I’m making money, but I’m just kind of earning money. Working, working hard, doing a good job but I’m not doing things that are necessarily fulfilling to me.’ ”
In Fort Worth, Kirkendall worked as a promoter and booker for several music venues, including Mad Hatters (where she was also co-owner and chef), the Ridglea Theater and the Engine Room. Music, she says, was never about money for her, and filmmaking wasn’t always about money either — but she did do some work to pay the bills. She started to think about more adventurous ideas.
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“I’d been chewing on some ideas that might be considered more pop culture, kind of like ‘Teen a Go Go’,” she says. “But I also had this desire — when I was in the music business, I used to open my doors all the time to charities, donate money, donate time, donate food. Just help people out.”
She was working on a feature film, running on fumes after a couple of days of night shoots, when she started talking with another crew member about her search for fulfillment. She wanted to do something positive, she said, something that might even take her to another country, maybe even make hear learn Spanish.
“I went to bed, and five hours later, a friend of mine in Fort Worth posted [on Facebook] about this woman in Ecuador who was sort of about halfway through this humanitarian effort of turning this left-for-dead piece of land into a self-sustaining farm in a small village in the mountains of Ecuador. ... She was posting about maybe going down there to help this friend of hers and I saw the post and I said, ‘Hey, I want to go with you, but I want to make a documentary about it.’ ”
The friend connected Kirkendall with Deborah Ellis Brock, the woman working on creating the farm, who is from Fort Worth (her father, who is working with her, was a longtime Dallas resident). After some Skype interviews, Kirkendall made her first trip to Ecuador to started documenting Brock’s work. Since then, Kirkendall has been working on “Little Village, Big Mountain,” an in-progress documentary about the farm and the growing community around it.
“It was in a foreign country that speaks Spanish,” Kirkendall says with a laugh. “How could I not do this? I so wasn’t looking at Ecuador; I was looking at going on a monthlong journey to Peru to hike the Inca Trail and learn Spanish, but that was more of a vacation.”
If you watch the video above, which is a pitch video from a GoFundMe page for the film, you’ll see that Brock herself was reaching a limit before making her Ecuadorean journey. Kirkendall says she doesn’t want to reveal more because it will be in the completed documentary, but she had already made the decision to do the film before learning that about Brock.
“There’s so many reasons that she’s an interesting subject,” Kirkendall says. “And she’s not going to be the film’s only subject. ... There are so many stories that could be told about things happening in Ecuador. I’m using her story as my base story and there will be side stories.”
Kirkendall says that one of the things that drew her to Brock is that “she’s not saintly.” She’s had her share of struggles, career highs and emotional lows. But she’s the type of person who takes action, says Kirkendall, who believes that in a time of political division in the United States, there’s still a large complacent “middle” faction who thinks that whatever they do won’t matter in the long run.
“What I feel like Deborah represents is, she’s the type of person who really had nothing,” Kirkendall says. “At least that’s how she felt. She felt like she was at her end, nothing else to live for kind of situation, even though she has a son. She was [thinking about] suicide. And her father gave her this opportunity in Ecuador. Neither one of them have ever run a farm. He’s an inventor/idea guy who had worked on NASA programs.”
Kirkendall, who is currently in Austin for SXSW, plans a return to Ecuador in the spring. The GoFundMe page was set up to raise money for her to bring a crew. She had never thought much about the country, though, before beginning work on the film.
“Multiple people have been like, ‘Forgive me — where is Ecuador?’,” she says. “Some people think it’s in Central America. That’s part of the interest for me, too, because I’ve always been a fan of the underdog. It’s one of those countries that nobody knows much about.”
The equator runs through Ecuador, but its capital city, Quito, is at 9,350 feet above sea level, the highest capital city in the world. Kirkendall has learned other trivia: Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador, not Panama. By certain measurements (and they are definitely convoluted), its highest point, Mount Chimborazo, could be considered the highest point on Earth, even though Mount Everest’s elevation is almost two miles higher, because it’s the farthest peak from the center of the Earth (really, you have to click on the “convoluted” link for the explanation).
Kirkendall has continued to be busy in the States: She attended the Sundance Film Festival in January, and she line-produced re-enactments for an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary about the 1988 Dallas Carter High School team that won a state championship (against the Odessa Permian team chronicled in the book “Friday Night Lights”) — and then had the title stripped because of University Interscholastic League infractions and because five players had been arrested in connection with a series of armed robberies around Dallas. (The story was also the subject of the 2015 feature film “Carter High.”)
She’ll also be at the “Texas Shorts” program Friday at the SXSW Film Festival for “Chasing Grace,” directed by Julia Barnett, an Austin-based actress who had a recurring role as Heidi Bell in the TV series “Nashville” (Connie Britton, till recently the series’ star, is executive producer). The short start Christopher Backus of Showtime’s “Roadies” as a father who kidnaps his estranged daughter — or maybe he doesn’t.
“That was kind of the start of my getting back on track with things that don’t necessarily make me a bunch of money,” says Kirkendall, who volunteered to work as a production manager on the film because she liked the film and the director. “Instead, it nurtures and feeds my soul. I had been jumping from one project to the next and sometimes I liked them and sometimes it was just a paycheck. And that’s not me.”
For updates on “Little Village, Big Mountain,” follow its Facebook page.