January of 1993, I was surprised to be back in my hometown of
Sylva, North Carolina, where I’d been flown by Warner Bros. to
act in a small role in The Fugitive.The scene I was involved
in was the famous train wreck scene, for which they used the
Great Smoky Mountain Railway a tourist train that operates during
the vacation seasons. While I was there, my friend and fellow
actor Sean Bridges showed me a script that he had written called Paradise
. It was written to be shot in our hometown, and was
about two boys in 1934 who rob the Great Smoky Mountain Railway

I told Sean I thought the script
was great. The two boys were lively and distinct characters,
and the plot was compelling and had masterful touches. At the
time, however, Sean wanted to try and get it made through conventional
avenues, and I was struggling to get my acting career going,
having just moved to L.A.. It didn’t even occur to us at this
time to produce it ourselves.

Two years later, our respective
situations had changed. Sean had been working steadily as an
actor in the Southeast, and I had done fairly well in Los Angeles,
having landed a regular role in the TV series American Gothic,
which ironically had relocated me back to North Carolina. In
March of that year, as the TV series was winding down, Sean had
decided he wanted to make the movie independently, and he thought
I could direct it. While I had never considered directing before
the moment Sean suggested it, I was reasonably confident I could
direct this script. It was set in the mountains that Sean and
I loved, and it was about things and people that I knew pretty
well. And, perhaps most importantly I felt like the script was
so good that I wouldn’t be able to screw it up too badly.

So we set out to make a movie.
I knew some friends of mine who had done it, so I called them
up. They sent me copies of their budgets, their prospectuses,
their business plans. Reading through them, I thought I was going
to puke. This kind of work was not what I thought making a movie
was going to be like. We went through all the possibilities of
size and scope16mm, Super 16, no-budget, low-budget-and began
to realize that we needed some help. We were referred to an independent
producer in South Carolina named Peter Wentworth, who had produced,
among other things, Metropolitan and Other Voices,
Other Rooms
. He read Paradise Falls, loved it, and
wanted to be involved. He took the bulk of the budgeting and
planning responsibilities, leaving the most creative job of all-getting
the money to Sean and me.

Sean’s father is a lawyer and
my father is an accountant, so they helped us form a Limited
Liability Company, making us legally able to accept money. Sean
and I targeted people in our hometown that we knew: a) had some
disposable income, and b) were patrons of the arts. Our pitch
consisted of telling them the story, assuring them that we wanted
to make an accurate movie about mountain people, not the typical
Hollywood viewpoint (stupid, inbred, racist, etc.), and telling
them bluntly that this had to be money they could afford to lose.
We also gave them an “executive summary” a five-page document
which outlined our business plan and delineated the revenue flow
(should there be any).

This approach was very effective.
The people who invested in Paradise Falls did so because
they believed in the story and supported the principles we were
trying to achieve, not because they thought they were going to
make a fortune. The first person we went to was a legendarily
eccentric and very wealthy physician.We spent a couple of distribution
success of hours with him, telling him the story, how we despised
Hollywood’s vision of the South, etc. He promised us a huge sum
of money, approximately one-third of our budget. We were ecstatic-our
pitch now included the fact that we had already raised one-third
of our budget. It helped our momentum tremendously We almost
reached our goal when we found out that our eccentric old benefactor
had been “gotten to” by his wife and accountant, who had talked
him out of investing in a risky thing like a movie. We were crushed,
but at the same time, having his “promise” probably helped us
get the money that we had.

We knew that we had a summer
movie, that crops had to be up in the fields for our story to
work, so we had to finish shooting the movie before the season
changed. In other words, we had to shoot in August. Amazingly,
our first day of principal photography was August 6.

There were many surprises along
the way The director of photography that I’d initially approached
dropped out 10 days before shooting. Luckily Wentworth recommended
that we take a look at the reel of Mark Petersen, a friend of
his from Atlanta. Sean and I loved his reel. We asked him to
come up to Sylva and go scouting with us. We took him to some
of our out-of-the-way locations, places that were fairly difficult
to get to, some of them barely reachable even with only the skeleton
crew I knew that Mark was our man almost immediately, but the
waterfall location, where our heroes fall into the water, closed
the deal. Mark waded out into the middle of the waist-deep, icecold
water and said, “We can put the camera right here!” I said, “Petersen,
you’re the man!” I told Mark that I wanted a John Ford look to
our film, with the landscape of the Smoky Mountains used like
a character in the film, and our two heroes often shown small
in the frame. Mark was very excited about shooting the film this

Wentworth assembled our crew
from people that he knew in South Carolina, North Carolina, and
Tennessee. Most of our department heads were fairly experienced
in their departments, but had never been the boss before, and
were willing to take less pay for the credit. We had four people
in each department, and most of our grips were also actors in
the film from time to time. The actors all came from the Southeast,
and were people that Sean and I had worked with over the years.
We worked out “summer camp” style housing for our crew, putting
our 30 crew members in three houses and a trailer that we rented
for two months, and housed our actors at a bed and breakfast
run by the parents of a high school classmate of mine. We did
our catering through a couple of local restaurants, and borrowed
trucks and vans from friends and family members. All in all,
this very cooperative familial atmosphere continued throughout
the shoot. Everyone liked the script, felt like we were making
something wonderful, and enjoyed coming to work every day.

On our first day of principal
photography we shot on Tennant Mountain, near Waynesville, NC.
We had a threemile trip up a washed-out logging road, and another
two mile hike up a path to the top of the mountain. We also had
some scenes planned to shoot on the way up the mountain, with
the big scene on top ending the day. This day was crucial; this
was the “Monument Valley” for our John Ford film.

We decided to do this first
because it was our most difficult location (and I figured we
could tell the crew that the shoot would never be any harder
than this!). Even if it took three hours each way, we’d still
have six hours to shoot. We only took the camera, film, a tripod,
a high hat and some shiny boards. We hired a local boy of about
12 with a htde Honda four-wheeler to drive our equipment out
the logging road. But even this vehicle would only go so far;
the last little bit we had to walk, straight up, with the camera
on the back of Eric Leftridge, our first A.C.. The day went very
well, with only one casualty (a mild heart attack for our prop
master, but he survived). It was a seven-page day on our first
day, and while it was hard, we were blessed with good weather,
and it was simple: set up the camera and shoot, reflect the sun
as needed.

This taught us a lesson which
I used throughout the shoot. Whenever possible I moved the indoor
scenes outside, which saved a lot of lighting time, and also
capitalized on our strengths (the beauty of the countryside)
and minimized our weaknesses (lack of period indoor sets).

I had also envisioned a Steadicam
for many sequences, including the climactic shootout. Wentworth
soon convinced me that this was budgetarily impossible. But by
creative use of our 100 feet of dolly track, we were able to
create the effects I wanted. In retrospect, I am glad we did
not have a Steadicam. I think, having just acted in a TV series
where the Steadicam was used ad nauseum even for the simplest
coverage, I had an inflated view of its importance.The classic
John Ford style of Paradise Falls was actually enhanced
by our lack of dependence on the Steadicam, and today I wear
it like a badge of honor. I’ve been known to go into drunken
tirades about how Steadicams have ruined movies.

In the barn dance sequence we
used our circular dolly to shoot the clog dancing sequence, and
also for a key transition, circling two young lovers kissing
on the dance floor and ending the circle with them kissing on
the front porch after he has taken her home, with a nice dissolve
between the two shots.The barn dance sequence also contains what
might be my favorite shot in the film.There was a hole in the
floor of the barn, and the stables were underneath the dance
floor. We were able to set up a shot where we could dolly back
through the stables with a horse being led in and boom up through
the floor to reveal the dance going on overhead. This gave us
some great production values, and came about as a result of our
walking into the barn and saying, “Hey, there’s a hole in the
floor, let’s use it”

Many things in the film came
about as a result of not being able to do what we had originally
intended and having to improvise. During our one day with the
Great Smoky Mountain Railway (which was all we could afford),
we realized that Sean Bridges, our star, was not going to be
able to leap off a bank onto the moving train, which we had envisioned
in the script. So we improvised a sequence whereby he “chickens
out”, and chases the train down after he’s unable to force himself
to jump on top of it. This actually worked to our benefit; it
humanized the character immeasurably.
We also had a huge fight sequence in the last reel that we wound up staging
in a long shot with the fight happening offscreen in sound effects.We set up
the camera in a locked-off symmetrical shot of the front porch, and had the
characters move in and out of the house within the shot. We did this partially
to save time, but again the decision turned into a strength for us: instead
of a fight sequence that we did not have time to cover well, we have what sounds
like a truly horrible beating taking place that the audience must imagine for

We shot the film in 23 days.
Our longest day was 15 hours. We brought the film in under budget
and on time. This past year we won awards in five festivals,
including Best Feature Film under $1 Million Dollars at the Hollywood
Film Festival in August.

I think we were successful because
we sincerely loved and believed in our project, and we made the
movie for all the right reasons. We wanted to pay homage to the
place where we grew up; to show the people we grew up with as
we knew them to be, not how Hollywood has depicted them. We hired
our friends and colleagues, people that we respected, and trusted
them to do their jobs well. I wish we had had more money, more
time, and more coverage, but all in all, Paradise Falls was a
difficult but wonderful experience. I am proud to be associated
with it.

But our biggest mistake lay
in our naivete m thinking that if we’d made a good movie, the
marketing would just …flow Hah. Be sure you spend time on marketing
materials-like stills, for goodness sakes. It’s been so frustrating
to win festivals, get all this acclaim from audiences, and to
be told repeatedly by independent film companies: “Really great
movie. No Stars. Can’t sell it.”

What you have to realize is that if you do
not have stars, you have to do the marketing campaign yourself.You
have to show them how to sell your film, because they cannot
or will not take the time to come up with an effective strategy
themselves. If you have a “star” in your movie, it’s easy for
them: they can hang it on the star. One executive told us that
it was easier to sell a bad movie with one star than a good one
with no stars. Bear in mind that the quality of your film has
practically no bearing on whether or not a distribution company
will want it. Once you realize that 99 percent of the people
in the film industry do not care how good a given film is, the
world will make much more sense to you. They just want something
they can sell, and you have to show them how to sell it. Still
pictures are the key. Make sure you get them. Make the poster.
Write the copy. Show them how to sell it. Or better yet, just
sell out. Get a damn star. Doesn’t matter who. Save yourself
the heartache. MM