A Star is Born

Once upon a time, in a world of beepers and videotape, a scrappy young group of filmmakers created Twinkle Doon, a collective that gave birth to the Cucalorus Film Festival, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

By Gwenyfar Rohler

It was 1992. Gas cost $1.10 a gallon. You could rent a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Wilmington for less than $400 a month. You could mail a letter to California for 29 cents. Pagers or beepers were still considered high-tech essentials for people in the film business and emergency services. DVDs did not exist — VHS tapes were the easiest way to send out screeners of your independent film — via the U.S. Postal Service.

But in Wilmington, North Carolina, the streets were paved with gold: The film business was here. Money flowed from the movie studio on 23rd Street (then known as Carolco Studios) throughout the community and transformed into movies, TV shows, commercials and music videos galore. If you dreamed of a film career, Wilmington was the place to be on the East Coast.

Downtown was the hip place to live: the up-and-coming arts district that attracted young creative types. Into this swirl 12 aspiring and broke young independent filmmakers waded. They were all looking for something. Little did they know, it was each other.

“We all kind of … moved to Wilmington about the same time, which for me was 1992,” Bo Webb recalls. “A handful of those guys had all gone to UNCG together — Kristy Byrd, Adam Alphin, Mark Gilmer, Jungle — and they all moved to Wilmington to get into the business like I did—we all lived downtown. We all just started hanging out together and it was sort of like, ‘You want to make movies too?’ ‘ Me too!’ ‘ Hey, that’s cool, let’s go have a beer.’”

Webb chuckles. “We started talking about what we wanted to make and we said, ‘Well, if you’re making something I’ll help, and if I’m making something, you come help me.’ Then it turned into something a little more formal, and we would pitch each other ideas.”

“Some were living in the Carolina Apartments, and some were living elsewhere downtown. It was all downtown,” Matt Malloy, Cucalorus Festival MC, agrees. “We all aspired to be independent filmmakers. It was really cost-prohibitive back then. You couldn’t shoot it on a phone — I didn’t have a cellphone. It was filmed. To do anything of quality cost thousands of dollars back in the ’90s. And you had to ship it off to a lab and pray … .Then it would come back in one piece and you would have to cut it together somehow.” Malloy shakes his head.

Jungle Shaughnessy puts it a little more succinctly: “We were all bored and unemployed and had film and started shooting it and making stuff.”

From this foment arose the now much-mythologized and greatly lauded filmmaking collective: Twinkle Doon. Like the original Olympians, Twinkle Doon was composed of 12 personalities that attracted and gave rise to something that would outlive all of them. In this case they birthed the Cucalorus Film Festival in 1994, which is celebrating its 25th year this November.

“Twinkle Doon started as sort of a creative outlet for a group of us who started working in the film industry. We all had film school backgrounds, creative minds, great ideas and individual areas of expertise,” Kristy Byrd explains. “Working for the studios on big projects was exciting, but we wanted an outlet for our own projects. This collaborative became known as Twinkle Doon — a name given to us by a rather eccentric fella named Tony (Robinson).”

Brent Watkins recalls it as an incredibly happy time in his life. He moved here the day Michael Jordan retired from professional basketball—the first time. “My dad took me a couple of places (to apply for a job). One of the places was Cine Partners. I got a job! Jock (Brandis) hired me! My dad was like, ‘Good luck, son.’ I had a bike and he gave me three nights at the Motel Six … I met this guy named Tony Baloney (Robinson), who was an original Twinkle Dooner.”

Tony was also working at Cine Partners, a lighting and grip equipment rental house that served the film industry here and up and down the East Coast. Brent wound up living on Tony and Jungle’s couch. “For me, I was in heaven,” Watkins says.

Some beautiful work came out of Twinkle Doon, including Jungle Shaughnessy’s short, Down, which was made using the tail ends of 35-millimeter film that he and friends scavenged from film sets and kept in their freezers until there was enough to shoot a short. “Back then that was gold,” Shaughnessy recalls. “Now you just stick it on a card and it doesn’t matter.” He shakes his head and laughs.

But their big break was getting hired to make Rex Manning’s music video for the film Empire Records. “Rex Manning is the rock singer, and Twinkle Doon made the fictional video for the movie. Empire Records is a cult film now, apparently. …We got $50,000. We spent it all to make the video.” Watkins grins at the memory, then runs his hand through his hair. “That was produced by Twinkle Doon on the beach because I do remember that shoot — we had to lay out so many layers of plywood just to move the equipment over the sand!”

But film success — both professionally and artistically aside — Twinkle Doon’s real legacy is the creation of the Cucalorus Film Festival.

“The film festival was born from this same need to express ourselves independently from the studio and commercial world,” Byrd explains. “We thought our small town should know there are amazing artists and independent filmmaking, not just road blocks for big shoots and craft service.”

“Kristy Byrd wanted to do a film festival, and she had far more organizational power than the rest of us combined,” Malloy says. “It was her idea, and I was pissed because we were living together and I wanted to make movies! We had this core group of people who were hell-bent on making movies, and we had the energy and it was just a matter of, you know, getting the money together to pay for film and shipping and that stuff. A film festival turned out to be a lot better than whatever movie I wanted to make at that time, probably. Yeah.” He gets a faraway look in his eye and smiles. “I’m very grateful for it.”

The first Twinkle Doon “Evening of Celluloid Art, a film festival for open minds” took place at the Water Street Restaurant, owned by current state Sen. Harper Peterson, in 1994. “We used to meet there for afternoon cervezas and got to know the owner, Harper Peterson, pretty well,” Byrd reminisces. “His manager, Dylan (Patterson), was a creative guy we came to know, and he supported our plans to start a festival. Somehow, they agreed to close up shop for one evening and let us show a few films. Jungle made a marquis board with lights all around and voila: We had ourselves a venue.”

Would anyone come? That was a real question. Another was: What would they show?

Kristy Byrd and Brent Watkins did most of the organizing the first year,” Webb says. “I can totally hear Kristy saying, ‘I’m just going to do it’ and it happens.”

Webb recalls that first night of screening. “One of them was mine, a thing I did in college; it was called Capture The Moment. It was a thing I shot on 16 millimeter.” He also remembers a TV pilot about a fire station and shorts from around the state. “I think very little of it was made by members of Twinkle Doon.”

Though this was not yet Cucalorus, something very special occurred that night that would create a through line for every subsequent festival to come: Matt Malloy, “a boy who plays guitar,” introduced the films — and an MC was born. “The original MC was kind of a flake. A beautiful man. But he wasn’t around for the actual thing, and I was like, “I’ll do it,”” Malloy notes. “I’d done some talking at poetry readings and stuff. Apparently, I went a little long on the first one because Kristy came up and turned the lights off while I was still talking.”

Much to everyone’s surprise, it was a packed house for a night of films that no one had ever heard of before. “What a fabulous surprise to have a line around the corner and a packed house for the first night. That is a great memory, seeing Jungle on a stool by the door, next to the bright marquis, and the line of folks waiting to get in,” Byrd says.

“We struck a nerve,” Malloy adds. “It was like we put together this one night, five-hour thing and the line went around the block. We had to turn away a lot of people.”

“We had made a profit of $65,” Shaughnessy says. “So we took the $65 and put it in a coffee cup in Kristy and Matt’s apartment. It sat there for a year and half and then were like, ‘OK, we’ll do it again.’ And the next year it got a little bigger.

“For the first was a one-night deal the second was two days, made the little magazine and flyers, got a little local press — kinda helped out. We might have made $150 that year. So it slowly just kept going and going and going to extremes that we never thought it would. I didn’t think it would ever continue.”

Growth was haphazard and organic. To begin with, the festival got a name distinct from the film collective. “I came up with the name Cucalorus — I can claim that,” Webb acknowledges. “It was just one of those funny words I had heard working in the film business, and things had interesting names, and that was a particularly weird name for a pretty plain piece of equipment. I seem to remember it being sort of like (saying) the name Twinkle Doon everyone went, ‘Yeah, OK.’”

The word cucalorus comes from the Greek for “shadow play or shadow dance.” On a modern film set (or in a theater) it would be called a gobo. It is essentially a metal stencil used in conjunction with a light to project a shadow image on the set — like when a heart appears lit behind the lovers at the end of the show.

Byrd and Watkins drove the ship for the first few years, with a lot of people devoting time and energy to make the festival possible. “I quit shows to help Cucalorus. Like I had a job and ‘I have to go do Cucalorus,’” Shaughnessy says. “Sometimes I regretted it and sometimes it was just ‘keep it going.’ Because Cucalorus didn’t pay anything.” He pauses, then adds, “Slowly it just started getting bigger and bigger, and then we ended up at Josh Heinberg Insurance Agency.”

Shaughnessy recalls the need for an office space for a few months every year. “Which I thought by far was the best office. It was tiny, it was downtown, it was quaint, it was really cool. Then I think they let us use a phone. That’s how the Heinbergs are, very cool.”

“We took a break after the first night at Water Street, but people would stop us on the streets to ask when the next festival was happening. Harper got questions all the time as well. The community needed this, wanted this, enjoyed this … we were hooked,” Byrd recalls. “We all enjoyed doing this festival and came together annually to make it a success. We grew from one night to three days. After about three or four years, we needed more than just our time off from the studios to make this festival happen. It was becoming a real event, and needed funding and planning that took more and more time.”

They were also growing up, too. Though in their early 20s and fresh out of college in the beginning, people were starting families, and the responsibilities of adult life called. Watkins exited his office role when his oldest daughter turned 2, the responsibilities of family life trumping four months of almost constant volunteer work a year.

“I feel like Brent Watkins might like have gotten $100 one year,” Dan Brawley, executive director of the Cucalorus Film Foundation, says. “I remember distinctly that we all had a pretty heated conversation — I think it was at the Heinberg Agency — I think the proposal was that I was getting $500 for the whole year. And there was a long, heated debate about whether that would ruin the magic of Cucalorus. Hopefully that worked out all right.” He smiles and shrugs.

“It wasn’t a full year’s thing. It would sort of gear up and then run itself down. It was totally volunteer for a really long time. Brent at some point turned it into a nonprofit, which made it easier to get donations, to track everything,” Webb explains. “And that’s when Dan sort of entered the picture too, when we had the place at Josh’s (Heinberg’s) building.”

Byrd moved West to work with the Slamdance Film Festival. Things were changing.

“Brent Watkins came looking for me,” Brawley says. “I was working for Jock, and Brent Watkins kinda strolled by the welding shop and was like, ‘Dude, what are you doin’ tonight?’ and I was like, ‘I dunno.’ ‘So come to a meeting’ or something silly like that.

“I think when I first showed up, Twinkle Doon was still the force. But it was the kind of thing that was so magical and mysterious it is still out there. I like to think a lot of the energy still lives within the Cucalorus community — it just doesn’t have the same name.”

And as with any organization, there were growing pains. “I remember there was friction between Dan and some of the people who started Cucalorus It was tough,” Malloy acknowledges. “You don’t have time to take care of your baby — but other people were putting in all these hours and it’s a ton of hours. I saw it in the first few years.

“Brent stepped up and helped Kristy set up the festival, and it was really tough for Brent, I think, when Dan took over. Because Dan had his own ideas about how to run things. He’s really grown it when the rest of us didn’t have the time or resources.”

In the intervening two decades, Cucalorus has moved to a permanent, year-round campus on Princess Street that includes offices, a microcinema, and housing for the various residency programs they offer to filmmakers throughout the year. In addition to the multi-day fall festival, they host three smaller festivals throughout the year: Tarheel Shorties at the Whirligig Park in Wilson; Surfalorus on the Outer Banks; and the Lumbee Film Festival in Pembroke. “We always have at least one film from Lumbee, Tarheel Shorties, and Surfalorus that plays at the November festival,” Brawley explains. “It’s sort of a hub like the others parts are feeding into, but also they have a life of their own. There’s plenty of people that come to Surfalorus who aren’t going to make the trip to Wilmington.”

But without a doubt, one of the most anticipated annual arts events is Dance-a-lorus, a live-stage marriage of dance and film.

“I think it was 2005,” Brawley recalls. “Suzanne Palmer came to the festival and saw a short film and asked me to come over to the Dance Co-operative and bring some films and a projector. So I just sat on the floor of the Dance Co-operative and played three dance shorts and we were like, ‘We should do something together.’”

Blending work by both local and visiting choreographers, Dance-a-lorus is a unique and special event that has grown with each successive year. “We were really lucky that the Dance Co-operative had cultivated such a strong group of artists. It has continued to do that. I am amazed at how that group has been so resilient,” Brawley says. “And then over the years, this is an example of what Cucalorus does on a larger scale throughout the whole festival and all the events that we do.

“Hopefully there is an exchange of ideas that provides material for this community, but also kind of informs those artists who are visiting us about what’s special about Wilmington or North Carolina or the South. And that I think is a big part of what Cucalorus does: that exchange of hyper-local and global.”

Dance-a-lorus is one of the pieces that led to the rebranding of the festival as “Film-Stage-Connect” two years ago. “We’ve always had a stage section; we just didn’t know what to call it,” Brawley explains. “We literally looked at the program guide going, ‘Hey, man, what are these 12 pages? This is some weird shit. What is all this?’ And it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s just stuff we do,’ right? Visual Sound Walls, Dance-a-lorus, The Bus to Lumberton, they just were all these weird things that we did, that were some of the most important parts of the whole festival. They were the things that make Cucalorus special and different. They were the things that people will remember of the experience years later … so we just felt like those programs deserved some up-front recognition. That they needed to be built into the brand.”

The Connect Conference “explores the intersection between creativity, technology, and humanity.” Together the three pieces (Film, Stage, Connect) put together a vast festival of events that will bring people from all over the globe to downtown Wilmington Nov. 13-17.

“I wonder what’s going to happen,” Webb says. “There have been a number of years when we have wondered if this is going to be the last one. Part of it has to do with how hard it is to put on that show and how hard it is to raise the money to put on that show. Every year that happens it feels like we barely made it. We somehow pulled off a miracle. And that’s happened 25 times.”

Brawley adds, “I am 100 percent confident that 25 years from now you’d be here to do an interview with someone to talk about the 50th anniversary of Cucalorus. It just has that weird energy of something that exists because it has to.”

Malloy notes, “I figured it would last as long as people had the energy to put it together. And when that energy ran out I would understand.

“The film business is beautiful. We create stories, and we have life experiences and then we tear it all down! And it goes away … It’s all done. The place where you’ve had all this fantastic memory and it’s all gone. It’s a natural course of life cycle. So I hope Cucalorus lasts centuries — as long as it stays a positive influence on people’s lives.”

He smiles. “I hope it lasts forever.”

Gwenyfar Rohler spends her days managing her family’s bookstore, Old Books on Front Street, in downtown Wilmington.

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