It's an idyllic afternoon in exurban Orange County, and Mike Harris is uncomfortably perched six feet up a giant, medieval-looking wisteria vine. He's dressed in a rainbow-colored robe, with a flame-red wig and a conical purple wizard's hat. A cameraman on a ladder frames a shot over Mike's left shoulder. Nearby, a teenage girl wields a fishing pole with a Fig Newton tied on the end of the line. Nic Beery, the director, stands behind the cameraman with a gleeful expression fixed on his face. "Cue the Fig Newton!" he shouts.
The production is tricked out with some rather fancy cameras and audio equipment. They even have a Steadicam. But otherwise it has the feel of a homespun affair. The mood on the set is loose and upbeat, and the cast and crew consist of not a few friends and family members. Harris, for example, was Nic's daughter's junior high school science teacher.
"We met when I was walking out of the Armadillo Grill in Carrboro and he was walking in," says Harris. "He said, 'Want to be in a film?'" Harris had never acted before, and still hasn't, aside from the four or five pictures he's made with Beery.
That's a typical recruitment story for our Indies Arts winners, filmmakers Beery, Ajit Anthony Prem and Todd Tinkham. For the last four years they've been pulling into their orbit an ever-growing cadre of eager confederates, with or without experience, to function as cast and crew. All three are transplants from the Northeast who've found fertile creative ground in North Carolina. And they've all managed to be impressively prolific while holding down day jobs.
Despite the work ethic and talent pool they share, their sensibilities are entirely distinct. Beery's style is punchy and Hollywood-influenced, and though he has a weakness for gags, his films are always visually inventive and fluently constructed. Tinkham's are more quirky and personal, often dreamlike; they're frequently centered on children, who sense transcendent forces lurking behind the everyday. Prem is most interested in themes of romantic love and disappointment. His perceptive ear for truth in acting performances is matched by a meticulous eye for detail in editing, as evidenced by his remarkably assured recent short, Hello, Sorry, Whatever, which he hopes to show at the Carrboro Film Festival in November.
The directors' hard work has paid off in recent years, in the form of acceptances to increasingly high-profile festivals. In January, Tinkham conquered one of filmmaking's peaks when his short film, Alexa, played at Slamdance in Park City, Utah. It's the story of a preteen girl who spends a summer afternoon by the backyard swimming pool, only to discover a hidden world beneath the surface. Strong performances by the children in his cast, who had no previous acting experience, shows Tinkham's characteristic sensitivity to the emotional lives of young people.
Thought he now seems born to direct, Tinkham spent the first 40-odd years of his life engaged in other pursuits. A native of the small fishing village of Gloucester, Mass., he spent many years as a social worker, and now makes a living as an executive coach. He moved to Chapel Hill in 2000, and three years later he finally decided to pursue his childhood dream and start making movies. He bought a camera and quickly got up to speed on filmmaking technique. He now has dozens of short films to his name, and he's currently shooting his first feature, called Southland of the Heart.
Prem, from Madras, India, by way of Astoria, Queens, worked in the offices of the Actors Studio in New York City before moving to the Triangle area six years ago. While in New York, he'd often worked on other people's films, but it wasn't until he moved to Durham and met Todd that he was inspired to pursue his own vision. Since then, he's produced some 50 short films and videos.
"All my life I've tried to find or build little communities where people could help each other," says Prem. "It happened several times in New York, where groups of people would come together, and it would work out to some degree, and it wouldn't work out ... But I moved to Durham and all of a sudden it just blossomed. I didn't even try to make it work; it's just, the right people fell into place. It's beautiful."
Nic Beery arrived in the Triangle from Washington, D.C., four years ago. He'd made a few 16mm films at NYU in 1993, but then life intervened when his wife got pregnant—"I took a break to raise some kids," he says—and he didn't take up a camera again until 2004. Since then, he's made up for lost time: Like Tinkham and Prem, he maintains an intense shooting schedule, completing dozens of short films in the last few years.
His other lasting contribution to the local film scene is the Carrboro Film Festival, which he founded with Jackie Helvey in 2005. Unlike many festivals, this one has a consciously local focus, requiring that directors "must have breathed in the good air of Orange County, N.C., USA, sometime in their life."
The festival's current director, Selena Lauterer, describes an increasingly close-knit spirit among the filmmakers showing at the festival. "It's become a real community," she says. "No backstabbing, but some real congeniality. And some of the up-and-comers are benefiting from the experience and generosity of the veterans."
For Beery, Prem and Tinkham, a move into filmmaking closely coincided with a move to the Triangle. Jim McQuaid, another leading local filmmaker who frequently collaborates with all three directors, noted a regional distinction that might help explain the coincidence. Compared to Boston, which he left in 1990, "It's much friendlier down here," he says. Which makes it easier to rustle up a bunch of people to work on your project with little promise of reward.
Prem concurs, favorably comparing the Triangle's human resources to New York's. "To some degree, it's easier to make films here," he says. "People are excited about it. When I ask people to show up and help me, I get an abundance of volunteers, whether it be extras, people who want to help move the lights around, whatever it is."
Their frequent collaborations and the trust they've built up over time have led the directors to rely on each other for their artistic judgment. "We all get together when one of our films is in the final stages of editing," says Beery, "and we give each other very constructive criticism that is immensely helpful, at least to me. You know, 'tighten this up,' 'I don't think that music should come in right away'—these type of things."
"I'm very fortunate to be in this circle," says Tinkham. "The quality of people involved has improved all the time, in terms of their dedication to the process of making films together. There's also a great deal of truthfulness, an honesty that we have with each other, to a high degree. You don't always find that."
By generously sharing their time, expertise—and not least, equipment—with each other and with a diverse collection of collaborators, Beery, Prem and Tinkham are creating something lasting beyond mere images on tape. They're creating a community.
"When we work on anything, I think what comes across when younger filmmakers watch us is a pure love for doing what we're doing," says Prem. "To some extent, we don't have these gigantic egos. We tend to rely upon each other, and we have a lot of fun in the process. Me, Todd and Nic are extremely fun-loving people. Yes, we're trying to do something great, and we're ambitious with our goals, but I think we tend to really focus on having fun.
"Seriously, if you come to our set, I mean, a lot of energy is spent having fun," he says, laughing.