When it comes to Greg Brownderville’s latest project, timing is everything.
The Dallas-based poet and director of Southern Methodist University’s creative writing program this year released Fire Bones, a digital dreamscape of audio, video, music, text and art. Created with smartphones in mind, it takes its audience on a magical journey through the Arkansas Delta, where Brownderville grew up. He calls it “the world’s first go-show,” a term he coined to signify its ability to travel with audiences on their phones.
“I wanted poetry to be a multisensory experience,” Brownderville says. “Different stories demand different forms of storytelling, and I was curious what would happen if you blended several at once.”
But if Brownderville had created the project when he first began imagining it in 2011, Fire Bones would look a lot different.
In 2021, the “go-show” seems prescient. There’s no way Brownderville could have known 10 years ago that people would be binge-watching television on their phones or that podcasts would become this prevalent. A few years later, when he started drafting production plans, no one could’ve predicted that the show would debut to a world with limited access to movie theaters and performance venues.
But perhaps the greatest role that timing played in the trajectory of Fire Bones was in late 2015 when Brownderville met Bart Weiss, an award-winning local filmmaker and professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Brownderville had just received generous funding from SMU but couldn’t find the right videographer; Weiss seemed to understand his vision for the project.
“I was really struck by how Greg’s mind works,” Weiss says. “Everything in this world is handmade, and language is key. There’s really a sense throughout that your attention will be rewarded.”
What started as a working relationship between writer and director swiftly became something more collaborative as Weiss began recruiting students and local artists, like videographer Christian Vasquez, who would steer the project’s artistic ethos. The two developed a deep friendship over late nights in the summer of 2016, poring over the script, eating scoop after scoop of Brownderville’s new venture into homemade ice cream. Their shared love of ice cream would eventually become one of the plotlines of the madcap narrative of Fire Bones.
Set in the fictional Arkansas town of Thisaway, the show is fantastical, with lawn chairs that travel to other planets and shapeshifting characters, including Beekeeper Spaceman, Abracajaguar and a fortune cookie writer who thinks it’s still 1995. At some point in the process, Brownderville realized there might be a need for an everyman — someone who could represent the point of view of the audience.
“I remember saying, ‘That could be me,’” Weiss says. Which is how the multi-hyphenate project Fire Bones became, among other things, a buddy comedy.
In Chapter Two, after an ice cream caterer cancels on Weiss’ 65th birthday, Brownderville invites him to accompany him on an adventure to his childhood home with the promise of, among other things, homemade ice cream. In the audio portion of that chapter, Weiss describes the trip to the Arkansas Delta as “searching for the poetry, the soul of what’s there.” There’s a meta quality to much of Fire Bones, as it balances the autobiographical with the absurd.
With this project, Brownderville takes a keen interest in fusing dichotomies — fantasy and realism, highbrow and lowbrow, digital and handmade, history and the future — resulting in something truly one-of-a-kind. For Weiss, who has worked on everything from documentaries to feature films, that was part of what makes Fire Bones exciting.
“The mood on set was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I think you can see that in the finished product,” Weiss says. “When it can feel like there’s a sameness to every day, this is something different than anything you’ll see on Netflix.”
When the team wrapped up its final edits in late 2020, Brownderville dropped off a freshly made batch of ice cream on Weiss’ porch as a way to celebrate. According to Weiss, Brownderville has perfected his ice cream recipe. Just like art, it’s all about timing.