It all began in Greenville, S.C., at Travelers Rest High School in 2003. There, Alex Wroten and Joe Worthen made their first full-length feature, Tapeworm(fetish) — a surreal mini-DV comedy that took two years to complete. That film not only caught the attention of fellow student Breanna Foister but helped the duo realize what they would name their production company: Well Dang! Productions. "It was a phrase that a lot of people kept yelling back at us after watching the movie, so it stuck," Wroten recalled.
Over the next few years, the small outfit continued making short films of all different stripes. To date, their most popular work has been the redneck comedy noir webseries The Girl from Carolina, featured in the Charleston City Paper almost two years ago. Shot in 15 straight days, with a hastily assembled local cast and crew built around extensive planning, the web series followed a foul-mouthed Upstate answer to Angela Lansbury embroiled in redneck mysteries like "American Cheese Lies" and "Porsche's Stupid-Ass Dress." For Foister, who plays the series' perpetually intoxicated protagonist, Ferrari (a.k.a. Ferra) Thunderbird Taylor, the local reaction to the series is what she has come to value most. "My favorite thing about releasing The Girl From Carolina has been the hyper-local positive response, particularly from folks who grew up in the Upstate and enjoy recognizing the locations and characterizations on screen. We get a lot of comparisons to Eastbound & Down, which I appreciate."
Ironically, one of the few negative experiences to come from the series' rollout was when Well Dang! and the series made the cover of the City Paper. "When the first season was featured in the City Paper, we were really excited," says Wroten. "But when we saw the cover design had the [Confederate] flag behind the phrase 'Well Dang!' we were taken aback a little bit, thinking, 'Hmmm, I wonder why that's there?' but ultimately figured that whoever decided to put it there had vetted the idea enough to know the paper's audience. So when the backlash happened, and people started sort of taking it out on us, that was a little hard to decode."
What happened? Well, a group of people in Charleston, upset by the cover image, started gathering copies of the paper from stands around town and dropping them back off at City Paper offices. There were outraged Facebook comments and comments on the article, too.
"We were careful not to just throw 'the flag' around in the series itself (unless somewhere in the background incidentally, we are pretty sure it's only in the opening credits sequence where we just got some footage in and around Berea and Travelers Rest to 'set the scene' for the show), so having it suddenly and inexorably associated with the show was disappointing," says Wroten. "That having been said, we had already written God Bless New Dixie at that point and were aware the flag was going to need to feature more prominently in it. But, as you hopefully would agree, it isn't used in a slapdash way; instead, it's a symbol that we specifically address."
Since then, Well Dang! has produced a series of shorts, the webseries Christopher Columbus Saves the World, and they've even created their own "unearthed" mid-'90s calamity called The Ape Zone. On May 1, God Bless New Dixie, the feature film continuation of The Girl from Carolina web series, debuts on YouTube. The notoriety of the original web series helped give Wroten the means to create a larger-scope continuation that he was proud of. "That's not to say it was easy at all. It was still very long hours, lots of travel, and lots of 'We have this location for only two hours, and we have a number of things to accomplish' scenarios. It was about as hard as the first season," he says.
Lindsay Wolfe-Wroten, the film's producer, noted there was another key difference this time around, saying, "We also did a fundraiser for season two and were actually able to pay our crew more consistently, which was a big step up after season one. It's always nicer to be able to pay people in cash for their hard work as opposed to paying them in leftover pizza and deli sandwiches."
For God Bless New Dixie, rather than focus on a series of short stories, the team decided to give Ferra a feature-length storyline. Fresh out of rehab, she makes plans to propose to her deadbeat boyfriend, Harry. That plan starts to go to shit when she realizes her squeeze has decided to run for South Carolina governor on a platform of seceding from the United States with hopes of forming New Dixie — a place that she perceives as hell on earth. Her race to find him takes her from the Upstate across the Midlands to the swamps of the Lowcountry, even having time to stop by the notoriously racist Mexican theme park South of the Border.
Aside from being an outrageous satire, the film aims to address the romanticization of the Civil War and Confederate symbolism. Shot during an especially charged time immediately following the Emanuel AME Church massacre and the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse, the cast and crew of God Bless New Dixie found themselves walking a particularly tricky tightrope.
"The question of whether or not to show the flag was one that we discussed a lot," says Wolfe-Wroten. "Ultimately, this is a movie that seeks to satirize aspects of Southern culture — and we felt we couldn't ignore that the flag is a big part of that. In the same way that the show Hogan's Heroes is sort of married to its setting, we're tied to a setting where you do see Confederate flags on front lawns and businesses. The flag literally came down from the South Carolina Statehouse days before we started filming this movie."
That said, the Confederate flag doesn't meet a pleasant end at the conclusion of God Bless New Dixie.
On a national level, a lot has transpired since God Bless New Dixie was completed — namely the 2016 election. When one of your film's main characters is a loud-mouthed buffoon, it has to give the author conflicted feelings. Wroten recalled when he and Worthen began writing the movie a couple years ago, "It felt like there was a line between 'funny and appropriate for Harry' and 'so extreme, no one would think it was realistic' — and that line has definitely moved more toward the extreme since then. We're not yet sure if it feels good to be that prophetic or just strange."
Foister was quick to chime in, "Yeah, at least Harry's charismatic idiocy is lovable and hilarious, and ultimately inconsequential."