Neal Hutcheson spends half of his waking life in a tiny, airless office deep inside N.C. State's Tompkins Hall. There are no windows in his office and he has no contact with other humans. He wears headphones and keeps the door closed. The light in the room comes from the twin computer monitors in front of him.
It's a strange and lonely way to live, but for the defiantly independent and remarkably prolific Hutcheson—who recently completed the marvelous and empathetic Mountain Talk—there is no other way to get things done. Many filmmakers enjoy the editing process, but Hutcheson won't go that far. "I'll go in at 8 p.m. and come out at 4 or 5 in the morning. Every other day I do enjoy it, when things start to click," he says in a recent telephone interview. "But the majority is incredible tedium, punctuated by moments of elation—the ecstatic moments that make it all worthwhile."
But the fearful quantities of time that Hutcheson must spend alone are necessary compensation for the amount of time he spends in the field, pursuing his subjects. Thanks to these alternating currents of activity, the Raleigh documentary maker has churned out a steady stream of films in the decade since his graduation from N.C. State. He's made personal and evocative works in celebration of folk artists, and he's directed music videos for local bands. And the 34-year-old filmmaker has supported himself and his young family by making educational and instructional videos through various grant-driven projects at the university.
Hutcheson cut his teeth professionally by working with the NCSU linguist Walt Wolfram and other social scientists, making instructional and anthropological films. On his own time, he experimented with the possibilities of Super-8 narrative. Now, his career has taken a step forward with the recently completed Mountain Talk, a charming, amusing and informative look at the lingering vocal mannerisms of Western North Carolina.
Hutcheson began the project two and a half years ago, following leads and taking his camera through the hollers, gulches and dens of the Smokies. "I made 50-100 trips—I totally got sucked into the mountains," he said. "After a while, I just had to stop."
It's a measure of Hutcheson's respect for his subjects that Mountain Talk doesn't indulge the stereotypes born of Deliverance and Snuffy Smith, but the filmmaker did indeed find people who have only a nodding acquaintance with the outside world of the 21st century. Although Hutcheson features dozens of mostly elderly interview subjects—who share their thoughts on such locutions as si-gogglin', airish and boomer—his most charming discovery is a man of indeterminate age named Popcorn Sutton, a moonshiner who putters along the region's narrow roads in his vintage Model-A.
The briskly edited and highly entertaining Mountain Talk is scheduled to air this winter on WUNC-TV. "PBS is doing a big program on Appalachia," Hutcheson says. "Maybe they'll run it at that time." He also plans on submitting it to the Full Frame documentary festival and some others. "I'll need to do some research. It's been a while since I was actively submitting to festivals." In the meantime, Hutcheson is editing about 40 hours of additional material into a companion film called Tarheel Talk, which covers speaking styles from across the state. He hopes to have it finished by the end of the year.
One of the most striking aspects of Hutcheson's work is his genuine and unironic fascination with marginal subcultures. His most well-known and successful project prior to Mountain Talk, for example, is a short Super-8 film called Vollis Simpson's Whirligigs, a beautiful contemplation of the Tarheel folk artist's kinetic sculptures. In Mountain Talk, his subjects have rewarded his respectfulness with remarkably un-self-conscious reflections for his camera.
"Mountain culture is surprisingly vigorous and surprisingly alive and will be until the current generation of 50-somethings dies out. And it is dying out," Hutcheson says.
"Psychologically, there's a fundamental difference in the way they look at the world and treat each other," he continues. "We wear masks and assume roles—which is not necessarily a bad thing, but mountain people are not capable of that."
Hutcheson has drunk so deeply from the Appalachian spring that he's continuing in this vein for his next project, The Last One, featuring Popcorn Sutton. "He's a living anachronism from the past who doesn't fit in with the modern world," Hutcheson says. "He's a dying breed and he sticks out living in a world his personality is ill-equipped to handle."
But rather than seeing mere pathos in the lives of Sutton and his neighbors, Hutcheson admires their old-fashioned, rawboned sense of reality. "Their presence in the world is incredibly physical, while we're a lot more ephemeral," Hutcheson says. "If Popcorn built a cabin, it would last for 200 years."
Hutcheson has maintained his relationship with Sutton in other ways. Recently, he accompanied Sutton to Racine, West Virginia where the older man wanted to visit Jesco White, the subject of the celebrated underground documentary Jesco, the Dancing Outlaw. Although Hutcheson recorded this unlikely meeting, he doesn't expect to use his footage of it, which would be the documentary equivalent of a Freddy v. Jason encounter.
And Hutcheson somewhat ruefully acknowledges being the author of a film called The Last Damn Liquor Run I'll Ever Make, for sale only at select stores in the vicinity of Maggie Valley, N.C., where its distributor—one Popcorn Sutton—is known to do business. "It's sold over a thousand copies. Probably 950 more people have seen it than any of my other films!"
For more on Neal Hutcheson's films about Tar Heel dialects, see www.talkingnc.com.