Step into a time machine (whether it be a TARDIS, DeLoran or cardboard box) and venture back to 1994. As the dust settles and the fragments of space regain their shape, peek out and take a gander at 12 Wilmington film visionaries—who dubbed themselves Twinkle Doon and consisted of Kristy Byrd, Matt Malloy, Bo Webb, Brent Watkins, “Jungle” Jim Shaughnessy, Jordan Dawes, Mark and Chris Gilmer, Eric Wilhelm, Adam Alphin, Tony Robinson, and John Marsh—while sitting on the front porch of Byrd’s former Wilmington home. One night they were jawing about an event officially labeled as, “An evening of celluloid art, a film festival for open minds.”
Their discussions manifested in a one-night festival held at the now-defunct Water Street Restaurant in downtown Wilmington. Guests were packed shoulder to shoulder, and drinks were being slung behind the bar. Malloy, who’s emceed every festival, even was accounted for alongside his trusty guitar. The evening, which featured 16 North Carolina-made short films that played for a packed house, laid the groundwork for what has become the Cucalorus Film Festival. This week it celebrates year 20.
“We had no thoughts about a long-running festival back then,” details Bo Webb, Cucalorus co-founder, featured filmmaker and the man behind the festival’s namesake. “We just wanted to see good movies and show movies that other independent filmmakers made. I couldn’t be happier the festival has taken on a life of its own and is now being run by a new generation of film lovers.”
Today Cucalorus has become associated with the fiery-red curls of current director Dan Brawley, who became a volunteer Cucalorian in 1997 after graduating from Duke University. It’s radically shifted from a single night to a four-day extravaganza that takes place each November. One aspect that’s remained constant over the years is its risk-taking. It was a gamble for the original 12 founders—all of whom had full-time jobs and little money to spare—to take on Cucalorus. Cultivating it into something bigger was even riskier; by year two, it extended to two days. Within five years, they were screening 40 films over the course of multiple days. They broadened their venue list to include Bessie’s (now Orton’s), The River Club (now Buzz’s Roost), Cameron Art Museum, The Soapbox (upstarted by Byrd and Watkins), USS Battleship North Carolina, and a host of others, like the Community Arts Center. It was there that Webb recalls enacting an art-installation gag during their early days.
A day in avdance, the pre-recorded the sink area in the art center’s men’s and women’s bathroom. They streamed the footage from the men’s bathroom into the women’s bathroom, and vice-versa. Across the screen, they claimed it was a live feed, showing footage of people idly washing their hands. Every so often something peculiar would happen—like a group of men setting up and deconstructing a tent or someone appearing in a gorilla suit.
“People would come out in the lobby, and they would stop and look at the other door to the other bathroom,” Webb explains, “and just wait to see if anyone came out in a gorilla suit.”
A fun-loving approach always manifested itself within the festival. Annually, it carries out themes to cultivate its quirkiness. Last year all the shorts blocks were named after swamp plants. For 2014 chicken and waffles takes the cake, embracing Cucalorus’ Southern-by-the-grace-of-God locale.
Also in 2014, films pour into Cucalorus from across the world. The number of screenings has blossomed close to 250—around 140 of which are shorts—and they run gamut between global perspectives, children’s movies, world premieres, and works-in-progress. Plus, Cucalorus has added special events, like their annual multimedia kickoff Dance-a-lorus and industry workshops throughout the event. The zany and unpredictable antics of Cucalorus even has earned accolades, as seen in Movie Maker Magazine’s “25 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee” in 2011.
Attendance has grown from a single packed venue to crowds of well over 10,000 (including 300-plus visiting artists), all of whom will pulse throughout Thalian Hall, TheatreNOW, City Stage, Bourgie Nights, Jengo’s Playhouse, and Bellamy Mansion in 2014. Though initially taking place in spring, Cucalorus locked its current November timeframe in its twelfth year, the same year it made Thalian Hall a primary venue. Its budget swelled from an abstract, almost nonexistent figure to receiving grant money from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the National Endowment for the Arts. They raised over $30,000 this year on their Kickstarter campaign, too, and they’ve begun annual fundraisers, like their red-carpet Oscar party held at Screen Gems during the spring.
Twinkle Doon’s early vision made it all possible, though at the time they simply desired to fill an untapped niche in Wilmington’s cultural landscape. In the early ‘90s, there was no Cinematique or other venue to view thought-proving, stylistic films. Twinkle Doon wanted to infuse art into the local film scene, which at the time was known primarily as a hub for TV movies, Hallmark Channel specials and commercials.
“We wanted the people of Wilmington to know that film was more than blocked streets and transient film workers,” Byrd tells—“sort of like in ‘Horton Hears a Who,’ and they all shout ‘We’re Here!’ from the town center of a fluffball.”
Their walk on the wild side is not unlike the process of creating an independent film, actually. Knowing the vulnerability a filmmaker subjects himself to when putting work out for public consumption, Cucaloruians didn’t want their festival to follow the path of others. Thus, they championed a noncompetitive atmosphere and set a precedence on kindling conversations and collaboration to help fuel their love for the artform.
“We offered studio tours and a peek at the bigger side of the film industry, with the help of Carolco Studios [now EUE Screen Gems] and Joe Dunton Cameras,” Byrd describes. “We encouraged discussion and down time to get to know each other, and ask questions of each other. We had small first-time filmmakers, professors and professionals—it was a great group discussion.”
The adopt-a-filmmaker program, thought up by Watkins, augmented their goal by pairing filmmakers with festival supporters during their stay. In return those offering a warm bed or couch received a complimentary pass and admittance to the Sunday brunch filmmaker sendoff (yes, despite what nutritionists say, brunch has long been the most important meal of the day for Cucalorians). Thus, Cucalorus managed to put Wilmington on the map across the world. Some international filmmakers even received their first dose of America upon attending the festival.
“There was a young filmmaker from Quebec who had brought an interesting, fairly abstract film to the festival,” says Steve Fox, who discovered the festival in its third year and went on to become a board member for six years. “I met him in the first few days of the opening of the festival. He was a serious type, brooding, not exactly warm and fuzzy. Not that night. He came up to me at the bar, put his arm around my shoulder, and said through a thick and drunken Quebecois accent: ‘Before I came to Cucalorus, I didn’t like Americans very much.’ I considered that a huge victory.”
By the turn of the century, Byrd had stepped down from Cucalorus and moved to California where she worked for Slamdance. She paved the way for Brawley to take the reins alongside Allen Serkin, who was pivotal in laying what Serkin termed the “heavy lifting of building the foundation.”
“In many ways, the festival has been a gift to me,” Brawley says. “I don’t think I could have ever imagined that I’d be doing what I do now. I had no idea what I was doing when I walked in the door. A handful of people had a lot of faith in me or just were willing to tolerate me while I learned my job.”
Eventually, Serkin moved on to graduate school and Craig Rogers co-headed the festival with Brawley. Their headquarters had seen multiple homes beforehand—from Byrd’s house to a studio in Castle Hayne to a spot attached to the spot attached to the Heinberg Insurance office building on 5th and Orange streets. Together, Rogers and Brawley made perhaps one of the most significant changes in Cucalorus history. They moved Cucalorus to Jengo’s Playhouse on Princess Street in 2004.
With a two-decade long history, Cucalours has evolved with the local film industry. When the festival began, actual film stock and a plethora of other mediums had to be dealt with; now, it works primarily with digital formats, a task for which they’ve enlisted the help of K2 Imaging out of New York. Rogers recalls that the behind-the-scenes of Cucalorus rarely goes without a hitch, as evidenced by that one time when a film was spooled upside down and backward—not to mention the the prints that simply vanished before ever making it to the festival. However, Cucalorians are all about taking things in stride; the setbacks often create the best learning environment in life.
“Hopefully, a big part of the experience for Cucalorus will always be failure,” Brawley muses, referring to trial-and-error develpment and programmed works by visiting and presenting artists. Spontaneity and a free-to-experiment zone largely colors the festival.
“I’m really more interested sometimes in failure than I am in success,” he adds. “I think you learn a lot more, and I think you can sometimes have profound discoveries and insights when you go for something that there’s no way you can achieve. I think that’s part of the Cucalorus set-up.”
It’s not uncommon for folks to come in and interview for a position one day and be a major player for the festival the next. Such was the case for current board of trustees chair Beth Steelman. She first learned of the festival in the mid ‘90s but truly became hooked when seeing an ad for a Cucalorus staff position, which read: “The best job ever.”
“I was curious,” she remembers, “and sent in a letter that read: ‘I just want to know: What is the best job ever?’ When Dan called me, I knew it was Cucalorus. He hired me as development director, and I worked in the office from 2007 to 2009. The film festival is a busy time for a staff member, so I saw just a few films during those years; however, now, if I can, I’ll get in at least three films a day.”
That’s the spirit of Cucalorus: It values community and beseeches its involvement. In return, Wilmington creatives and art enthusiasts annually flock in droves to be a part of it all. Twinkle Doon member Matt Malloy—who “according to the FBI” is the only person to attend every festival—has been privy to its many changes and idea sessions.
“Watching Cucalorus grow has been like watching a sapling turn into a tree that holds swings, treehouses, flowers, fruits, nuts, beer, mixed beverages, bosoms, hair, giggles, thoughtful opinions, screams, and hugs,” Malloy describes playfully. “A tree that occasionally catches fire, but not in a bad way. In a warm, sexy way.”
The continued support from countless volunteers and business, which are the festival’s lifeblood, make the seemingly impossible a reality each year as it continues to charge forward. In fact, its sister festival, Surfalorus—which is three years strong—will find its footing in the Outer Banks come 2015. Plus, their artist-in-residence program, which started in 2011, continues to usher in visionaries from across the globe for special events.
“We loved the feeling of bringing people together and hearing them share ideas,” Byrd reflects. “We loved watching movies and finally meeting the filmmakers. While I was only there for the first five years, it has become an amazing whirlwind of this fabulous spirit from which it came. I’m very proud.”