Why filmmaking is on the rise in the Upstate

Why filmmaking is on the rise in the Upstate

From The Greenville News

Article by Donna Isbell Walker; photo by Heidi Heilbrunn

Screenwriter Geoffrey Gunn doesn’t need the bright lights of Hollywood, or even his native Toronto, to make movies.

Gunn can write scripts from his house near downtown Greenville, shoot the films around the Upstate with a South Carolina crew, and edit the movies on a laptop at his favorite coffee shop.

In mid-October, one of Gunn’s films will be screened at Greenville’s new Reedy Reels Film Festival. His is among 45 films that will be spotlighted, selected from hundreds of submissions from around the world.

Filmmaking is no longer an elusive dream that beckons aspiring writers and directors to the movie studios of Los Angeles. These days, filmmakers can create their art right here in places like South Carolina’s Upstate and have it resonate with movie buffs and other filmmakers around the world.

“I think Greenville is a hidden gem for people who are really in the know and want more interesting cultural experiences,” said Gunn, whose short film “Last Night at the Ellington” will be shown Oct. 16, opening night of the two-day Reedy Reels festival.

The S.C. Film Commission recognized several years ago that South Carolina filmmakers had the potential to make an impression on the film industry far beyond the state line.

That was the impetus behind the Indie Grants program, which offers financial help and practical support to aspiring filmmakers from South Carolina.

Gunn received one of those grants to make “Last Night at the Ellington,” based on a short story he wrote about a robbery at a movie theater.

The Indie Grants program “is a great launch pad for South Carolina filmmakers,” said Gunn, who also co-wrote the horror film “Siren,” currently being shown on HBO.

Gunn, who moved to the Upstate seven years ago with his wife, a professor at Furman University, found that continuing a film career in Upstate South Carolina after working in Toronto was easier than he expected.

“South Carolina, like Canada, does a lot of traveling production,” Gunn said. “And what I mean by that is, South Carolina has fantastic crews, and there’s a terrific crew base in the Southeast. To actually make your movie, you have many, many qualified people to work with.”

Greenville’s Joe Worthen found that to be the case after he received a $23,000 Indie Grant. He’s using that assistance to make a short comedy called “Isle of Palms.”

Worthen, who also helped create and produce the Greenville-shot web series “The Girl From Carolina,” said the grant has provided him with a producer, as well as the financial resources to hire an editor and production team, and it even pays for some of the post-production work.

Because of the grant, “it’s been pretty great because I haven’t had to struggle or flounder,” Worthen said. “As part of the grant, they really help you out and take some ownership of the script all the way through production.”

“Isle of Palms” will begin shooting later this year, but Worthen’s work will be represented at Reedy Reels when the first episode of “The Girl From Carolina” is screened on Oct. 17.

Boosting homegrown talent

The way Tom Clark, director of the S.C. Film Commission, sees it, the challenge for filmmakers here has been finding financial support and an audience for their work.

“We’ve always had talent here. … It’s just that it’s so difficult for independent filmmakers to get a leg up,” Clark said.

In 2004, the South Carolina Motion Picture Incentive Act was passed, and the state began looking at starting a training program for existing film crews working in the state, and for people who aspired to work in the entertainment industry here, Clark said.

A few years later, the Indie Grants program was created. The film office works with film production students from Clemson, University of South Carolina and Trident Technical College in Charleston to provide crew support for grant-winners, Clark said.

Over the years, the number of applicants has increased from 15 to about 45, he said.

“We allow a producer or a writer or a director, local people, an opportunity to do a short film, and they need to involve college students, and they need to involve other local people, as well as allowing us to help them by bringing in Hollywood professionals,” Clark said. “In other words, if there’s a director of photography who doesn’t have a lot of experience, perhaps we’d bring in a director of photography.”

For one film, the forthcoming “The Final Adventure of John and Eleanor Greene,” the film commission was able to bring in Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter, who received the Academy Award for his work on “Titanic.”

And some of those films have made an impression in Hollywood. One of the first films funded by the Indie Grants program, “The Debutante Hunters,” won the People’s Choice Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, Clark said.

“We felt like we had a pretty good success there, and most of these films are featuring South Carolina people. They’re featuring South Carolina themes, many of them. And so part of it’s about exposure of our filmmakers, but it’s also about exposure of our state as well,” he said.

Gunn’s film “Last Night at the Ellington,” made with Indie Grants support, won the Regional Spotlight Award for Best Film From the Southeast from the Charleston Film Festival. He describes it as his “calling card,” a way to introduce himself and his work to audiences and other filmmakers.

A long history

The Upstate has a long history with filmmaking, starting in 1950 with Bob Jones University’s Unusual Films production company. A few years later, the university added a cinema production bachelor’s degree program.

It’s an intensive program, in which the senior project is a short film, written, directed and edited by the student and screened at the university.

About 45 to 50 students participate in the program each semester, with about eight bachelor’s degree grads per year, said Sharyn Robertson, head of the cinema department.

Graduates have gone on to work for video production companies, on the mission field, and in the media departments of churches.

One BJU graduate now works in television in New York, and he credits his BJU education – “the discipline and perfection” – with helping him hone his skills, Robertson said.

At Clemson, where animation and special effects are the focus, students can earn a master of fine arts in Digital Production Arts. Clemson graduates and faculty have worked on films such as “Happy Feet,” “Superman Returns” and “Frozen.”

A strong community

Chris and Emily White have been making films in Greenville for several years. Their latest, “Cinema Purgatorio,” a semi-autobiographical take on the Whites’ pursuit of their filmmaking dreams, was chosen as one of three feature films in competition at Reedy Reels. It will be the final entry, screened just before the awards ceremony on Oct. 17.

There’s no shortage of filmmaking talent in the Upstate, and the region also benefits from the strength of Georgia’s film industry, Chris White said.

“Our experience has been, living in Greenville, is that there is a lot of indigenous talent coming out of Greenville. We have collaborated on projects that are at least major and big to us, that we were able to support crew talent and acting talent from the Upstate,” he said.

Reedy Reels will screen 45 films in the categories of documentary, short film, student film, animation and feature presentation. South Carolina-themed films will be spotlighted on the second day of the festival.

More than 780 films from around the world were submitted, said Matt Foster, one of the organizers.

Inspiration came from the Beaufort Film Festival, but Reedy Reels organizers wanted to add another component: the chance to meet the filmmakers and ask questions. Many of the filmmakers will be in attendance, including one who is traveling from the United Kingdom, Foster said.

The top feature film will receive a $1,000 prize, while other categories will award $500 and $250 prizes.

“Our hope is to make this a destination event,” Foster said. “I’d like to see it become a large international film festival.”

Gunn is hopeful that the film festival will inspire Greenville cinephiles to seek out films that don’t make it to the multiplex.

Chris White also hopes that it will be a way for filmmakers to meet kindred spirits, in hopes of creating more art in the future. It’s not always easy for filmmakers to connect when they’re so focused on work, he said.

“I think something like Reedy Reels is … a great opportunity for local filmmakers. If we’re not meeting on the steps somewhere, this is a place where we will meet, and we will be able to see each other’s work, and we will be able to hopefully inspire future collaborations together.”


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