Asheville-based writer/director Paul Schattel has just completed his first feature film, slated to premiere on April 26 at Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company. It’s called 78, named for “a road that runs from Charleston all the way down through Georgia, across Alabama and Mississippi, and up to Memphis,” explains Schattel. “It’s a real sort of ‘dark heart of the South’ kind of road. Elvis Presley used it a lot. James Earl Ray used it when he went to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr.”
Schattel is quick to point out, however, that there isn’t much reference to the road in the film. “The movie is a mini-DV epic — a 90-minute feature project that recounts one afternoon in the life of three different stories that take place along Highway 78. It’s sort of like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts in approach. It’s the same idea, if Short Cuts was set in the South. Instead of seven stories, I’m only telling three — though each of the stories is longer than the ones in Altman’s film.
“It’s a first project — with all the good things and bad things that come along with a first project,” he continues. “Basically, we’re learning on the job.” Schattel not only wrote and directed the film, but also produced and edited it himself. “I had a cinematographer, a sound guy, an assistant director and two different associate producers, who helped obtain locations for the film,” he adds.
Making a first-time, low-to-no budget film is an experience like no other, Schattel reports — especially when it comes to getting people’s cooperation. “I’ve really found that as a low-budget filmmaker, if you ask you shall receive,” he reveals. “A lot of times, a business might ask you not to include their sign in the movie. For example, we shot outside one business up on Leicester Highway, and the owner just asked us not to include his sign. Otherwise, we had full run of the place. It’s really amazing what you can get if you just ask people — and also the talent in the film. There are so many talented people in this town wanting to work. It wasn’t a one-man show at all. A lot of people showed up and kept showing up day after day.”
One major drawback to this kind of production, he notes, is that many people think it would be a lot of fun to make a movie — only to find out that, in reality, it isn’t all that much fun. Especially for actors, making a film is a frequently uncomfortable, tedious experience consisting mainly of waiting for something to happen. Newcomers can quickly lose interest — a significant problem when you’re working with unpaid talent. “I’ve worked on a couple of local films around here, and I learned that unless you’re the one calling the shots, it’s really boring from any standpoint,” says Schattel. “Unless you’re the director or one of the major creative people, you might as well be out bagging groceries somewhere, because the experience is virtually the same.”
Given all of that, it’s amazing that projects such as 78 actually come to fruition. “One thing I think I did really well in making the film was screening people who wanted to work — or thought they wanted to work — on the movie, in the sense that I knew [that some people] had sort of lackluster motivations and that I wasn’t going to be able to count on them. So everybody that was on the film was really motivated.” The no-budget filmmaker who can accomplish such a task is halfway there already.
And when it came to assembling the finished product, Schattel learned the delights of having to wade through 22 one-hour tapes to hook the scenes together. Another drawback — though increasingly less of one — is the stigma of the “video look,” which Schattel has somewhat circumvented by transferring his movie through a filter called Cinemotion. “It’s the same process that they use to transfer film to videotape,” he explains. “What it does is change the video from its 30 frames per second to 24 frames per second like a film, and that makes all the difference in the world. The video then takes on a very filmlike quality. It doesn’t have that richness of image, but it does have that 24-frames-a-second feel to it that gives it a little bit larger-than-life feel.” In other words, the finished product doesn’t have that home-movie look.
Schattel is part of a filmmaking group called the Carolina Network of Independent Media Artists. “I guess it’s more like a … digital group,” he says. “It incorporates Web video and 3-D animation and even special effects. … Really, it’s like the next wave of a filmmaking group. It’s the young people who are sort of cutting-edge at this moment. It’s local people who have been frustrated at how little they’ve been used or how little opportunity there is to be used in local productions and productions that are coming in from out of town. They’re getting together to share knowledge and resources and network and try to create their own opportunities.”
Other group members are also making movies happen. “There’s James Suttles, who made a work called Lightning Mountain, this amazing short film,” Schatell recounts. “And there’s Thomas Oliver, whose group is called H20 Video, and they specialize in such things as extreme-whitewater videos. So you have all these different groups of filmmakers coming together. You’ve got narrative filmmakers like me, you’ve got whitewater videos. … Tammy Hopkins, who’s in the group, did a great documentary called Women of These Hills. Basically, it’s a group of emerging filmmakers — people who have done some film already but are not masters at it, where they’re capable of earning the big bucks. We still have a lot to learn.”
Reems Creek filmmaker Debra Roberts, whose splendid performance documentary about poet Glenis Redmond — Mama’s Magic — aired as part of UNC-TV’s Visions series last fall, is active in the local movie-making scene as well. Following Mama’s Magic, Roberts decided to hone her craft by opting to make 200 public-service-announcement videos — though she took time out to create two documentaries along the way. “I did one called Turtle Mountain Tales,” she explains. “My brother-in-law is an incredible puppeteer, and he tours the country. … [In the documentary], you see the [puppet] show, but you also go behind the scenes so kids can see how he does what he does, how he builds the puppets and such. And then I did another instructional film for somebody locally.”
Currently, Roberts is doing three PSAs that offer compassionate responses from the farmers in North Carolina to farmers in Europe whose livestock have are devastated by hoof-and-mouth disease. “We’ve got farmers doing a moment of silence in one PSA, and we’ve got a second one where farmers are saying words of support and encouragement. The third … [involves] an Iroquois Elder saying an outright prayer for the farmers. Then we’re going to send them over [to Europe] so that a lot of farmers who are quarantined on the farms with their families till this whole thing’s over can get some encouragement.”
With these PSAs, Roberts, who is meticulous in her work, inches just a little nearer her goal of producing 200 of the short pieces before she tackles a feature film. “I’m two down. Three more will be finished in two weeks, and we’ve got four in preproduction.”