Academy Awards season is not just for rewarding great filmmaking but also for taking measure of where we are as a nation and how that’s reflected in the films that fire our imaginations.
So we’re going to use the opportunity of this Oscar season to take stock in how Winston-Salem is portrayed in films and what that means for the city.
Joining us for the podcast was Mary Dalton, a professor of communication and film studies at Wake Forest University. She’s a documentary filmmaker herself and has written books about the power of television to shape our perceptions.
So join us as we go to the movies, or more accurately as the movies come to us, on this episode of Twin City Talks.
For much of its history, Winston-Salem rarely earned the focus of filmmakers.
When it did, we didn’t exactly win a flattering portrayal of our area and our people. Think “Bitter Blood”, a made-for-TV movie about the Klenner-Lynch murders, and “Black Widow Murders,” a similar docu-drama about serial killer Blanche Taylor Moore starring former “Bewitched” actress Elizabeth Montgomery.
When Hollywood did come, it created excitement. The filming of 1990s “Mr. Destiny” at area locales drew crowds and new media. The same thing happened with George Clooney’s “Leatherheads,” which was also partially shot here.
But the real change came with two factors – a homegrown base of talent and state incentives that made filming in North Carolina more attractive.
Dalton says our homegrown talent is getting stronger, but without the incentives, which have since faded, filmmakers will likely go elsewhere.
“They’re going to go where they get the best deal most of the time,” she says. “The huge amounts we’re talking about you can put back into your movie.”
Here are some of the films with local ties that stand out:
“Junebug” – a 2005 film by Winston-Salem screenwriter and director Angus McLachlan. Dalton praised the performance of Amy Adams and says the film itself has a sense of charm. But she worries the portrayal of quirky characters in Southern gothic films can feel forced. McLachlan is also known for his post-“Junebug” films, including “Stone,” “Goodbye to All That” and “Abundant Acreage Available.”
“Goodbye Solo” - a 2009 film by Ramin Bahrani, who grew up locally. It’s about a Senegalese cab driver who lives in Winston-Salem. The movie got the attention of The New York Times Magazine in an article about neo-neo-realism in film. It feels like a documentary, but it’s not. It really uses natural elements rather than a lot of overt filmmaking techniques to draw your emotions or attention.
“I love the way he lets the story unfold,” Dalton says. “These are characters you might see, people on the street who live similar lives, and maybe not come to know them or pay attention to them.”
“The Fifth Quarter” – A feature film about former Wake Forest football player Jon Abbate and the tragic death of his younger brother that was filmed largely on and around the Wake Forest campus. “It is saying something about a community,” Dalton says.
Here in Winston-Salem we’re lucky to have a vibrant film culture with a downtown arthouse theater – a/perture Cinema – and RiverRun International Film Festival, which has grown into a significant showcase for independent films. We also have a noted film school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
“That’s pretty amazing for this community,” she says.
Want to learn more about the movies we’re talking about? Check out these trailers: