Filmmaker transplants discuss working in Asheville

SCREAM TEAM: The husband-and-wife filmmaking duo of Mason McDonald and Tabitha McDonald prepare a shot on the set of a recent production. Photo courtesy of Dark Red Horror

The Last of the MohicansThe FugitiveMy Fellow AmericansDirty DancingBeing There.

These and other movies established Western North Carolina as a desirable destination for Hollywood productions from the late 1970s into the 2000s. And while film and television projects are still shot in the area, the scene is nowhere near the level it once was a decade ago.

Back when the likes of The Hunger Games came to the region in 2011, filmmakers were enticed by the state’s 25% tax credit for qualifying productions — a program that reached its peak in 2012 when producers were awarded $84.7 million in grants. However, the state legislature replaced the program in 2014 with one offering only $10 million in total possible grants.

The change resulted in an exodus of productions to Georgia and other Southeastern states with more appealing incentives. During that time, the Zach Galifianakis comedy Masterminds (2016) and the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) shot in WNC, though statewide film production spending plunged. While the total available funding for state rebates has partially rebounded with the help of a $31 million annual allocation, the effects of the tax incentive program’s temporary disruption linger.

Independent filmmakers nevertheless continue to relocate to the area — not for the promise of rebates, but more pragmatic reasons that enhance their craft. Xpress spoke with three such creators about the allure of the region, what keeps them here and how they’d like to see it grow.

Making lemonade

“In 2014, Asheville was No. 1 in MovieMaker magazine of places to move to for aspiring filmmakers in the United States,” says Mason McDonald. “In 2015, it was gone — off the list entirely.”

The formerly bustling industry was part of what attracted McDonald and his wife, Tabitha, to Asheville in 2015 — and, considering the modest scales of their initial projects, they figured the decrease in tax credits wasn’t a factor they’d need to worry about for a few years. Originally from Oklahoma, the McDonalds met while Mason was shooting a student film. Upon graduating from Oklahoma City Community College, they decided to start fresh in a different place and were strongly considering Austin, Texas, as their new home. But while visiting friends in Johnson City, Tenn., they took a day trip to Asheville, knowing next to nothing about the city, and returned to Oklahoma ready to move to Buncombe County.

“We really love the mountains, and having a balance between a creative community, the outdoors and, like, ‘city — but not really,’ was important. Asheville hit all of those marks,” Tabitha says. “And it’s a nice hub. It’s easy to go do work in Atlanta, Charlotte and Knoxville without sacrificing a ton of time.”

Though large-scale opportunities largely evaporated after the McDonalds arrived, they discovered a passion for commercial work, both in their ability to make a living from it and to still tell stories while working with clients. Thus was born Art Before Comfort, their company offering videography, photography and other services. That in turn helps fund Dark Red Horror, a narrative film company they founded in 2018. Their most recent short film, The Night Courier, centers on a woman who secures victims for vampires and features such local actors as Emily Tynan McDaniel, Drez Ryan and Jennifer Trudrung.

Rediscovering the spark

While the McDonalds moved to Asheville with filmmaking in mind, Lenny Lenox did so wondering if such work was a thing of the past. In 2011, he earned a B.A. in film from Full Sail University in Winter Park, Fla., where he gained experience in several departments. The diverse skill set served him well when he moved to Los Angeles, where he gradually found work with sound, camera and other crews. Lenox enjoyed what he was doing, but by 2018, he craved a lifestyle change and a better work/life balance.

Around that time, his parents retired to Waynesville, not far from the Cherokee and Balsam Mountain area where the family used to camp in the summers to escape the Florida heat. Lenox soon relocated to Asheville and took a step back from filmmaking for just over a year, before his desire to create returned. A chance connection with a group of young filmmakers working on a Star Wars fan film further kick-started his passion, and he began writing a feature-length script called Things I Should Have Said, about a man battling substance abuse who regains his purpose in life after befriending a boy who’s being bullied at school.

“I got a lot of great feedback from that script as I was submitting it to film screenplay competitions around the country and ended up getting to the second round of the Austin Film Festival,” Lenox says. “They gave me a ‘recommend’ as a writer, so that really made me feel good because I’ve never gone that route before. I’d just kind of written and then gone out and produced scripts.”

At the suggestion of several producers, he shot a proof of concept in October 2020, taking a few scenes and assembling a cast and crew with help from Asheville-based cinematographer James Suttles. Filming took place at Lake James State Park in McDowell County. Lenox finished postproduction work by Christmas, and this spring it was chosen for the LA Shorts International Film Festival, which is taking place digitally throughout July.

Pros and cons

The ability to harness the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains are a major asset for Lenox as he looks to expand Things I Should Have Said into a feature. Another plus, he notes, is having the cityscapes of Charlotte and Raleigh relatively nearby, as well as the coast.

“North Carolina has all of that landscape that’s perfect for any filmmaker who wants to tell a story, no matter where it may be set,” Lenox says. “And other than the rain, the weather is conducive to what the filmmaker wants to get.”

Mason McDonald adds that the mix of urban decay and new-build structures downtown offers sufficient variety for most of his and Tabitha’s projects. Furthermore, the couple say they’ve never been able to land locations more easily than in Asheville, which they credit to the community’s overall support for creators. Most of the McDonalds’ projects are filmed on private land, eliminating the need for permitting.

“We keep location agreements in hand and have high communication with the owners, as well as insurance in place,” Tabitha says. “And we haven’t yet needed road closures or the use of any public space. Other than filing an intent to film, it’s been very easy to navigate. Permitting in other cities can be trickier, but it depends on what you are shooting, of course.”

Still, all three filmmakers note that, while the local talent pool is a gifted set, it’s a small group from which to choose. The McDonalds say they’ve worked with or at least know most of the actors and technicians in Asheville, and that these collaborators are often busy, forcing the McDonalds to hire people from Atlanta, Charlotte or Greenville, S.C.

Having worked in LA and briefly in Atlanta as a background actor, Lenox sees room for local industry members to better establish themselves. He points to simple changes that creatives can make, such as having their demo reel readily available and clearly branding their field of expertise so that someone looking for that particular role can more easily find them.

“In LA, if you throw a stone, you’re going to hit a producer or an actor or whatever,” Lenox says. “But when you look them up, you can find out right away what they do instead of having to look through lines and lines of pages until maybe you just give up.”

While there’s room for improvement, Lenox and the McDonalds say that the pros of being a filmmaker in Asheville far outweigh the cons. And as they continue to work within the industry and create new projects, they’re excited to continue to forge connections with fellow filmmakers and see themselves staying put for the foreseeable future.

“I’m happy to say that, right now, I’m living the best of both worlds,” Lenox says. “I’m still loving my life as a filmmaker in this time of my journey, and I really love where I’m living.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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