Regional Report: North Carolina Aims For More Docs, Less “Dawson’s”
by David Fellerath
With the emergence of David Gordon Green and the peculiar brand of hillbilly romanticism of his films “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls,” the time has never seemed more right for a North Carolina film explosion. But those waiting for a Tarheel New Wave to crash on the beach might catch some serious sunburn in the process.
“It’s not like San Francisco or New York, where you can throw a rock and hit a filmmaker,” said Durha-based documentary maker Brett Ingram, presently in post-production with Jim Haverkamp on “Monster Road,” a study of underground animator Bruce Bickford.
Chapel Hill filmmaker Erik Martin puts it another way: “You can’t take yourself too seriously, because in Chapel Hill, no one cares that you’re a filmmaker.”
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing happening in North Carolina. In fact, the state is full of filmmakers, but the scarcity of funding, exposure, and other resources have kept most of the region’s auteurs battling the exigencies of a DIY world.
Filmmaking in North Carolina tends to oscillate between two three-sided poles: the Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point) and, 50 miles to the east, the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill). Although the former region doesn’t have the culturally and intellectual cachet of the latter, it does boast an impressive film school at the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA), located in Winston-Salem. Green and many of his collaborators got their starts there, in fact.
However, there is filmmaking to be found in other parts of the state. “All the Real Girls” was shot in the western mountains around Asheville, and the region continues to boast such hard-working indie directors such as Paul Schattel, who has a 35mm feature to his credit called “SinkHole.” In Charlotte, documentary maker Curtis Gaston is finishing a film with the working title of “Rebels,” his feature-length study of the South’s most inflammatory and apparently impossible-to-extinguish symbol, the Confederate flag. However, Gaston finds that filmmaking in the Queen City is a more muted affair, musing, “Sometimes I think it would be better to relocate [to the Triangle]. I feel a little isolated here.”
Then there is Wilmington. For the better part of a decade, the state’s film commission has boosted this attractive and temperate coastal city as a production mecca, but the reality is that the community is used mostly for television shows like “Dawson’s Creek.” Surprisingly, few indie films and fewer good Hollywood movies get made here; instead, mediocre vehicles burdened with expensive talent often resort to Wilmington as a cost-saving measure. Recent examples of this phenomenon include “Black Knight” with Martin Lawrence and “Domestic Disturbance” with John Travolta. According to Onur Tukel, a longtime Wilmington resident who now makes his films in Durham, “There are no films coming to Wilmington after ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ which means that the stable crew base will have no reason to stay.”
However, the Wilmington area has nurtured some indie filmmakers, including Tukel, and it also boasts the Cucalorus Film Festival (www.cucalorus.org), the state’s best narrative fest, which will get underway later this month.
But the center of gravity always seems to hover between the Triad and the Triangle. Green’s fellow alums from Winston-Salem’s NCSA include DP Tim Orr (who lensed Peter Sollett’s forthcoming “Raising Victor Vargas” in addition to his celebrated work on Green’s films) and Peter Hedges (whose family comedy “Pieces of April,” with Katie Holmes, won acclaim and a distribution deal at this year’s Sundance, and whose screenplay for “About a Boy” is currently up for an Oscar). In addition to the top-drawer equipment, studio, and back lot facilities, NCSA also has thousands of prints in its archives.
Dale Pollock, the dean of the film school, is moving quickly to consolidate the reputation of his school. He’s throwing his institution’s resources behind a new film festival that he hopes will establish Winston-Salem as a locus for the South’s filmmaking efforts. “We want to be the Sundance of the South,” he has said. “Having David Gordon Green’s name will help us achieve that.”
Although such filmmakers as Richard Linklater, John Waters, and Guy Maddin have remained closely identified with the regions that produced them, it’s unlikely that North Carolina will become the next Austin, Baltimore, or Winnipeg anytime soon. Green, the star of the moment, isn’t really a North Carolinian, being a Texas native, and he’s constantly on the move, attending to an ever-expanding slate of responsibilities. This spring, he begins production in Savannah, Georgia on “Undertow,” starring Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas, and Jamie Bell. In the fall, he’s slated to begin work on “A Confederacy of Dunces” for Miramax.
More typical is the filmmaker who holds down a day job while scraping together production money. One of North Carolina’s more prolific feature filmmakers is 30 year-old Onur Tukel of Chapel Hill, who works by day for WUNC-TV, the state’s public television network while managing to finance three indie features.
His most recent 35mm effort has been a hit on the festival circuit under two different names, both of which perhaps reveal too much: “Re-Membering Jack” is the current title, and “Ding-a-Ling-LESS” is its once and apparently future moniker. Although the not so grown up titles suggest a very long evening at the frat house, when it played the Austin Film Festival, the city’s Chronicle gave this 81-minute opus a bemused thumbs-up. “Balzac’s ‘La Comédie Humaine’ it ain’t, but still charming in its own special, special way,” the newspaper wrote.
Dogged individual efforts like those of Tukel and Daniel Kraus (“Ball of Wax,” a black comedy currently on the festival circuit) tend to be the norm. More unusual is the film enthusiast with some financial muscle to create a production company that gets others’ projects off the ground. Doing just that is Chapel Hill’s Banzai Entertainment (www.thebanzai.com) founded by Donald Whittier, a developer and martial arts instructor.
The ambition of “Dog Nights,” their first feature from 2001, turned some heads — it was a 35mm film made for the lavish sum of $100,000. However, the film didn’t hold up in the editing room, and it has been shelved. Undaunted, the company has continued to make features, but has wisely adopted the digital video format to cut their risk. Currently, they’re producing a documentary about the outlaw country singer David Allen Coe, and in early March, director Shambhavi Kaul and her crew will accompany him to Daytona Beach, Florida as he performs for the hundreds of thousands of bikers who flock there every year.
Ironically, with this project, Banzai Entertainment is joining what is shaping up to be North Carolina’s most common contribution to independent filmmaking: the DIY documentary.
The heart of the North Carolina documentary filmmaking community can be found in Durham, an old tobacco town that is home to Duke University. For the last six years this community has hosted the Full Frame Film Festival (www.fullframefest.org), arguably the most important documentary film festival in the country. Over the years, the festival has unveiled such popular hits as Aviva Kempner’s “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” and Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s “StartUp.com” along with hundreds of other non-fiction efforts from around the world.
Although Full Frame certainly enhances the North Carolina’s profile on the international film circuit, it is less useful for supporting upstart filmmakers. Such aspirants turn instead to the Center for Documentary Studies (cds.aas.duke.edu), located near the Duke campus and across the railroad tracks.
The center, or CDS, was the original backer of Full Frame, when it was known as the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival. Now that Full Frame is operating on its own, the Center is focusing on its mission of educating filmmakers, as well as programming an adventurous slate of docs.
The center’s non-degree courses have achieved such renown that students are moving to Durham to acquire filmmaking skills, before returning home to pursue their documentary subjects. Program director Dawn Dreyer reports that the out-of-town demand has reached a point where the center will begin teaching compressed, week-long seminars this summer. In addition to the educational opportunities afforded by CDS, the center programs films almost daily, with music, Southern culture, and human rights being common themes.
With so many aspiring documentary filmmakers floating around, working part-time jobs and taking certification courses, there’s an enormous market for microcinema to take hold. Observers of the North Carolina film scene were startled in early February by the smashing success of Ms. Films (www.msfilms.org), a one-day workshop and short-film screening festival by, for, and about female filmmakers. The panel discussions were jammed, according to festival director Niku Arbati, and organizers were forced to turn people away from the evening screenings.
The aim of Ms. Films is to create an army of DIY filmmakers, says Arbati. Just as important as encouraging young women (and men) to pick up cameras, is inspiring them to work together on financing. To this end, Durham’s Cynthia Hill, whose documentary “Tobacco Money Feeds Our Family” is the result of spending three years filming North Carolina farm families, has taken the lead in organizing documentary makers by founding the Southern Documentary Fund, which will provide non-profit fundraising cover for upstart filmmakers, in addition to an array of other services. “In the South, there are very few funding sources for documentary making [especially] when you’re trying to raise money for social interest films,” she said.
Hill and her fellow documentary makers have few illusions about the commercial prospects of documentary filmmaking, so it’s fitting that her organizing efforts should dovetail with the quiet demise earlier this year of Zoom Culture, a once-ballyhooed new media firm that began business in Chapel Hill at the height of the dotcom boom.
Zoom Culture’s business plan was a Clinton-era classic. “These people thought you could hand a consumer video camera to any kid on a college campus and you would get back compelling, commercially viable work,” recalled one former employee, a Chapel Hill filmmaker. Although Zoom Culture produced one series of quality, “Hip-Hop Nation,” they were unable to realize any returns from it. (Others in the area will remember Zoom Culture for their embarrassing foray into sexploitation with a film called “Spring Break.”)
Stars may flare across the Tarheel firmament and production companies may come and go. But what seems to be the venerable old faithful of the Carolina film community is Chapel Hill/Carrboro’s Flicker film series and its cousins in other cities. These days, Jen Ashlock, the first female director of the series, organizes the unpretentious wildly erratic bimonthly program of Super-8 shorts. Always well-attended, the programs feature “hat tricks” in which neophyte filmmakers draw a topic from a hat, are given a camera, a roll of film, and instructions to have a film completed for screening by the next Flicker event.
The results can be revelatory, as some who had never touched a movie camera are able to summon up intensely sublime, or comic, three-minute visions. Whatever the result, the response is always appreciative. The applause is just as much for the DIY spirit that endures in North Carolina, both as an aesthetic and, for the foreseeable future, as a necessity.