Not all the films I’ve written or produced take place in North Carolina, but many of them do.
My first short, directed by Phil Morrison, was Tater Tomater. It was set in a cafeteria in Winston Salem, North Carolina so we shot it in a cafeteria in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Seemed to make sense to us.
On the long road to the first feature I had produced, Junebug, which Phil and I first talked about at the ’92 Sundance Film Festival where Tater Tomater was debuting in the shorts section, there were many permutations proposed. Phil wanted to make it in Winston Salem, on film. There were people who said they thought they could get it made on film if Phil shot it in New York. Or, he could shoot it in North Carolina, on video. (This was before digital, sort of.) But Phil wanted it on film, and shot in North Carolina. And it only took us 14 years to accomplish that.
I believe he wanted it to be shot in North Carolina because of the land, the light, the ambiance, the trees, the houses, and the faces. Everyone has seen films shot in Toronto that pretend to be New York, and something feels just a bit off. (Or another slightly queasy example is Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which was set in New York in the 1930s and was shot largely on the Isle of Man, Scotland. Good tax breaks.) I believed in Phil’s desire, and I feel he really captured something true and resonant in Junebug. It feels right.
My directorial debut, Goodbye To All That, is set in Winston Salem. And our producers, Mindy Goldberg and Anne Carey found a way for us to make it there. This was in the fall of 2012, back when the state still had tax incentives for film. I wanted to film it there for all the same reasons Phil did. I wanted to show something that I didn’t think had ever really been revealed about the city in film. This story was a view of the south that wasn’t about working class people. My desire was to tell a story about attractive people in their 30’s, who work in creative fields, and are struggling with marriage, and sex, and love, and relationships, and actually live outside of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. I wanted to show that we are not all rural. We don’t all have the same accents. Plus, I wanted people to see how beautiful the fall is in Winston Salem. I’ve had some people who have seen the film say to me “I didn’t know you even had Autumn in the south.” And concerning accents, I also have had some people who said the film wasn’t accurate because there weren’t “real” accents. Of my cast, Paul Schneider is from Asheville, Amy Sedaris is from Raleigh, Anna Camp and Celia Weston are from South Carolina, and Heather Lawless is from Cherokee, North Carolina. I will grant you that Melanie Lynsky is a Kiwi doing a Standard American accent, but, again, it seems that many people don’t realize the fact that not everyone who lives in the south grew up in the south.
When it came time to make my latest film, Abundant Acreage Available, I wanted it shot where it took place — in East Bend, North Carolina, population 519.
By 2014 the North Carolina legislature had voted to end all tax incentives for film. This was in spite of the fact that in 2012 the state was the fifth in the nation in film production revenue. At the time it offered a 25 percent refundable tax credit, which attracted The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, and Homeland. It took in $376 million dollars in productions, creating more than 4100 full-time crew jobs. But the winds of change have blown a typhoon of draconian, perplexing, and alarming legislation in North Carolina, in many, many ways.
By January 2015 there were no films scheduled to shoot in the state. After much hew and cry directed at the lawmakers, with factual reports of the economic advantages, not to mention the cultural loss that the end of almost all North Carolina film production caused, the legislature replaced the incentives with a grant program that had 10 million dollars made available for the first six months of 2015. Films could apply for these grants, until the 10 million ran out.
But this was only for films with a budget of five million dollars, or more. This was an attempt to lure back the larger, more lucrative television and film productions. Abundant Acreage Available was budgeted at considerably less than one million dollars. We were knocked out of the running before we even began.
The story of Abundant Acreage Available is set on a tobacco farm and is about a grown sister and brother whose father has just died after a long illness. The three of them spent their entire lives, together, on the farm. A few days after their father’s death, the siblings find three older men camping in their field. They come to find out that the three men are brothers, whose family used to own the farm. These brothers have not been back in 50 years.
It is a story about ownership, family, grief, mortality, morality, and letting go. It is about our relationship to the land, and questions whether we actually ‘own’ anything. It takes place almost entirely out of doors. It has one location, and only five actors. And it made no sense, economically, to film it in North Carolina.
Many states are rethinking tax incentives. While Florida, Louisiana and Georgia, with incentives still in place, have now taken over as the big hubs of the southern film industry, they have made provisions for caps, or limits. In June Louisiana made a deal that would have a $180 million limit on the amount taxpayers will spend each year on tax credits for film and TV. The cap is set to expire next year. Still, Georgia, with an incentive of up to 30 percent (20 percent plus an additional 10 percent if you embed the Georgia logo in your product and promotion – seriously) says they also can provide year-round climate, travel ease, soundstages, equipment, and professional crews. I have an acquaintance who works in film in Kentucky. He owns a large farm with rolling hills. And in some areas of that state they offer a tax incentive of up to 35%. He said I was a fool not to explore other prospects.
But I wanted to shoot in East Bend. I wanted a farm, with outbuildings, and I wanted the beauty of the rolling hills of Yadkin County. I wanted the red earth. I wanted to show Pilot mountain in the distance. (And for those who care, Pilot mountain appears in a lot of the films I’ve written. It’s seen in Junebug, and Goodbye To All That, as well.) There is the Greensboro International Airport 30 minutes away. The climate (especially the Fall, and Spring) is delightful. And, Winston Salem is the home of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. On Goodbye To All That we had over 45 alumni and current students of their Film School working in our cast and crew.
But no tax breaks.
Nothing in independent filmmaking seems to make sense economically. There are other reasons, obviously, why one makes a film, or any work of art. So when I went out to try to raise funds for this film I clearly elucidated to my prospective “investors” that they would not make a profit, and they probably wouldn’t make their money back. I said that one had to think of this endeavor like they were buying a work of art. The film will exist. Hopefully, they will like it. If they want, they can have their name on it. And they can know, and tell their friends, that they helped bring it into creation. I got a lot of no’s, but I got enough yeses to get my film made. God bless them, every one. In the legitimate theatre “investors” used to be called “angels” – for a reason.
So we shot, for 17 days, in February 2016 on a 150 year old unoccupied tobacco farm that I found by driving around East Bend and then locating the man whose father had built the place, who lived down the road. He was dubious, at first, but his niece, who takes care of his affairs, told him she had had some experience with filmmaking. George Clooney shot some of Leatherheads in Yadkin county (In 2008. When there were incentives). And the niece had heard that the movie people were very nice, and left things the way they found them. Thank you, George.
I got the house, and the outbuildings, the shot of Pilot mountain, and I got the land that I had imagined. I got UNCSA alumni for some of the crew. I rented facilities and did my post production at the Film School, hiring a handful of the faculty as my Editor, Sound Designer, and Post Production Supervisor. I also got five fantastic actors: Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Francis Guinan, and Steve Coulter. Not a southerner in the mix. But they came to East Bend, and they met the people who opened their church hall for our cast and crew to have a place to take their meals. They heard the accents. They saw the faces. They experienced the severe Andrew Wyeth winter beauty of the leafless trees, the intense blue sky, and the barren fields. And they believed in the story, as I imagined it. MM
Abundant Acreage Available will open in theaters September 29, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures. All photos courtesy of Gravitas.