Despite the incredibly high level of creativity going on in Asheville, North Carolina, this city where I live is actually a pretty small town. There’s an unusually robust population of prominent writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers (cough) and craftsmen who ply their trade in this larger than life, smaller-than-you’d-think mountain burgh.
One of those artists, the musician Ben Lovett, has been known primarily as a film composer, but last year he released his excellent indie rock debut CD, called Highway Collection. Perhaps because he’s so entrenched in the film industry, he once pledged to make a short film accompanying every song on the CD. And now, those short films have been so uniformly excellent that they’ve actually taken on a life of their own. Each one is a collaboration with a new director, in a unique and uncompromising style. (You can enjoy some of this previous work here, here, and here).
I met Ben about a year or so ago in a local recording studio, and was immediately impressed; not only was his music excellent, his 12 minute film Ghost of Old Highways was a brilliant example of compelling and gorgeous indie filmmaking, North Carolina-style. In other words, right up my alley. So I let him know if he needed another collaborator, I was willing.
He took me up on it. Recently, we completed shooting on Black Curtain, his next magnum opus. Over the winter, I pitched him an idea — a series of ideas, really — that can kinda be summed up as Edward Gorey meets Eyes Wide Shut. Set in the Edwardian Age (not the 1920’s as it may seem, but the 1910’s — the age of the Titanic), my concept revolved around spiritualism and seances, and elegant people who become more and more depraved the more you look at them. There’s a sickness there, a dark underbelly that contrasts and makes all the elegance come alive. (You can see even one of the images from my pitch here.)
Ben took those initial concepts and ran with them, creating a twisted narrative that’s both heartwarming and sinister at the same time. As we set about creating this production, it became bigger and bigger; soon we had a cast of close to 100 people, with a crew of 60-something folks, mixed with both Asheville veterans like Producer Kelly Denson, Production Designer Shane Meador and Art Director Christi Whitely, and a full crew from Atlanta, led by Director of Photography J. Christopher Campbell.
For our location, we were lucky enough to secure the Masonic Temple here in Asheville — a 100 year old building that, thanks to the Mason’s somewhat secretive nature, had been closed for many decades to outsiders, and was thus preserved as neatly as a time capsule. Gloriously eccentric, with the original furniture and lighting fixtures still in place, the building was perfect for our needs.
The production itself was surreal. Huge and complex, with teams of makeup and wardrobe personnel, the halls of the entire building were busy with costumed extras and technical crew carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars of high tech film equipment up and down the antique stairs. One bleary early morning I found myself approving various young women who were eager to get naked for our camera.
The result will be a gloriously elaborate and eccentric short film that will fit in nicely with the work Ben has previously done.
Watching all of this unfold, I got that visceral thrill that writer-directors experience when the quiet images that they formed in their heads — often sitting alone in an office or spare bedroom, staring at a blank wall — suddenly come to life around them. You can see the excitement in the performers’ and the crew members’ eyes. There’s no feeling like it. This is why we make movies.