I Know the Ghosts: Employing Grandmother Wisdom in My Debut Feature

First-time filmmaker Bo McGuire on how he used “skillful will” to make his Tribeca-winning docudrama Socks on Fire.

What I have to tell you begins with place and ends in prayer. To get to the prayer, we’ll have to learn the lessons of the place. To get to the place, we’ll have to escape the forward momentum of time. We’ll have to slip backwards until we find ourselves around the table of my mother’s mother, the great Evelyn Louise. Even though she’s grand, don’t call her grandmother. Call her Nanny. The writing on the wall reads: December, 1994 Noccalula Mountain, Alabama.

Nanny with baby Bo McGuire

I’ve been assigned to get a description of what Christmas was like for Nanny as a child. Watch my 10-year-old eyes roll. Now watch my 10-year-old jaw drop when Nanny, Virginia Slim dripping from her lips, describes how she and her 12 siblings celebrated in Heflin, Alabama. Well, we’d take our socks and nail ’em up above the fireplace for our stockings and Santa would come and put fruit and nuts in there. When Nanny sees my face, she cackles, Hell, we was glad for that!

Now, I had been to my great-grandparent’s two-room farmhouse. I had heard stories of wringing chicken necks and eating possum, but it was this image — Nanny creating wonder out of socks — that crystallized something in my cellophaned ’90s existence. Not only was this the first time I remember grasping the kind of poverty Nanny came from, but it was also the first time I came to understand her power of skillful will — that age-old wisdom of working with what you have to create the most poignant result. Skillful will is that magic Dolly Parton refers to when she talks about using poke berries for rouge. It’s what Scarlett O’Hara performs when she pulls the curtains from the window and turns them into a gown. It’s what Patti LaBelle gets at when she describes putting hot dogs to warm inside the lights of backstage mirrors. And it is by the light of skillful will that I made my first feature film, a transgenerational docudrama, entitled Socks on Fire.

Bo McGuire in Socks on Fire

You see, when Nanny died, my homophobic aunt schemed control of her estate and locked my drag queen uncle out of Nanny’s house. Simultaneously, my NYU thesis lingered past its deadline as I renovated my other grandmother’s house into a home-base. I had been hammering on a script too, but I had no money to make it. That’s when I looked at the tornado enveloping my family and saw its possibility. I knew there was enough generative energy in the real-life narratives (past, present, and future) springing up around me to sustain a feature film. And because all of the necessary elements were readily available to me (rich characters, lush backdrops and relatable drama), the film’s realized version was actually achievable. Besides that, I knew no actor could ever be more Uncle John than Uncle John.

Bo McGuire, with his uncle John, at his second birthday party

By that I mean, making the decision to document my family’s legacy at it burned was the first way I enacted Nanny’s skillful will to manifest Socks on Fire. Here are 21 more:

1. I listened to Dolly Parton. And by that I mean, I prayed to Dolly. I prayed to Patti LaBelle as well.

2. I listened to Spike Lee when he told me, Do something you can afford and do it for your Mama.

3. Anytime I needed to pay for anything beyond favors, I borrowed from the small amount of money Mama had inherited from Nanny.

Nanny kneeling in a field, c. 1947

4. The whole crew slept at my house on Slack Street (we affectionately named it The Slack Shack), and my friend Will parked his mama’s RV in my yard for extra space.

5. One supermoon, our gaffer, Sean, fell in love with the blue light emanating from the RV. I put on a floral piano shawl and read a Bible verse to the camera, underneath the moon, illuminated in RV blue.

6. I leaned into the lilt of my voice. By that I mean, anytime I didn’t know what to do, I talked to the camera. When we remembered to do it at sunset, we were draped in gold.

Bo McGuire, aged 4

7. We shot in the South. Aim a camera in any direction and it is already spinning one thousand tales.

8. We shot in my hometown. I knew the secret cemeteries, the backroads, the fields. When we needed a burger joint from the past, a local relic opened up its neon hum. I knew the ghosts.

9. We shot in Nanny’s house, Uncle John’s house, Mama’s house, and my house. Now you have a list of the best set decorators I know. And this is one example of how skillful wills can be combined.

10. It was early July, so fireworks were at every interstate exit and in every sky.

Bo on the train at Dollywood in 1987

11. When a dying raccoon showed up, we filmed its stagger.

12. When Miss Tammy asked if she should bring her fire batons, I said, Yes!

13. We kept rolling when Uncle John walked over to the neighbor’s house in full drag in broad Alabama daylight.

14. When we needed things to fly, we weren’t too proud to use a little fishing line and fog.

Bo McGuire, aged 11, hanging with Reba McEntire and her bag of Fritos

15. When we needed a full-length fur, Tatiana brought her grandmother’s from Toronto. When we needed a wig, we called up my friend’s Aunt Patsy. She gave us two of her own.

16. I called 20 of the most influential women in my young queer, country life into a field. I told them to wear pastels. When it began to storm, one of the ladies announced she had a key to the church up the road. We took shelter.

17. When the storm passed and the women came back, it was too dangerous to use the bucket truck we’d planned to use for the scene. We filmed the best shot of the film instead.

Bo McGuire, his mother Susan and his Uncle John in Socks on Fire

18. When a handy-cam became a character’s prop, we began using it to capture moments on the fringes of the film.

19. Weeks later, I took the handycam into the courthouse as the real-life family drama raged.

20. I kept it close to my chest when my aunt came to clean out Nanny’s house.

21. I told the story like Nanny would tell it — in all directions and all at once, driven by her singular, intoxicating voice.

I know it can be challenging to read fragments of a whole thing you can’t even see. It’s like looking inside a barn through bullet holes. However, each of these fragments contains a volume on performing and practicing skillful will. It may take divination to understand how, but what is filmmaking if not divining — walking into the field with a lightning bolt and praying to Patti LaBelle? I never knew what I was doing entirely throughout making Socks on Fire. I only knew to follow the vision. I could only afford to follow the vision by employing skillful will. Money could’ve balmed any of the moments listed above, but what would have been lost in the trade? Instead, in these moments we infused our resources with imagination and created great beauty.

Bo McGuire on his back porch.

The promise of skillful will is the ability to thrive while doing what you have to do to survive. That is wisdom meant to be shared, and that is what artists should be busy doing — sharing wisdoms that sustain us. I offer each of these moments not only to you, but to myself, as I still don’t know the path forward for Socks on Fire in this distanced world. But I know it can only be found with what my friend Selah calls next-level creative thinking. Surely skillful will is a part of that. This is the wisdom I consider as I listen, as I pray — everywhere there is lack, may possibility reign.

All images courtesy of Bo McGuire.

Bo McGuire is the writer-director-producer of the transgenerational docudrama Socks on Fire, which had its world premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. He was born the queer son of a Waffle House cook and his third-shift waitress in Hokes Bluff, Alabama. The first movie he truly fell for was the music video for Reba McEntire’s “Fancy.” He is a 2019 Ryan Murphy + Half Initiative Mentee and was recently selected one of Filmmaker magazine’s 2019 “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” Socks on Fire, his debut feature, was supported by Cinereach, Field of Vision, Doc Society, Southern Documentary Fund, IFP, and Film Independent. The film also won the Cuban Hat Award for best pitch at the Hot Docs Pitch Forum. His original television pilot, Shitbird, was selected by Spike Lee to receive the Sandra Ifraimova Award and his feature script Alabama Snipe Fight appeared on NYU’s Purple List. He belongs to the First Church of Dolly Parton.