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Directors out of Carolina

How a small film school in the South has produced some of the most interesting creative minds in indie film

Focus Features/Universal Pictures
Focus Features/Universal Pictures

Welcome to Future of Movies Week. Too often this year we’ve been left baffled at the multiplex. It’s been 10 months, and we’re struggling to come up with a viable top-10 list. Streaming platforms are encroaching on Hollywood’s share of our collective attention, preexisting intellectual property is providing diminishing returns, and moviegoers largely skipped Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Wild days.

November will be different. It’s packed with interesting releases — Oscar contenders like Loving and Arrival and Manchester by the Sea, blockbusters from Marvel (Doctor Strange) and J.K. Rowling (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), a Disney movie with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Rock (Moana), and old-fashioned fare from big-name directors like Robert Zemeckis (Allied) and Warren Beatty (Rules Don’t Apply).

This week, we’re looking at the future — of film school, horror, the Marvel Universe, movie stars, and the medium itself.

At the beginning of the 2000 academic year, David Gordon Green went back to school. Two years earlier, he had been part of the second class to graduate from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ new filmmaking program, and now he was back in Winston-Salem, the school’s home, to screen his movie George Washington before its release in theaters that October. A gorgeous, meandering film about a group of friends between childhood and adolescence, set in an industrial landscape being taken over by nature, it was the first feature directed by a School of the Arts graduate.

Financed with money Green had earned by working in a doorknob factory, shot around Winston-Salem, and made with a crew composed mostly of his former School of the Arts classmates, George Washington was shown at festivals in Berlin, Toronto, and New York, among others. Elvis Mitchell wrote in his New York Times review of the film, which was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, "with its delicate shifts of tone, it could be a fairy tale by Faulkner." In 2002, Green was given the Criterion Collection’s seal of approval when the venerated company released George Washington on DVD, a rare achievement for a rookie director.

In the audience the night of the School of the Arts screening was Chad Hartigan, a 17-year-old freshman still adjusting to the school’s stale dorms and feeling like his new classmates didn’t want to talk to him.

Hartigan had grown up in Europe and moved to Virginia as a teenager, the reverse trajectory of the titular character in Morris From America, his own coming-of-age film, which would be released in 2016. At the time, Hartigan’s favorite movies were bombastic blockbusters like Independence Day and Braveheart. He admits now that during his first viewing of George Washington he might have been a little bored, but its significance wasn’t lost on him. "That’s an abstract, poetic, beautiful, interesting movie," says Hartigan. "I think that, subconsciously, that had a huge influence, as being what is achievable and what is put on the pedestal, as opposed to if I had gone to USC and on week one they would have shown us Star Wars."

As for how Green remembers that George Washington screening 16 years later: "People thought it was weird, but I think several people liked it."

The filmmaking program at School of the Arts has existed for more than two decades now, but it’s still relatively young and has an undefined reputation within the film industry. During its short history, UNCSA has attracted a group of independently minded filmmakers from throughout the country, and especially the south. There they gather to figure out how to tell their outsider stories filled with strange character studies, dark humor, and strands of visual philosophizing. Several of them have gone on to make some of the most compelling American indie movies of the past 15 years. Most of the graduates I talked to told me that they became interested in the college because they didn’t have the grades to get into the film schools at NYU and USC, or if they did, they probably couldn’t afford the tuition.

UNCSA was founded in the early 1960s, and for decades it has drawn in misfits from around the South to its five conservatories. The more established drama program’s alumni include Mary-Louise Parker, Joe Mantello, Anna Camp, and Dane DeHaan.

Since its beginning in 1993, the film school has emphasized the technical aspects of the discipline. Because of its geographic separation from the entertainment industry, School of the Arts’ curriculum prioritized teaching students the skills to work on sets as soon as they graduated. "From day one you get to start shooting," says Rebecca Green, a School of the Arts graduate who produced acclaimed indie films It Follows and I’ll See You in My Dreams. "It’s a level playing field."

The public university has its own sound stages, a stockpile of accessible equipment, and full funding for thesis films. "It wasn’t some carrot they were dangling out there, saying, ‘Once you become a senior we’re actually going to let you touch a camera,’" explains writer and director Jeff Nichols, who graduated in 2001. "We were learning how to set C-stands and wrap stingers [extension cords] our freshman year."

Susan Ruskin, the dean of School of the Arts’ filmmaking program, is exceedingly practical as she oversees its growth. Recently the school began developing an immersive entertainment track, which focuses on teaching how to create virtual-reality material. She is also angling for more grads to get jobs at talent agencies and as executives at studios, so that they can help their fellow alumni get projects made.

Of the movies that have been made by its graduates, David Gordon Green has directed both the most beloved film, with 2003’s All the Real Girls, and the most commercially successful, with 2008’s Pineapple Express. He has also had the biggest impact in television, teaming with his former freshman year hallmates and current Rough House Pictures partners Danny McBride and Jody Hill to create the hilarious, spiteful comedies Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals. Green has had missteps, too, from the derided video rental tributes Your Highness and The Sitter, to the ignored Sandra Bullock vehicle Our Brand Is Crisis. His next project is the Boston Marathon bombing drama Stronger, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany and will be released through Lionsgate.

The School of the Arts alum with the highest profile right now, however, is Nichols, who was also at that George Washington screening in 2000. Loving, his latest project, is the first film made by a UNCSA graduate with legitimate Oscar possibilities, particularly for its two stars, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. In theaters this Friday, it caps a pivotal year for Nichols, who also wrote and directed this spring’s understated sci-fi road movie Midnight Special.

Loving tells the story of the fortuitously named couple whose Supreme Court case made laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. Despite the seemingly straightforward premise, Nichols’s approach to the story doesn’t fit into the usual genre expectations. It lacks a message movie’s overwrought speeches that might bait academy voters, largely because the two main characters don’t seem to like talking much. It’s more spare than a legal drama, with the climactic courtroom arguments filmed with the camera trained on the back of the lawyers’ heads and the chief justices out of focus. It even breaks the usual arc of a love story — its first scene is of the soon-to-be Mildred Loving telling Richard Loving that she’s pregnant. It’s reminiscent of All the Real Girls, which Green began with a couple’s first kiss; he cut all the parts he had filmed of them getting to know each other. "I remember talking to David about that," says Nichols. "Sure, there may be some cool narrative stuff in there, but we’ve all seen it before, so why don’t we just put all that stuff to bed and get further into the story right off the bat?"

Though the two overlapped at college, Green and Nichols didn’t become friends until after Green had graduated. They were both helping one summer on The Rough South of Larry Brown, a documentary about the lauded Mississippi author that was directed by Gary Hawkins, who was teaching at School of the Arts at the time. Years later Green directed Joe, an adaptation of one of Brown’s novels with a script by Hawkins. Nichols still cites being introduced to the terse works of Brown and other Southern writers in college as a major influence on his work. "I was just a redneck kid from Arkansas," he says. "I don’t know if I would have discovered the same stories and the same approach to those stories had I gone to a bigger place."

Across his five features, Nichols has been the UNCSA graduate most interested in conveying a distinctly Southern feel in his movies — drawing on the region for tone, subject, and setting. "It’s not like I felt a dearth that I had to fill; it really was just a perspective of mine that I was trying to represent," he says. "You can make films in different genres, you can make films about boats and trees and crazy killer storms, but they all have to resonate with me somehow personally."

After he graduated, Nichols says he followed Green’s George Washington business model as he prepared to make his debut, Shotgun Stories. He moved back home to Arkansas, lived with his parents, scraped together money, then invited friends from school to help him shoot the film. The two directors both live in Austin now, and Nichols says he’s consulted with Green on every step of his career, from putting together his follow-up indies Take Shelter and Mud to handling the test-audience screening process for Midnight Special.

Due to its support from Warner Bros., some posited that Midnight Special was Nichols’s audition to take on a major franchise. After its initial release date was pushed back a few months, the film was well received by critics, but performed tepidly at the box office. Nichols recently signed a deal with 20th Century Fox to work on an original idea of his that will be used to produce a remake of Alien Nation, a hazily remembered cult movie and TV show from the late ’80s that’s part of the Fox catalog. It’s not the super-powered punch of something from the Justice League universe, though it’s unclear whether Nichols was interested in that kind of move in the first place.

Alien Nation will be the first time Nichols has developed a film from the ground up under a major studio. He’s cautiously optimistic. "I don’t know what’s going to happen. I really like the idea, though, and hopefully it will come through the other side," he says.

As Green and Nichols define their spots in Hollywood, other UNCSA alumni directors, including Chad Hartigan, Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens (Land Ho!), Craig Zobel (Z for Zachariah and Compliance), Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams), and Peter Sattler (Camp X-Ray) continue to work in independent film and land spots at Sundance. Even Jody Hill — who caught the eye of Seth Rogen and his crew with his debut The Foot Fist Way but landed in movie jail after the underappreciated Observe and Report’s disastrous reception — has gone back to lower-budget movie work. His return to theaters after an eight-year absence will be The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, which Josh Brolin claims was gnarlier to shoot than The Revenant. But none of these filmmakers finished School of the Arts during this decade, prompting some of the older alumni to wonder where the next round of directors is.

Producer Rebecca Green (no relation to David) believes that part of the reason for this lag is that David Gordon Green and Nichols are singular talents. They had both the vision and wherewithal to get movies made faster than normal, putting them further ahead of the pack. "There are people who are just going to do it no matter what and take that step. Jeff was one of them, and David was one of them," she says. "It took me 10 years before I made a movie that anybody heard of."

Graduates must contend with the rapidly changing landscape of independent film. With the rise of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, social media and video sharing platforms, plus increasingly cheaper filmmaking software and equipment, there’s more competition than ever to get noticed in the micro-budget world. Rebecca Green just moved back to her native Michigan and has been teaching a workshop on producing at Wayne State. As she gives advice, it’s clear that the world she graduated into at the start of the century is so much different from what exists now. "In my class we went over the independent landscape, and I told them that none of it is memorized because it changes from year to year," she says. "You can’t compare Sundance 2016 to Sundance 2010."

If there is a current prospect for the next School of the Arts breakout, it’s Matthew Brown, an outspoken Winston-Salem native who graduated in 2015. Brown first went to East Carolina University, but after a semester he transferred to Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, because he was interested in studying environmental science. Then he decided he wanted to make eco-minded documentaries, but Appalachian State didn’t have a film production program, so he came back home, even though UNCSA doesn’t have a documentary focus. "I was just there trying to make documentaries about the lost generations of shorebirds and shit," he says. "I had a very different agenda, and then it changed over time."

Over the Christmas break of his senior year, Brown filmed the feature In the Treetops. Just after he graduated, it showed at the Los Angeles Film Festival and he was signed by ICM agent Cullen Conly, who had honed his indie sensibilities while working at the Sundance Institute. When we talked, Brown was in the midst of editing Maine, his new two-hander shot on the Appalachian Trail. It stars Laia Costa of the one-take German film Victoria and Thomas Mann of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. "It’s kind of a culmination of my relationship with women for the last year and with my mom and lots of things," Brown says by way of a plot explanation.

Though the school has embraced him following these first successes, Brown still resents aspects of UNCSA’s curriculum and faculty. He finds that’s something he has in common with other alumni. "The few people that I do know [who went to School of the Arts], that’s what they want to talk about, what direction did the school want you to go and what did you do anyway," he says.

Most frustrating to Brown was that the school presents a traditional approach of how to reach a point where you can get a film made, even though the directors from UNCSA who have had the most success have jump-started their careers through their own initiatives. "What really pissed me off is the people who come into the school and are doubting themselves and their ability, and then the school tells them, ‘Don’t you worry, if you PA for 20 years you’ll be able to make the movie of your dreams. You’ll be able to make Batman vs. Venom, or whatever the hell you want to make,’" Brown explains.

Dean Susan Ruskin contends that the approach they teach is scalable and can be applied to whatever the project is. "Making a movie is making a movie is making a movie. It doesn’t matter where you are," she says. "You make a film the same way in L.A. and New York the same way you would in North Carolina or Idaho or Alaska."

Ruskin may be right, but it can’t be ignored that this issue stretches back to George Washington. David Gordon Green did try to operate within the confines of the established film industry right after graduation, but ended up chucking it to go micro-indie. "I worked for a few months in jobs that were rather disheartening and discouraging," he says. "It seemed just as easy to make a film through independent channels back in North Carolina, where I at least had resources and community that was economical and supportive."

From that starting point and continuing on to today, the films made by directors who came out of UNCSA usually feature crews heavy with other UNCSA alumni. Green, Nichols, and Hartigan each have favored cinematographers with whom the directors have worked on all of their films. All of the cinematographers are also UNCSA alumni.

As some question the point of film school amid the proliferation of widely available technology and easily accessible online information, the resource that was most important to have access to at UNCSA may have been the community of students and alumni. The school isn’t what its graduates lean on as they try to make careers for themselves, it’s the people with whom went to school — the ones who become their collaborators. As Green says: "Nobody wants the good times of college to ever end. If we stick together and keep our egos and insecurities in check, we’ll be young and hungry and living a wild life making films and challenging each other until we die."

Eric Ducker (@ericducker) is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.