Last Friday, at the start of a sunny weekend, I drive down to Wilmington to take in the city’s ninth annual Cucalorus Film Festival. I’m unfamiliar with the city, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find the historic district to be so alluring. The oaks, dogwoods and tulips certainly help, as does the balmy breath of spring that blows in from the ocean.
Despite the beautiful weather and a thoughtfully programmed, well-attended festival, there’s a discomfiting reality lurking in this coastal city. Next month, Wilmington will lose its best production client when Dawson’s Creek tapes its final episode. The show that has traced the youthful trials and tribulations of James van der Beek’s Dawson Leery, Katie Holmes’ Joey Potter and all of their well-scrubbed friends will call it quits after six seasons.
With the departure of this series, the actors and techies of Wilmington are facing a fallow period in their careers. According to Allison Ballard, an arts reporter with the Wilmington Star, the only production on the horizon right now is a high school basketball pilot for the WB called Ravens. After that, there’s nothing but hopeful rumors.
I meet Ballard by chance Saturday morning in Wilmington Espresso Co., where I have gone to seek chemical stimulation after a very late night in a downtown loft. Ballard happens to be sitting with Dan Brawley, the festival director, a slim, bespectacled man with long, curly blond hair that he pulls back into a ponytail. Brawley is an artist, teacher, organic gardener and a huge movie lover. Apparently possessed of an appetite for creating and nurturing artistic communities, Brawley comes off as a sort of benign father figure to the local arts scene. Surveying this year’s festival, Brawley says, “Our audience has grown. We now have a couple of people who get paid for a couple of weeks. And we have over a hundred volunteers.”
As for the area’s production drought, Brawley and Ballard report that some experienced crew hands are starting to migrate elsewhere for work. Some are testing the L.A. market, while others are traveling down the coast to Charleston and Savannah to find work.
Some of the area’s actors are also finding work out of state. One, Zach Hanner, who contributes music writing to the Indy when he’s not acting, has worked on two films this winter. First, there was The Runaway Jury in New Orleans, with John Cusack and Gene Hackman. Later, he shot a small role for Tim Burton in the star-packed adaptation of Chapel Hill writer Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish (Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, Helena Bonham-Carter, Albert Finney and more) down in Montgomery, Ala.
Hanner has been on the scene for a while, so he’s in a better position to ride out the current drought. But if he and his fellow film workers are going to get more work locally, the area’s boosters are going to have to hustle, and do it creatively. Brawley says that Wilmington became a movie town mostly by accident, as Hollywood location scouts discovered the community on their own. Although the 1990s were good to Wilmington, the community never established an aggressive film commission, according to Brawley. “Canadians have been aggressive with tax incentives, and so have other states,” he says. “We’ve fallen a little behind. At some point, someone will come in with a more dynamic and aggressive approach.”
Brawley acknowledges that Wilmington’s film culture is still a work in progress. To his chagrin, the city still lacks a dedicated art cinema. Instead, lovers of adventurous filmmaking must make do with a biweekly program called Cinematique at a local art space, in addition to the annual Cucalorus event. “We talk about [opening an art theater] all the time,” Brawley says. “There are all sorts of beautiful historic buildings here.”
Despite Wilmington’s production woes, Brawley and his fellow festival organizers have put up an excellent festival. The crowds are mostly composed of college kids, but there is a noticeable grown-up contingent as well. The festival venues are in the charming and modest historic district that faces the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
Cucalorus is an unpretentious and neighborly affair, with programming that mixes hip indie films (Morvern Callar), eagerly anticipated new releases (All the Real Girls) and overlooked gems (The Slaughter Rule). There are generous programs of shorts (including films by Chapel Hill filmmakers Francesca Talenti and Khang Mai), and the festival also features the local premiere of Ball of Wax, the high-definition video feature by former Indy contributor Daniel Kraus.
Friday night I catch Morvern Callar at a downtown performance space called the Community Arts Center. Here, there’s a large crowd of three hundred or so to catch Scottish director Lynne Ramsey’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, Ratcatcher. The new film stars Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report) as the title character, a young drifter with an interior life that matches the gothic echoes of her name.
The film’s opening is bleakly comic: Morvern wakes up and finds that her boyfriend has killed himself during the night. However, instead of doing something so prosaic as calling the cops, she spends a few days partying with some money he’s left while the body rots on the floor of the apartment, next to a blinking Christmas tree. After she finally gets rid of the body, Morvern and her best friend leave cold, dank Scotland for the sexy sunshine of the Spanish Riviera as the film turns into something of a Paul Bowles hothouse tale of Western spiritual alienation.
Afterward, I chew over the thematic gristle of Morvern Callar with Talenti and Mai, as we do some damage to a bottle of tequila thoughtfully supplied in the filmmakers’ lounge (beguilingly decorated by Brawley himself).
After the movies wrap up around midnight, Cucalorus reveals a different strength: the after-party. Tonight, Durham rockers Roxotica are performing at a nearby club called the Soapbox. There, I meet a number of the filmmakers who are showing their work. As the bar closes, we all drift over to a nearby loft, which turns out to be a big place with plenty of room for the 50 or so revelers who are still looking to party down. On the stage is a local new wave outfit called Mullet Revolta. They’re pretty good, really loud and, despite some nagging equipment problems, apparently intent upon playing until sunrise.
I stumble out around 4 a.m. and drive to the beach, where I intend to sleep. Out on the commercial strip of Market Street, I make a most welcome discovery: a 24-hour Hardee’s. I am so famished that I order a pork product, despite my vow to avoid this substance after driving through the stench of the hog lagoons along I-40 on my way down to the coast.