Johnny McPhail interview
Monday, April 20, 2020 – 1:00 p.m.
Johnny McPhail played a supporting role in Dalton Kimbrough's film and helped out with crew duties when he wasn't on-screen.
Detectives Armstrong and Murphy interviewed him at the Yoknapatawpha County Sheriff's Department.
- Detective T. Armstrong
- Detective S. Murphy
- Johnny McPhail
Detective Murphy: For the record, please state your name, age, address, and occupation.
Johnny McPhail: Johnny McPhail. I'm 57 years old. I live at 110 Pearidge Road, and I'm an accountant by profession.
Detective Armstrong: Now, Johnny, We're hoping you can shed some light on this thing for us. So we're just gonna start from the beginning. Tell us how you met Dalton Kimbrough.
Johnny McPhail: I first met him when he first came to town at Duffy's. He usually sat around, getting drunk, as I remember it. He had him a little stool on the corner. He was always bitchin' and moanin'. I tried to talk to him a couple of times, but basically, all I could get out of him was how he was a natural-born killer, but I didn't pay much attention to that. I thought he was just a drunk.
Detective Armstrong: You changed your mind?
Johnny McPhail: We thought he was a bit off his rocker, but then some other fellas got to talkin' to him, and it turned out he was just into the movies. He liked the movies, and I did too, so occasionally we talked about movies. He hadn't been to too many new ones, but he liked the classics. He turned me on to some wild stuff like Kurosawa and who's that old boy... Errol Morris, I think. Those are some filmmakers he liked, and I watched some of their movies, even invited him over a time or two. But, boy, he was really obnoxious back then.
Detective Armstrong: How so?
Johnny McPhail: He'd get on a tear and just start spillin' his heart out about how his woman left him, how his friends wanted to kill him, how nobody believed he would amount to anything, how his parents thought he was a failure. Finally, old Marshall Pidgin told him to get out and not to come back cause he was spoilin' the atmosphere. Fellas in there tryin' to watch the ballgame or shoot some pool, and he'd flop all over the damn pool table, bawlin' like a little kid. That's the last I heard from him until he came out in the papers sayin' he was makin' a movie.
Detective Murphy: When was that?
Johnny McPhail: That was a good while later, and we all had thought he'd left town and were glad to think so. But then I saw his picture in the paper and got a hold of him. I'm always up for reading a script or giving it a go actin'.
Detective Murphy: When did you contact him about the movie?
Johnny McPhail: I believe it was in November. It was just after that article came out in Oxford Town, and I remember readin' it and thinking, "Yeah, I know this kid. He sounds like he means business now. Maybe he got himself some help and laid off all the drinking." So I gave him a call, and we set up a meeting.
Detective Murphy: How did he seem when you met with him?
Johnny McPhail: He seemed fine, smart. Much more in control than his days at Duffy's. He even looked healthier. I asked him about the turnaround, and he talked to me for a while. Told me he'd rented a place out in the county and isolated himself, forced himself to live alone. He had written this big movie script he was all excited about, and he had a copy with him. He let me take one home, and I read it.
Detective Murphy: And?
Johnny McPhail: I thought it was a great story, about this guy who gets in all kind of weird situations with this bunch of rowdy friends, and then he meets this girl, who's like his salvation, and before you know it, he's cured from crazy living, but it's too late. You see, that's what he kept talking about. That's what he was so scared of. What if it's too late? How long does it take a man to turn around and act right?
Detective Armstrong: Did you get the feeling he'd done anything wrong?
Johnny McPhail: Well, he was pretty quiet about his past. Whenever I tried to talk with him about it — you know, like buddies — he'd clam up and say the past is all over with. The future is where we need to be. The future is where the money is, he'd say. So I don't know. If that script was autobiographical at all — and I somehow think it was — then maybe he had done some bad things.
Detective Armstrong: Why's that?
Johnny McPhail: It was a pretty violent movie, and there was a lot of special effects and action scenes, it looked like to me. But he had it figured out how we was gonna do it. He was on cue, for real. He had a system in his head. He'd been reading all kinds of acting books. We talked about some ideas. He was really open to hearing my side of it.
Detective Armstrong: How much did he tell you about what he had in mind for the movie shoot?
Johnny McPhail: He told me this was gonna be like boot camp, and we were gonna stay together until we had a movie, or we ended up killing each other. That's funny now, I just remembered that he said that. I tell you, I really believed in the kid. I thought this was gonna be my big chance, man. You ever meet a young kid like that who you know just has it in him? Just an enormous talent, and, boy, did he have the fire in him. I tell you, it was contagious.
Detective Murphy: How many times did you talk to him before you agreed to do the movie?
Johnny McPhail: Gosh, we must've talked every day for about two weeks. I'm talking, he would sit down and turn the clock away, and we'd talk sometimes for hours it seemed like. Just gettin' the system in our mind.
Detective Armstrong: What was his system?
Johnny McPhail: Well, it's a little hard to explain, but essentially it was staying in character all the time, like 24 hours a day. You live the part. He was a big fan of documentaries, and he thought it would just make it look more real. In fact, one time, he got to showing us snuff films out there — people blowin' their brains out — it didn't bother me too much, but some of those little Ole Miss coeds threw a fit. That's when things kinda started getting a little tough, I thought. You know, I didn't know what was gonna happen there.
Detective Armstrong: Let's not get too far ahead. How long was this all going to take?
Johnny McPhail: Oh, he figured he could shoot it all in about a month, month and a half.
Detective Murphy: And you were willing to give up that much time? Was he paying you?
Johnny McPhail: He paid us some, not a lot. He said he'd cut us in on the profits. I think what enticed everybody most was him, though. He just seemed to have something magic surrounding him. Like he could do no wrong. He made a lot of sense. He said, even if the movie didn't win a ton of Oscars or didn't make 1,000 times its budget, it would get us noticed because it was a strong enough story, a strong enough experiment in filmmaking to get us some attention. And he promised if we could endure it, we would become better actors than we'd ever imagined. So that's why I did it. I wanted to be an actor so bad. You just can't imagine what a price I have to pay every morning when I wake up and go to the office, against my every desire. Against what I am.
Detective Armstrong: Johnny, I'm sure I can imagine.
Johnny McPhail: Then imagine this kid, he was like a genie in a bottle. He was offering me a chance out of that, and I believed in him with all my heart. And my wife did too. I brought him over to the house for dinner one night. She met him and loved him. She knew how much it all meant to me.
Detective Murphy: Now, when did you report to the set?
Johnny McPhail: January 6th, I believe it was.
Detective Armstrong: Okay. Was there anything unusual to you at first?
Johnny McPhail: No, it was actually better than I imagined. He said it would be like boot camp, but it was actually more like Club Med. Man, there was all kinds of food to eat, all kinds of movies to watch. It was a cool place, this lodge he had us set up in. The first day on the set, he just talked to us about what we were gonna be doin'. We read through the script and got our shooting schedules.
Detective Armstrong: When did you notice things had gone awry on the set?
Johnny McPhail: Dalton was kind of grumpy there for a while. We shot for about two weeks or so and got some real good stuff, but he kinda got a little grumpy toward the end of that. He never showed us any of the footage, but somethin' wasn't sittin' right with him. So I noticed it then, but I tell you, the one day he for sure blew up was when this gal showed up at the lodge wantin' to audition for a part.
Detective Armstrong: Tell us about that.
Johnny McPhail: We were all downstairs just hangin' out in the living room, except for Dalton, who was up in his office, when this girl just busts in. She's wearin' this silver outfit, real skimpy, with a feather boa, and her hair was streaked with colors. She did this monologue that was just fantastic, walking around commenting on everybody. I mean, she was making stuff up off the top of her head that was just great. After this big to-do, she demands to see the director, and he's standing up on the second-floor balcony there watchin' her.
Detective Armstrong: What did he say?
Johnny McPhail: Well, all of a sudden, he fires off a couple of shots — they were blanks, always blanks — and the next thing you know, he leaps down from the balcony, nearly crushes Kayla on the sofa, and chases this girl all the way down the road. He comes back a few minutes later, and we're all like, "Dalton, what the hell is goin' on?" And he comes back with this big tirade about how none of us are takin' this film seriously. He storms off into his office there upstairs and don't come out 'til the next day.
Detective Murphy: Did the girl ever come back?
Johnny McPhail: Why, hell no. I'm sure she like to've had a heart attack. Wouldn't you, some nutso chasin' you through the country, shootin' his pistola at you? She probably cleared a trail straight through Panola County.
Detective Murphy: Did she ever say her name?
Johnny McPhail: Said she was Cheyenne Wyoming. I had dreams about that girl. She was good.
Detective Armstrong: C'mon, Johnny. That was her real name? Cheyenne Wyoming?
Johnny McPhail: All I know is that's what she said her name was. Not like any of us got a chance to talk to her or anything.
Detective Murphy: Okay. What about Gwen Carver? Did Kimbrough ever abuse her?
Johnny McPhail: Now, I'm not one to normally say this, but he acted like the biggest chauvinist around her. I swear to God, about the only way he abused her is by being an a****** to her on the set. He spit at her, called her names, just tore her up in front of everybody. Tried to make her seem like a whore. He'd embarrass her by saying stuff in front of everybody like, "Yeah, you weren't acting last night when I had you..." you know what. Just being crude. It was kind of funny, actually. She was a bit stuck up if you ask me.
Detective Armstrong: How about Kayla Mathis?
Johnny McPhail: He kept her locked up in her room a good bit. She was a nuisance to him, always storming on the set and throwing s*** at him like old lettuce and mud. Just gettin' him back for all the hell he put her through, I reckon. I tried not to get too involved in their personal business. I tell you, one thing I saw was the fistfight that broke out on camera—
Detective Murphy: This was with...?
Johnny McPhail: Roy. Him and Roy went round and round. Let the cameras roll while they duked it out. Yeah, Roy didn't put up with a bunch of junk. He just got madder and madder the longer the movie dragged on. One day they just came to blows. I don't even remember what it was about. Had something to do with drugs, I think. They were both pretty doped up a lot of the time. Hell, all them kids were. Never understood it.
Detective Murphy: Where did they get it?
Johnny McPhail: They had it with them. I know Roy was always smokin' or poppin' something.
Detective Murphy: What about Zeboe?
Johnny McPhail: Yep. Dalton smacked him around a bit too. But hell, Zeboe loved it. Zeboe is one strange fella. I tell you what, if there's one son of a b**** on that set crazy enough to murder Dalton, it's that little bugger. He was nasty. Just a weird, rotten little kid.
Detective Murphy: Did Zeboe ever threaten him?
Johnny McPhail: No, not that I recall. He would just retreat into his character. That's the one thing you can say for him — he was probably the best actor we had. I guess that's why he had the lead role. That boy could act his tail off. Never quit actin'.
Detective Armstrong: What about old Woolworth? Was he behavin' himself?
Johnny McPhail: Now, when have you ever known Dave to behave himself?
Detective Armstrong: Hah, that's a fair point. Was Dave in on the punishment?
Johnny McPhail: I think he was just having a blast. He had a small role and didn't get in anybody's way. Dalton didn't really have much reason to ride him, other than him just lurkin' around all the time. I think Dave kinda made him nervous. Hell, he made me nervous. He's got a wild look in his eye, you know?
Detective Armstrong: What do you make of Marquez?
Johnny McPhail: He's a machine. Dalton was the only one who knew how to work him. I couldn't ever get a read on him. I don't even think he had a personality. He's the son of a b**** who tied me up and tossed me around, damn near starved me. It was Dalton's idea of method acting. I had a death scene, and he wanted me half dead so I could do it right. I tried to do it with make-up, but Dalton kept yellin' at me, told me I wasn't making it stick. So he had that old boy rough me up a bit.
Detective Armstrong: What made you stay? Why take that kind of abuse? We've listened to the phone messages you left your wife, and clearly, you were having a good time there at first, but I know things weren't going well for you later on. Why did you stay?
Johnny McPhail: You know, he had me fooled for so long. He told me I — well, my character — was becoming the moral center of the film. But the more I got into my character, the more I understood him, and I knew this was no moral center for any movie but a f***** up one. So I expressed my frustration with the character and with the way the story was going. He was handing me rewrites every morning, and my character was becoming more and more awful. I just couldn't live this guy's life like Dalton wanted me to.
Detective Armstrong: What did you do?
Johnny McPhail: We talked about it, and he pretty much just went flaky on me. I mean, he was talking about killing himself if I left. He told me that. He said, "Johnny, if you go, that's it. I'm puttin' a bullet in my head." I was tempted to say, "You go right ahead. You're freakin' me out, boy." But I couldn't rightly live with that on my conscience, now could I?
Detective Armstrong: I don't reckon so.
Johnny McPhail: Hell, naw, I couldn't. Then I'd be as bad as Jerry, my character.
Detective Murphy: How could you respect Kimbrough after he'd done that to you?
Johnny McPhail: 'Cause, it was a damn fine scene when it was all said and done. He wouldn't never let me see it, but I could tell, you know. I could just tell that it was good. And I hope somebody finds those reels 'cause I did some damn good acting in that movie. I think in the end, that was why I stayed on. 'Cause that boy made me the best I've ever been. I ain't never been good at nothin' like the acting I did in that film.
Detective Armstrong: Johnny, tell us where you were on the morning of the shooting.
Johnny McPhail: I was in my bed, fast asleep. My room was just off the living room there on the first floor. The second one, right next to Gwen.
Detective Murphy: Did you hear the gunshots?
Johnny McPhail: Yeah, I heard 'em, but I barely noticed them. Went right back to sleep. There was guns going off all the time, at all hours. Dalton liked to shoot them. They figure very strongly in the script too. So gunfire didn't surprise me. Now, when I heard Gwen screamin' upstairs, and all those stompin' feet above me, that's when I realized something might be wrong. So I get up and go out into the living room, and Gwen is screaming bloody murder. I think it was Dave who told me that Dalton was dead.
Detective Armstrong: Didn't Zeboe cause a disturbance that morning?
Johnny McPhail: Yeah, he was laughing his head off and running off at the mouth like a nut. Marquez had him in Dalton's room and wouldn't let him out — I don't know why — but it was makin' ol' Teddy even crazier than usual.
Detective Murphy: Did Zeboe confess to killing Kimbrough?
Johnny McPhail: No, he wasn't makin' no kind of sense. Only when the first cop got there did he start talkin' about how he killed Dalton. That cop went into the bathroom, I guess to get a look at Dalton, and Teddy managed to get away from Alonzo and went barreling downstairs, still laughing and ranting like a maniac. It got so loud and annoying that I had to tackle his ass and make him shut up. He finally got free from under me and ran outside. That's when the second one of y'all drove up, and he kept him from running off.
Detective Murphy: Was that unusual behavior for Zeboe?
Johnny McPhail: Everything that guy does is unusual compared to regular folks. But for him, running around acting crazy in one way or another was pretty typical.
Detective Armstrong: All right, Johnny, I think we've heard enough for the time being. Anything else, we'll give you a call.
Johnny McPhail: Sure thing, Ted. You know where to find me.
Interview ended – 2:11 p.m.