It wasn't just that the November temperatures in Wilmington were in the 80s—although they were—and that this seaside town's charms include careworn Queen Anne houses and spectral Spanish moss that adorn the dimly lit streets—although they're there. No, the best reason to visit the city at the end of I-40 is its peculiar, homespun film festival known as the Cucalorus Film Festival.
Cucalorus, which ran last weekend from Nov. 8 through Nov. 11, is a yearly event in which the city's small but committed hipster cadre takes over the historic buildings and the otherwise conservative official culture. During the rest of the year, the Wilmington underground film scene centers on Jengo's Playhouse, a 60-seat microcinema unlike anything we have in the Triangle. Now in its second year of operation, it resides in the historic district in one of two buildings owned by Dan Brawley, a 33-year-old artist who is also the Cucalorus festival director.
"Jengo is the Japanese word for the moment when an idea comes to mind, or when the sun comes over the horizon," says Brawley, who notes that the seats were salvaged from UNC's Memorial Hall. Brawley's easygoing demeanor—which is set off by his long, curly red hair that makes him look like an 18th-century Scottish poet—sets the tone for a festival that is operated by scores of unfailingly enthusiastic volunteers and a small paid staff.
The film programming included a number of first-rate indies that have already made a Sundance splash, including the transcendant Old Joy, the Israeli thriller 13 Tzameti and the grippingly close-to-home The Trials of Darryl Hunt, but it also included dozens of short experimental works, with an emphasis on regional production.
But for all the quality films, Cucalorus is not the place to find dull panel discussions, garish celebrities and pointless product placements—all of which are unfortunate counterparts to important festivals. Instead, Cucalorus continues to be a grassroots affair, one that this year was attended by approximately 80 filmmakers from as far away as Israel, and as near as the Triangle, including such local mainstays as Cynthia Hill and Charles Thompson (The Guestworker), Jim Haverkamp (Willow Garden), Neal Hutcheson (The Queen Family) and Francesca Talenti (a participant in the festival's dance programming).
The featured screenings take place in the Thalian, a stately antebellum theater that is sculpted with beautifully curved wooden balconies that creak under the weight of the audience. Films not showing in the main Thalian venue were shown in the facility's upstairs black box space or at Jengo's Playhouse.
Although civic boosters might brandish Cucalorus as further evidence of Wilmington filmmaking vitality, the truth is that the city is in a prolonged slump, one partly blamed on 9/11 but more properly placed at the feet of aggressive competitors like South Carolina (where many Wilmington techies go for work), Louisiana and Canada. Although outsiders might note with puzzlement the frequency with which the city boasts about Black Knight, a dreadful Martin Lawrence vehicle from 2001, the fact of the matter is that the quality of that film is mostly beside the point: Black Knight employed hundreds of area techs, actors and related personnel for months.
The film scenesters of Wilmington know that their own future depends on developing a regional base of production. In Screen Gems, the city boasts the nation's largest production studio outside of California, with nine soundstages (four of which currently house the WB series One Tree Hill) and a backlot. Film people in the area hope new tax credits that kick in next year will lure more Hollywood productions. But generous as the 15 percent tax credits are, South Carolina is far ahead in the race to the bottom with 30 percent. Brawley is optimistic, however. "My understanding is that even at 15 percent, North Carolina will be more competitive. Fifteen here is better than 30 in South Carolina. They don't have the infrastructure."
Still, one longtime festival volunteer and observer of the Wilmington scene, realtor Steve Fox, says, "The tax credits are important but it's like a dog chasing its tail. You never catch it. [The studios] play the states off each other." Fox, like Brawley and others, thinks that the path to stability lies in developing homegrown projects. "We need to bring a producer class here," says Fox.
At a filmmakers' reception at the Bellamy House—a gorgeous 5,000 square foot mansion with adjacent slave quarters that was built just as Abraham Lincoln was running for president—I meet Paul Dawson, who turned in a sensitive, acrobatic performance in John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus. Dawson, a native of LaGrange, N.C., and a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, reported that the camera crew missed "the money shot" of his celebrated scene of auto-fellatio, necessitating a reshoot six hours later. For the record, he tells me, it's "very difficult" to achieve an erection on a movie set. "We tried Viagra, but it didn't really help. You still need stimulation." Although Shortbus is a minor indie, albeit one likely headed for a long shelf life as a cult favorite, Dawson says that he is recognized every day on the streets of New York.
I also spend time talking about alternative sexuality with one Jack Truman, an indie filmmaker from Lamar, Mo. As it happens, Truman is one of the nation's few unhappy Democrats: He's just run unsuccessfully for Congress against an entrenched Republican, majority whip Roy Blunt. Although a post-festival Internet investigation would reveal that Truman apparently went through his childhood as John Kerney, he tells me he is a distant relative of Harry S. Truman. In his Boston Red Sox cap and Willie Nelson T-shirt, he doesn't look much like Harry or even like a politician, while the 60s-ish woman with him in owlish glasses and a flannel shirt definitely doesn't look much like a movie actress and screenwriter. But this woman, Opal Dockery, is a former stripper and the star of Truman's film, Phone Sex Grandma. She's also his mother. I missed the film, but it's played many festivals since premiering at Slamdance last January.
Up on the veranda at the Bellamy House, I chat with Raleigh's Skip Elsheimer, the one and only A/V Geek whose passion for vintage educational films is profiled in A Reel Man, a documentary by onetime News & Observer reviewer Todd Lothery. As it turns out, Elsheimer is a former Wilmington resident who remembers when moviemaking was a novel idea in the city. "This place sort of became Hollywood Jr. Antique shops started advertising themselves as 'antique props' and people started learning to work on crews. People thought they would make a lot of money, but all of a sudden [producers] noticed British Columbia."
Elsheimer waves his hand out into the darkening evening, gesturing across the public fountain that sits at the intersection of Market and 5th streets, to an impassive apartment building. It's where Isabella Rossellini's character lived in Blue Velvet, he tells me. Lovely old Wilmington hasn't been very weird since Blue Velvet—Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill have put a stop to that—but if Cucalorus can keep bringing such quirky originals as Jack Truman, Opal Dockery and the amazing Paul Dawson, a cinematic revival could be accompanied by eccentric artistry.