Although there are many ways to distinguish the personalities and output of Daniel Wallace and Charles Frazier, they do have one striking point of similarity: up until mid-1997, hardly anyone had heard of them. But in June of that year, Frazier published his debut novel, Cold Mountain, with the medium-sized Grove Atlantic publishing company. By the end of the year, the movie rights were sold and Frazier's book was a National Book Award winner (over, among others, Don DeLillo's Underworld). In the ensuing years, well over three million copies of Cold Mountain have been sold.
Sixteen months later, Daniel Wallace published his debut novel, Big Fish, with the Chapel Hill-based independent publisher Algonquin Books. His editor, Kathy Pories, says that while sales of Big Fish have never come close to the success of Cold Mountain, the book nonetheless took on a charmed life in Hollywood. "The agent who sold it to me then sent it to a subagent in Hollywood," Pories says in a recent telephone interview. "That agent loved it and he thought that the father-son elements and the magical elements would make for a good movie. Steven Spielberg optioned it first, but he let the option expire. The book then went to Tim Burton."
While Big Fish ended up as a movie, thanks to the sharp eyes of talent scouts, Pories says that "the book definitely resonated with people before the movie happened. [Prior to the movie deal] it was published in countries like Germany, Italy, China, Spain, Japan, Holland, France, Portugal and Poland." While Algonquin doesn't disclose sales figures, Pories does acknowledge that Algonquin has sold fewer than 100,000 copies of Big Fish in hardcover. (The paperback rights were sold to Viking.)
The more or less simultaneous release of these films is certainly a cause for local celebration. Still, as far as North Carolina is concerned, the occasion is primarily a literary one. Neither film was shot in North Carolina and there's nothing particularly local about the cast and crew of either. Indeed, the Chapel Hill-based Wallace's novel Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions is set in Alabama, which is where the film was shot.
For boosters of North Carolina filmmaking, however, the decision to shoot Cold Mountain in Romania was a blow to efforts to revive the state's sagging film industry. With the ascension of Dawson's Creek into syndication heaven, there are no movies on the horizon and just one new television show in Wilmington. According to Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, "We're fortunate to have One Tree Hill on WB Network, which is providing jobs for 125 people. The downside is that it's our only project. Only two out of nine soundstages are in use and 400 crew members are out of work."
In this climate, Cold Mountain would have been a badly needed boost to the state's film industry. Location scouts for the film made numerous trips to the area over the course of five years, according to Mark Owen of Advantage West, which operates the Western North Carolina Regional Film Commission. "Officials from the highest levels of the state government were in contact with the studio heads to try to bring the production to North Carolina," says Owen, who would not specify which high-ranking officials were involved.
Film officials from around the state agree that the decision to shoot in Romania came down to two things: snow and money. "They said they needed six months of snow. We don't get six months of snow," says Bill Arnold, director of the North Carolina Film Office. "As it turns out, they didn't get six months of snow in Romania either. There was a lot of rain and bad weather."
According to Arnold and others, the most important incentive for shooting however, was the cheapness of Romanian labor. "We had good rapport with producers. They told us quite frankly that shooting in Romania would save them $12 million." The inexpensive labor also extended to the Romanian army, thousands of whom were hired as extras for the Petersburg siege that opens the film.
"Cold Mountain hurt a lot of people's feelings, but since 1980 over 600 movies have been shot in North Carolina and 90 per cent of them were set somewhere else," says Arnold, citing Dirty Dancing and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood as examples. "We're familiar with that aspect of the business and once in a while it turns around on us."
But what's finally interesting about the phenomenon of regional literature being taken to the movies, is that the local specificity starts to erode. For instance, the film version of Cold Mountain is directed by Anthony Minghella, a smart English director who's known for sumptuous and tasteful literary adaptations (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley). The cast, meanwhile, features an Australian (Nicole Kidman), an Englishman (Jude Law), an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson) and a Texan (Renee Zellweger). Meanwhile, over on Big Fish, the director is eccentric Hollywood auteur Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas) and the stars of the film include such Brits as Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney and Helena Bonham-Carter. (However, Chapel Hill is well represented by UNC grad Billy Crudup and native son Loudon Wainwright.)
Of course, the vagueness of these films' rendering of details can have its benefits. As Bill Arnold of the N.C. Film Office says, "We're expecting a tourism boom because most people don't pay attention to the credits. And it's amazing how much the Carpathian mountains look like the North Carolina mountains."
In this issue of The Independent, we're looking at the local angles of two movies that, while beginning life here, are now the property of the giant Cuisinart that is modern popular culture. In these pages, you'll find a profile of Daniel Wallace, who continues to make his home in the area and has recently published a third novel called The Watermelon King. Meanwhile, Maria Pramaggiore considers the ways in which Southern dialects are butchered in the service of Hollywood entertainment. We also have a frank, frequently humorous interview with two fine local actors who discuss their small roles in the films. And finally, expatriate Tarheel Godfrey Cheshire reviews Big Fish and Cold Mountain from his current residence in New York.