Attending Wilmington's Cucalorus Film Festival is always an opportunity to take the temperature of the industry and a convenient excuse to keep very late hours among the young and the restless of the Port City. And then there's the lineup of films: a potpourri of North Carolina indie efforts, often produced in the Wilmington area; documentaries, often from the Triangle or Triad; and a couple of high-profile national releases, such as this year's Precious (read our review).
There are also gems from around the world, including two excellent Israeli films: an Israeli-Palestinian surfing doc called God Went Surfing With the Devil, and Surrogate, a carefully wrought, hour-long feature about the use of sex surrogates in therapy. (Indy writer Marc Maximov also attended the festival; look for his thoughts on two of his favorites, the documentaries The Good Soldier and Trust Us, This is All Made Up, on Artery, the Indy's arts blog.)
The news around town about the health of the local film industry—which in recent years has seen the production of such film and television projects as Eastbound and Down, The Secret Life of Bees, One Tree Hill and Nights in Rodanthe—wasn't all that encouraging. While there is still some work to be had, productions have slowed to a trickle in comparison to a decade ago. Longtime locals report that they're having to scour Georgia, South Carolina and parts beyond for employment and that there seems to be an outward migration of talent going on.
What seems clear is that the incentives package passed three years ago, which extended tax credits to productions that met certain in-state production targets, has not succeeded in bringing production back to the highs of the 1990s and early 2000s. Earlier this year, N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue signed a new round of tax incentives intended to help the Tar Heel State keep up with all the other states, like Louisiana, South Carolina and New Mexico, that are scrambling to enlarge their "open for production" shingles. For the moment, things are slow. As camera operator, director and longtime Cucalorus fixture Bo Webb told me, "Right now, we're just hunkering down for 2010," when it's hoped that business will pick up again.
Webb has also worked on an episode of the acclaimed HBO series Eastbound and Down—which was created by Jody Hill and Danny McBride, two members of this decade's great film cohort from University of North Carolina School of the Arts—but says that there's been no word on when shooting will commence for the second season or if the second season will even be set and filmed in North Carolina.
It's a boom-and-bust industry, to be sure, and anxiety comes with the territory for this community, which embraced the movie business after the 1983 production of Firestarter. But one fixture on the Cucalorus scene, Steve Fox, thinks it's time for North Carolina to explore ways to actively develop its own ability to generate productions, rather than simply boost incentives, market the state's charms and hope for the best. During the festival, Fox circulated his proposal for getting the state's universities involved in identifying film-funding models around the world that might be emulated within the state. In an open letter, he writes, "Let's lay claim to our rightful place in the production world and let's finally bring our wandering tribes of North Carolina production workers home where they belong." His proposal can be found on his blog, ncproductionfinance.blogspot.com.
While big productions are scarce in the region right now, in some ways the downturn mirrors national and global film trends. So many mainstream movies, if not primarily generated on computer screens, are made in places where production costs are lower than North Carolina can sensibly muster. Meanwhile, the market for smaller films has gotten tighter and tighter: There are fewer independent distributors now, and the art house business is a difficult one.
In this environment, the most exciting development in recent years in American film has been the emergence of artists who embrace their marginality and make cheap, low-overhead films that rely on the old standbys: strong writing and acting. From such micro-budgeted works as Humpday, Baghead and Funny Ha-Ha to minimally budgeted efforts as Goodbye Solo and Wendy and Lucy, fine movies are being made with very few resources, and they're somehow finding an audience. However, these films aren't the kinds that set civic film industry boosters' pulses racing. After all, low production costs mean not spending money.
On the evidence of two films I've seen in the last two years at Cucalorus, we might start seeing the most exciting talent simply forgo aspirations of commercial success. Lightning Salad Moving Picture, shown last year at Cucalorus, and Americatown, shown as a work in progress this year, are the work of a Wilmington duo that bills itself as the Superkiiids: Jonathan Guggenheim and Cory Howard. Guggenheim and Howard trained with Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles and have built something of a cult following. Together with filmmaker Kenneth Price, a grad student at UNC-Greensboro, they began making sketch comedy videos for YouTube and have since moved on to longer films. The commercial prospects of their work so far are fairly minimal, but in the two films I've seen—unlike so many films, mainstream and otherwise—the exuberance, energy and invention more than justify their existence. Lightning Salad Moving Picture began with a premise involving the two comedians tackling a fourth installment of the Back to the Future movies and ended up as the characters' own breathless, whimsical foray into past, future and alternative universes—in a film held together by their own conviction, unflagging whimsy and the proverbial Scotch tape.
Americatown, which I caught Friday night, sees the Superkiiids hit the road. Working from a Chicken Little premise that was suggested by Dan Brawley, longtime director of Cucalorus, they imagine America as a small town of exactly 1,000 people. Hence, if you walk to this side of town, you'll be in Chicago, if you walk over here, you're in the Grand Canyon, and down there is the southern wall of the town—on the Texas border. Guggenheim, Howard, Price and producer Chad Keith spent last summer traveling to these places, shooting fragments of scenes that would be cut with corresponding fragments shot hundreds or thousands of miles away. A typical Superkiiids gag: The mayor of Americatown needs to send a message to a character called Roosevelt Microsoft (played by Howard; Guggenheim's character is "Plymouth RayBan") on the other side of town. He does so by initiating a game of Telephone, whispering into the ear of an aide, who whispers to another aide. This leads to a montage of people racing to one another with the message, in scenes shot all across America, before the message finally reaches Roosevelt.
In Americatown, the Superkiiids riff on a simple plot that concerns a chronically spilling cup of coffee for a sometimes sublime, sometimes slapstick, sometimes puzzling but never dull 77 minutes. Those of an analytical bent may find themselves groping for the language of postmodernism to understand their work, but I think the nonanalytical language of, say, Monty Python offers an easier route to "getting" the Superkiiids. The gags, when they work, justify themselves.
Price says that he and the Superkiiids are huge fans of Wes Anderson, and that, furthermore, the actors' improv training is key to their work. I'd go even further: In the joy they take in performing, and the effortless way that they create gags out of physical comedy and the cinematic medium itself, they show the spirit—if not necessarily the execution—of Buster Keaton in his great, more-praised-than-seen works such as Our Hospitality and Sherlock Jr.
Who knows how their careers will develop? One of the appealing things about them is their apparent want of the naked ambition one usually finds in filmmakers. There's no name-dropping of important producers, no claims to be writing a script for so-and-so (except fictitiously for Robert Zemeckis in Lightning Salad Moving Picture). If Price is to be believed, they're thrilled to make the films they do, and by staying at the no-budget level, they can keep doing it. And in this not-very-propitious moment, they may be the perfect filmmakers for Cucalorus and Wilmington.
Correction (Nov. 19, 2009): The North Carolina School of the Arts changed its name last year to University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Closer to home, this weekend will see the fourth annual Carrboro Film Festival. It's a one-day affair that is very highly recommended: For a mere $5, you can see 27 locally produced short films in a wide range of genres. Earlier this year, the Independent honored Todd Tinkham, Nic Beery and Ajit Anthony Prem with an Arts Indie for their prolific filmmaking, which has done so much to stoke the creative culture that this festival celebrates. And they're still at it. Tinkham has two new shorts, Prem has two and Beery, who founded the festival in 2006, has one of his own. See their work—and 22 other films by area filmmakers—this Sunday, Nov. 22, from 1 to 7 p.m. Visit carrborofilmfestival.com.