- Justin Nathanson spearheads this weekend's inaugural Charleston Documentary Film Festival, with a focus on environmental issues, community, and serious fun
FADE IN: EXT. COASTLINE - DAY: The ocean glistens across the horizon as the deep rouge tones of the setting sun reflect upon an egret preparing to take flight. As the elegant bird rises, the camera follows its path across and over the low brick buildings and pastel houses of downtown Charleston, through the waterlogged brackish marshes, and into the thick trees of the Francis Marion Forest.
CLOSE-UP: A city that's home to one of the country's biggest performing arts festivals, a cadre of community theatre companies, over 50 galleries, two of the state's leading colleges, and musicians from every imaginable genre — a city on the verge of becoming a hotbed for cinematic activity, both local and national.
Not that it's the first time someone's made that assertion. With each studio movie that puts the Holy City on the map — The Patriot, Cold Mountain, The Notebook — there's a media frenzy that builds, as surely as the tide rolls in and out twice a day, swelling up behind the notion that our town could become the next Wilmington, Austin, or Park City, if only the independent film community could pull together and make themselves a real force.
Men (and Women) at Work
Of course, we've had our share of national, even international attention, at various film festivals over the years, ranging from WorldFest Charleston, a Houston transplant that arrived in 1993 to great fanfare and left in 1997, to SCindy, a more locally-oriented fest that thrived during the busy Spoleto season in the early '00s before fizzling out in 2004. There's also a handful of smaller festivals that have sprung up over the years, such as the various events held at the Charleston County Public Library, the Folly Felder Film Festival, which has become an annual part of Piccolo, and AsiaMania, which will make a triumphant return at the CCPL in January of 2007.
This week, the inaugural Charleston Documentary Film Festival (ChasDOC — see pg. 42 for more info and a schedule of films), spearheaded by the seasoned, spunky young filmmaker Justin Nathanson, debuts in Charleston with a seriously community-minded bent and a focus on a subject many in the Lowcountry have long been concerned with: the environment.
Nathanson arrived in town a year and a half ago to work as the lead editor on the ill-fated TV show Palmetto Pointe, but when the show died and he was handed a pocketful of chump change by the producers of the program, Nathanson realized that Charleston was "an amazing hub" with a disjointed film community and decided to stick around and "think global, act local" — or, in this case, direct local. "I think that we can play a small part in inspiring people ... I want ChasDOC to be a springboard. It's just all up to us to get together and talk about stories and meet crew members. This is my home now — which I never thought I'd say."
The truth is that Charleston is, and has been for years, brimming over with filmmakers of all stripes, from students learning to gaffe at Trident Technical College's Film Production program (see pg. 41) to engineers using the latest digital technology to create instructional films for the Department of Homeland Security. While everyone unites when the Hollywood guns roll into town looking for skilled help or when a local has a big project on the horizon, some in the Charleston film community feel that, often, everyone seems to be standing alone.
"It always just astonished me that people were operating as their own little universe in the indie film world here without ever talking to each other or trying to unify their efforts, or getting together in any real way to share knowledge and info," says Cara White, a Lowcountry-based publicist. In addition to volunteering to help S.C. filmmakers since she returned to the state from New York City in 1995, White has worked closely with independent directors like Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater, as well as doing publicity for major studio films like Forrest Gump and Steel Magnolias.
"I think Charleston has a very vibrant arts scene, which is one of the things I think makes it such a great community," says veteran producer Peter Wentworth, who took over the SCindy Film Festival in Jan. 2002, when original founder Nicholas Drake fell ill, and chaperoned it through the next two years. "But the support for another arts organization is competing with the symphony, Spoleto, Piccolo, the ballet, a number of theatre companies, and for a small community, it's getting pretty tapped out. So the very thing that makes it special also makes it kind of challenging to really launch something new, because there's so much competition for the arts dollars."
However, things are starting to look awfully rosy for filmmakers in both the state and the Lowcountry, with newly-passed major film incentives that have drawn a number of feature films to the state, local independent filmmaker Brad Jayne's upcoming fictional short film, Song of Pumpkin Brown, financed in part by a $100,000 grant from the S.C. Film Production Fund, and a virgin film festival.
"I think ChasDOC has the chance of bringing people together in a way that maybe they haven't in the past," White says. "I see Justin's energy and his commitment to it, and I think his ideas and attempts to go about it are smart and clever ... and he's devoting himself to this, where so many of us have jobs that pull us away from devoting full-time efforts, whereas Justin has time and energy and has chosen this to be his job.
- David Epps, president of the Carolina Film Alliance, utilizes his skilled trade as a computer engineer in the creation of training films and says "the power of computers has changed everything" in the film industry
"I think that what's happening in Charleston right now is kind of a perfect storm situation, because the incentives are bringing in movies, and they're hiring a lot of local crew to work on them, and the crewmembers and craftspeople get additional training, which helps develop a crew base," White adds. "I always thought we should have the Richard Linklater model — he was basically a kid who made a film, got some distribution, and went back to Texas and made more films, making more money and bringing it back to Austin. Linklater has helped turned that city into a mini-film capital, and that is something I think Charleston could do."
As far as a budding Linklater, our brightest (and certainly most eager) hope may be Jayne, who created two shorts here in 2005 that he sent to festivals across the country, Le Croisment (The Crossing) and Search, in addition to a 30-minute documentary about the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir called When We All Get to Heaven that aired in March on SCETV's pioneering Southern Lens series. Southern Lens will air another local filmmaker's documentary, Lee Waldrep's Why Me, Lord?, about America's first developmentally disabled rock band, the Hammon School Strawberry Jammers, on Thurs. Oct. 5 at 10 p.m.
Jayne, who finished in the top 50 of over 2,200 entrants in the 2004 Project Greenlight filmmaking contest, was the recipient of one of the S.C. Film Production Fund's first annual $100,000 grants, and he will use the money to make a 25-minute short called Song of Pumpkin Brown, a film set in the 1960s, about a young boy who arrives at the Jenkins Orphanage and discovers his inner Satchmo.
"If you make a movie that goes on the festival circuits and gets buzz, you have now created a community," Jayne says. "I think it's very important to have a certain level of quality, the people that I work with are definitely like that. Everybody we've ever approached in town has been incredibly helpful — although I think that has a lot to do with us being positive and polite, too.
"Charleston's not gonna get its face on the map because of a short film, though," Jayne adds. For his part, he and his business partner, producer Rob Gorman, have already put together a rough draft of a business proposal to draw funding for his first feature film, Warrior, a coming-of-age tale centered around a teenage boy who finds spiritual fulfillment in his fertile Lowcountry surroundings.
In addition to Jayne, the area's hoppin' with filmmakers working on flicks ranging from historical fiction like For Liberty, a drama based on Lowcountry actor, writer, and director Clarence Felder's Revolutionary War ancestor Captain Harry Felder, to comedies like Devin Dukes' guerilla film The Merkin Man and young upstarts Tom Michal and Rob Lewis' The Hard Way Out.
There's also a number of documentaries in the works, like the Charleston Documentary Film Society's There's No Place Like Home, which will explore the potential destruction of African-American communities in Mt. Pleasant due to the proposed highway bisection of the neighborhoods near the Old Village, IslandHippie Productions' nationwide quest to explore the similarities and differences of people's REM ruminations, Dream States, and Liz Oakley's (Sentencing the Victim) new doc, Awaken the Dragon, about cancer survivors finding strength through the competitive Chinese art of dragon boating.
Stepping Into Tomorrow
So what else will it take to make Charleston into a true destination for film producers? The newly-renovated Crown International Studio in Fort Mill, S.C., with two soundstages, a conference hall/studio, and an outdoor amphitheater, should be a huge draw, which would bring more major productions into the state and would in turn provide training that would enable local filmmakers to step up their games.
"You can't just expect a state like South Carolina that has traditionally not been that big of a player in the production world to lure people to come here and make their films," says David Epps, president of the Mt. Pleasant-based Carolina Film Alliance.
- Lowcountry filmmaker Brad Jayne is currently preparing to shoot a short called Song of Pumpkin Brown; Charleston-based publicist Cara White volunteers for many S.C.-based films but makes her living promoting national movies and tv programs
"I'm working with a lot of people who want to see Charleston become a center for film, and we can, and we will, but it's not gonna be based on what people think," Epps says. "Where the problem lies, I think, is you have filmmakers who don't want to make training films, commercials, that kind of stuff ... and I think we have to do what is available, we can't be choosy. I think if we do the meat-and-potatoes work that is available, that can pay our bills, then we'll have all the equipment here, the facilities here, a studio here, we'll have everything in place such that when the big films do need a location, everything is here waiting for them."
However, many large businesses in Charleston still hire out-of-state companies to produce their commercials, according to Wentworth.
"Charleston suffers from a weird strain of snobbiness," Wentworth says. "There is a destructive undercurrent that says, 'If you're from here, you can't be very good at what you do, otherwise you wouldn't be here.' We don't have that kind of leadership in the advertising community here."
But we do have some proactive leadership in the state capital, namely the S.C. Film Commission, created by Debra Rosen in 1980 and currently run by commissioner and 17-year S.C. Film Commission veteran Jeff Monks. The Commission has been instrumental in getting incentives pushed through the S.C. legislature that have increased incrementally each year for the past three years and will not only attract more studio-based feature films, but lend a helping hand(out) to S.C.-based filmmakers working on projects here in the state.
Productions filming in S.C. can get fat cash rebates — 20 percent on employee wages and 30 percent on supplier expenditures — if they spend at least $1 million here, and all productions spending over $250,000 in S.C., which includes many smaller, independent films, are exempt from sales and accommodations taxes and are eligible to use certain state properties — including places like Cypress Gardens and state-funded plantations and historical sites — without having to pay location fees. Companies building production facilities here are also eligible for tax credits.
"When we created this legislation three years back, we wanted to do three things," Monks says, "One, stimulate new money coming into S.C.; two, stimulate the growth of our indigenous industry; and three, we realized that if we're going to start recruiting this increased product, we want South Carolinians to start taking advantage of it; it's all about collaboration."
In that spirit, the S.C. Film Commission created the S.C. Film Consortium with the University of S.C., Clemson University, and Trident Tech. The Consortium helps funnel money from the S.C. Film Production Fund, established in 2004, to independent producers, writers, directors, and others in order to "develop students and professionals as a ready resource to support the growth of South Carolina's entertainment industry," according to the Production Fund website (www.filmsc.com/prodfund.html).
All the hard work seems to be paying off. In 2005, one major studio film was produced in S.C., and this year, just since the new incentives passed in July, there are six feature films shooting in S.C. before December, many of which will utilize students and alumni from Trident Tech, plus an all-digital TV pilot called Army Wives. When the credits roll on the Army Wives pilot, they will include GryphonPix Entertainment, a Charleston-based independent movie studio. GryphonPix, a five-owner collaborative with a heavy emphasis on digital filmmaking, aims to start principal photography on their first feature — an action flick called The Interview, centered around kidnapping, serial murder, and revenge — in January.
The widespread use of high-definition digital cameras and projection systems is still years away, but nearly everyone interviewed for this story mentioned the oncoming digital film age, some with a tinge of disgust and some with giddy anticipation.
"Another huge aspect of the growth of the Charleston film community is the technology," says Chris Weatherhead, co-owner (with her husband, Clarence Felder) of the Folly Beach-based film production company Moving Images Group. "The future is digital. There are so many incredible programs that make HD look like 35mm; there's been this huge paradigm shift, and because of that, the playing field has been leveled to the degree that if someone happens to have a marvelous story and talented actors and crew and the ability to do post-production, then hey, anything's possible."
With the advent of YouTube.com and other online film hubs and the swiftly advancing technology in computer-based movie watching, not only have production costs dropped for prospective digital directors, there's also a viable chance to cut out the middleman as tight-budgeted flicks take one more step toward eliminating the need for distributors. The revolution is nigh, and Charleston is at the ready.
CLOSE-UP: That same egret, settling down for the night in a nest tucked into one of the crumbly old chimneys of downtown Charleston. As the bird stands up and turns around, the camera slowly zooms in on a mysterious object tucked beneath the graceful creature: a cluster of eggs, incubating and waiting to one day face the world.
Here's some links to more information about people, places, films, and organizations mentioned in this week's cover story:
The South Carolina Film Commission http://www.scfilmoffice.com
Trident Technical College's Film Production Program http://www.tridenttech.edu/8236.htm
Charleston Documentary Film Festival http://www.chasdoc.org
Carolina Film Alliance http://www.carolinafilm.com/
South Carolina Film Production Fund http://www.filmsc.com/prodfund.html
The City of Charleston's Film and Photo Shoot Permitting Process Guidelines http://www.ci.charleston.sc.us/dept/content.aspx?nid=565
The Actors' Theatre of South Carolina (home of Chris Weatherhead and Clarence Felder's Moving Images and the Folly Felder Film Festival) http://www.actorstheatreofsc.org/
Liz Oakley's Awaken the Dragon http://www.awakenthedragon.com/
Charleston County Public Library http://www.ccpl.org
Devin Dukes and The Merkin Man http://www.charlienast.com
IslandHippie Productions LLC http://www.islandhippie.com
Dream States official behind-the-scenes website http://www.makingofadocumentary.com
PBS' Independent Lens series (one of Cara White's clients) http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/