James and David Rowe achieve filmmaking dreams with ‘Breakwater’

TWO OF A KIND: Asheville natives and brothers David Rowe, left, and James Rowe had their most in-depth artistic collaboration yet on James' new film, "Breakwater." Photo by Cinequest

Joel and Ethan Coen. Albert and David Maysles. Peter and Bobby Farrelly. David and Jerry Zucker. Albert and Allen Hughes.

Brother duos have a long, fruitful history in the film industry. And with the release of the new thriller Breakwater, Asheville natives James and David Rowe join that esteemed lineage.

Written and directed by James with musical contributions from David, the film follows newly paroled con Dovey (Darren Mann, Paramount+’s “1923”) as he fulfills a promise to his incarcerated friend Ray (Dermot Mulroney, My Best Friend’s Wedding) to check in on the older man’s estranged daughter (Alyssa Goss). But upon his arrival in the North Carolina coastal town of Currituck, Dovey finds himself caught in a dangerous web of lies and deception.

As Oscar season revs up, Xpress spoke with the Rowes about their latest collaboration, the state of the North Carolina film industry and how their hometown continues to inspire them.

Choose your own adventure

The Rowes grew up in North Asheville in a home where their parents, Carol and Gary, encouraged the boys’ creative pursuits. Music was an early love for both brothers, each of whom took guitar lessons at Musician’s Workshop, which recently closed after a 56-year run.

“[David] got his first drum set there and then he got much better than me at guitar,” James says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I have to figure out something else to do that will make me happy and that I can have some success in.’”

While David — who recently moved to Mills River after two decades in Athens, Ga. — formed bands and began playing local clubs in the early 1990s, James was mentored by Asheville High School art, film and photography teacher Tom Williams about the collaborative nature of filmmaking. During that time, James says the city’s arts scene began to feel more vibrant and accessible for young people, resulting in an increasing number of film production opportunities.

“It allowed me to start to dip my foot in the pool of commercials that were shooting there,” says James, who’s based in Los Angeles but keeps a home in Asheville. “And I got on as a production assistant on this or that and then ultimately [was cast in] The Last of the Mohicans, the Michael Mann film that came to town.”

Fresh out of high school, James played a British soldier and was on the Asheville-area set for six weeks in summer 1991. In addition to being around Mann, he kept watch on cinematographer Dante Spinotti and stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe, absorbing all that he could.

“I didn’t know much about filmmaking at all; but just standing on that set, being near a camera all the time … it just allowed me to watch the process of making a very big movie,” James says. “That’s where I really got bitten by the bug and ultimately decided to pursue that when I was at [UNC] Chapel Hill.”

Sibling synchronicity

A few years later, David was studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston when James asked if he’d like to write the guitar parts for Sax Man, the jazz-inspired short film he’d made as an undergraduate exit project. David agreed and recruited some of his classmates to round out the score.

PBS bought the short film, and it earned James an invitation to attend the American Film Institute as a directing fellow. While there, he developed his first feature screenplay, which became the 1999 crime drama Blue Ridge Fall, starring Chris Isaak and Amy Irving.

Though James wanted David to score his feature debut, his brother was on the road as a touring musician. Greg Edmonson (Fox’s “King of the Hill”) stepped in as the film’s composer. After the project was complete, James turned his attention to screenwriting and teaching for 20-plus years. But when the opportunity arose to direct Breakwater, he prioritized working with David again.

“I knew there was going to be a lot of regional music — a lot of roots rock, and that’s what David does,” James says. “So I said, ‘Whatever song we use for this centerpiece performance that [actor] Celia Rose Gooding[’s character Jess] ends up singing, I would love for you to rearrange that song for a live performance and for Celia’s voice.”

James selected The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ “Kissin’ and Cussin’,” and David recorded every instrumental part for the new arrangement. But as the time to shoot the scene neared, the New York-based Gooding, whose work in the rock musical Jagged Little Pill earned her a Grammy Award as well as a Tony Award nomination, had yet to track her vocals.

TIME TO SHINE: David Rowe, left, plays guitar with vocalist Celia Rose Gooding’s Jess in a scene from his brother James Rowe’s film “Breakwater.” Photo by Dana Hawley

In turn, the team arranged for David to set up a makeshift studio at the Hilton in Wilmington, where the cast and crew were staying during the shoot. However, while waiting in the lobby for Gooding’s arrival, he felt as if he were making a big mistake.

“I’m like, ‘Man, this is just not professional. I wonder what she’s going to say,’” David says. “She’s like, ‘I’ve recorded a million times like this in New York. You’re going to have me sing into a curtain, aren’t you?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, exactly. Welcome to the studio, Grammy-award-winning singer. There’s some Hilton coffee over here.’”

David also recruited musicians to play alongside him as the bandmates of Gooding’s character. Additionally, he helped the film’s Spanish composer, Roque Baños who, according to James, was having trouble finding guitarists in Madrid who could play a certain way. After hearing David’s arrangement of “Kissin’ and Cussin’,” Baños invited him out to Los Angeles to help write and record some guitar parts.

Carolina incentives

In addition to filming in Wilmington during the 25-day shoot, the Breakwater production also got to use the Currituck Beach Lighthouse as well as the Hoke Correctional Institution in Raeford, both of which play key roles in the story.

James says his project was one of approximately six films and TV shows simultaneously shooting in Wilmington at that point in 2021. He feels it’s a sign that the state’s industry is finally bouncing back from the 2016 HB2 “bathroom bill,” which ostracized the transgender community and its allies, prompting productions to shun North Carolina. And the state’s current 25% grant-based system, which made it possible for Breakwater to shoot in its intended setting, is likewise helpful.

“Incentives will always be important, because so many states now offer them and they are a big part of the calculus when putting a movie together,” he says. “Cinespace [Studios] bought Screen Gems’ sound stages in Wilmington last year, and Dark Horse Studios has a few stages down there, too. The infrastructure is there, and the crews are really good.”

But before Rowe’s production got to the coast, Asheville unintentionally played a key role in the film’s development. When the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in spring 2020, James sensed it would be less hectic for him and his family to be at their Asheville home than in Los Angeles. The timing coincided with his planning work for Breakwater and wound up enhancing that stage of the production.

“It was a great place to prep because I think there would have been a lot more distractions had I been in LA,” James says. “Much of the [script’s] final draft was written in Asheville, surrounded only by my family and the neighborhood bears.”

He adds that being in Western North Carolina lessened the tension of an inherently anxious time and allowed him to “just focus on imagining the film and how it would be ultimately realized.” And by working remotely in the previsualization process with storyboard artist Tyler Gooden, cinematographer Kai Krauss and production designer Michael Paul Clausen, this block of the creative team discovered a new kind of freedom when it came to sharing visual ideas.

“All of us were finding out the benefits of Zoom and the ability to throw stuff up really quickly [over video conferencing] and show stuff in a way that maybe we had never done before COVID,” James says. “We would have normally been in a room with tear sheets or emailing stuff and then talking about it later.”

The ability to virtually combine forces makes working from Asheville more plausible for filmmakers, and the Rowes see  potential among local creatives to accomplish their cinematic goals. They encourage like-minded artists to team up and start making short films, music videos and other projects — and the brothers may be looking for some of these dedicated individuals themselves before long.

“What David and I would love to see, and can imagine happening, is a more organic film movement arising in Asheville out of what is already a rich music and art scene, the way it did in Austin back in the ’90s,” James says. “There’s so much talent here — all those musicians, performers and artisans make it a very attractive place to collaborate. We’d love to help spark that and we have a project we’re working on right now that could land here, if it comes together the way we hope.”

To learn more, visit avl.mx/d9p.


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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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