The Asheville Film Board’s ambitious drive to promote film production in the area is really nothing new. No less a light than Thomas Edison came to Western North Carolina back in 1911 to shoot short films. And in 1921, Asheville provided the setting for Conquest of Canaan.
Asheville and surrounding areas — particularly Biltmore Estate — have been seen in many productions over the years, ranging from Tap Roots (1948) to The Swan (1956) to Being There (1979) to Hannibal (2001). Our mountains stood in for New York’s Adirondacks in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and Lake Lure saw duty as a Catskills resort in Dirty Dancing (1987).
The area’s scenic beauty, combined with Asheville’s unique architecture, has made Western North Carolina naturally attractive to filmmakers. The film board aims to enhance that appeal, along with networking local talent and encouraging a home-grown film industry. One way they’re attempting to do this is through the Film Forum series, in which people working in the industry share their knowledge and experience with the community.
Producer, co-producer, associate producer, executive producer … we’ve seen those terms forever on movie credits, but what exactly do they mean? That was one of the questions addressed at the second Film Forum presentation, Producing — Nuts and Bolts. And though the elastic vagaries of Hollywood’s credits system (a term like “associate producer,” for example, may merely mean that this is the one person who will associate with the producer) prevented that question from getting an authoritative answered, the forum did provide a great deal of useful and even inspiring information.
Production designer/scenic artist Gayle Wurthner (Songcatcher, Blood Ties, The Long Walk Home, The Music Box, Ironweed) played host to seven presenters active in the production field, who spoke on the complicated, frequently frustrating and sometimes downright insane process of getting a project “off the ground.” Producer Rob Labrecque — a veteran of more than 50 projects, including such feature films as Lone Star, Crusoe and My Dog Skip — defined the functions of a producer and addressed the financial impact of film production on a community such as Asheville, citing the amazing amount of money that even a relatively low-budget production can generate.
WLOS-TV producer Robin Turner — who has previously worked for MTV, CBS and the A&E Network and is a member of the North Carolina Film Commission — addressed the issues surrounding the production of TV documentaries. Asheville-based producer/director Paul Bonesteel of Bonesteel Films, who has eight feature-length documentaries to his credit, shared some of his own experiences in the day-to-day process of independent filmmaking, including how to survive while pursuing your goal of being a working filmmaker.
Independent filmmaker Buffy Queen — who co-produced the locally shot film Southern Belles — offered anecdotal advice on producing (which, she said, “is like planning a wedding every day”). And after posing a pointed question (“First of all, is there anyone in the audience who is independently wealthy?”), Queen went on to address the tricky business of finding backing for film projects: who to approach, how to approach them and, perhaps most significantly, when and how to realize that your potential backer isn’t going to pan out. Ironwood Productions’ Kurt Mann — who specializes in television documentaries and educational programs on health, social activism and the environment — shared his perspectives on how to package and present your project to prospective outlets, especially the ever-growing cable-TV industry.
The theatrical world — and its crossover relationship with the filmmaking community — was represented by Robbin Farquhar, the artistic and executive director of Flat Rock Playhouse, and Asheville Community Theatre Executive Director Peter Carver. Focusing on the connection between stagecraft and filmcraft, Farquhar touched on such topics as the unending search for new material and the best way to reach an audience. Carver offered practical advice on better understand exactly what is involved in a production — from painting flats to directing actors. He also stressed the importance of establishing a good working relationship among the community’s various creative factions, reminding filmmakers that the Asheville Community Theatre is a tremendous local resource for props, costumes and acting talent.
About 80 people turned out for this second Asheville Film Board program (the first one dealt with actors and extras). Most of them had some connection with filmmaking. One woman talked about her experiences working on a 3-D movie for legendary North Carolina schlock producer Earl Owensby (Chain Gang, Tales of the Third Dimension, Dogs of Hell); others were aspiring screenwriters or up-and-coming maverick filmmakers exploring the new opportunities spawned by the digital revolution. All in all, it was a receptive, savvy crowd that was clearly intent on exploring the possibility of creating a genuine Asheville filmmaking community — which is really what the 16-member Asheville Film Board is all about.
“This presentation was centered on producing, since hopefully we’re going to do many of these forums, and my thinking was that we should start near the beginning of a project,” explains Wurthner, who heads up the film board’s educational subcommittee (which is responsible for the forums). The third in the series, a forum on production design and art direction, is slated to feature production designer Jeannine Claudia Oppewall, whose work can be seen in such high-profile films as Wonderboys, L.A. Confidential and Pleasantville. “Then we’d like to do screenwriting, and we’d like to have more time to prep for that so that we can get a really good screenwriter in here,” notes Wurthner.
Future forums may cover such specialized areas as costume design, lighting design and makeup. But the idea behind the forums is not only to educate the public about filmmaking, but to enable the public to educate the film board. “It’s also to help bring the filmmaking community together, so that any sort of insular or competitive spirit that can happen in a competitive business would not happen,” Wurthner adds.
“We’re a board, not a commission,” stresses Wurthner. “The [Western North Carolina] Film Commissioner, Mary Nell Webb, represents all of Western North Carolina and does a great job. … But that’s a big area to represent, and she needs to remain politically neutral. … Therefore, if [a smaller film project] is really only interested in Asheville, and she’s busy working on a big blockbuster picture with huge stars, she needs to court that picture into Asheville because it puts a lot of money into the hotel industry and into the community. Obviously, she’s going to work on the big one, because it brings in the most [money]. And if she’s busy doing that and a little one comes in that can’t afford to pay its own scouts, she treats it, of course, but when they run out of free scouting days … the smaller production may move elsewhere.”
Enter the Asheville Film Board, offering these smaller productions free labor, as Wurthner puts it, “to do whatever. … It’s always going to go to the film commissioner first. The film board can’t do anything unless the film commissioner feeds incoming films to us. So our ability to make a difference is limited by the fact that we’re not a commission [meaning they’re not state appointed, with the funding that can bring] … and we don’t have any money, which is another big limitation. So we thought one of the things we could do is offer these forums to bring people together and help the flow of information from producer to producer and from art department to art department — back and forth — so that we can ‘grow’ the film crew here and become a better-skilled group of people and a bigger group of people.”
Eventually, the board hopes to expand its activities to include a film festival and perhaps even a film-production studio in Asheville. One advantage that a film board does have over a film commission is that a board is not restricted to relying on local resources but is free to fill the gaps in local talent by bringing in people from other areas.
“I’m hoping that the more we do, the more we talk, the more we share, the closer we get to spinning projects out of Asheville and supporting our own and becoming a really close community in which information is freely disseminated to everyone. That when a producer and/or director comes to Asheville they are given all of the talent to choose from and not just a choice few. [I hope that] it just becomes a bigger, broader creative community,” explains Wurthner. “What I think came out of this forum was the revelation of people with skills and talents who we never knew were around previously — to say nothing of the friendships that come out of this, with people with like interests meeting. That’s a big thing, and I’m not sure how you measure that against the other contributions that were made.”
But perhaps the biggest impact that the Asheville Film Board may have is boosting local awareness of the economic impact the film industry can have. When a big-budget film comes to town, it pours cash into the community — affecting restaurants, hotels and many other sectors of the business community. But even small films can pay dividends that may help convince the community at large that supporting the film industry makes sense.
“There’s no way to measure the exposure a person gets for putting their name at the end of a film that says, ‘Special thanks to the support from whomever.’ How do you measure how many more people that brings to your business? There’s just no advertising like it — seeing the name on the big screen,” concludes Wurthner.