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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Reflections on finding authenticity and purpose in life, thanks to Earl Owensby

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Earl Owensby is the poster boy for independent film; his films are works of love.

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You know if Cucalorus was serious about celebrating independent film in North Carolina, they would do a retrospective of Earl Owensby,” I commented to Jock.


SHLEBY FILM MAN: Earl Owensby is the poster boy for independent film in NC and runs his Early Owensby Studios still today in Shelby, NC. Courtesy photo.

Jock agreed and began recounting the stories from his first years here with Dino De Laurentiis, when the majority of his lighting crew came from Shelby, North Carolina, where they had gotten the movie bug working for Earl Owensby. Jock’s favorite anecdote from the era is about lining up the guys in front of the lighting truck and drilling film terms in Italian with them so they could communicate with Dino’s Italian camera crews.

When talking about independent film, Ownesby is the poster boy. Referred to by some as “The Dixie DeMille” and others as the “Redneck Roger Corman,” Owensby was a former Marine who wanted to make movies. So he bought a movie camera, and in 1973 started work on Challenge, an homage to “Walking Tall.” Over the next 15 years, he built a movie studio on farm land and cranked out a steady stream of Grindhouse films.

When I say, he built a movie studio, I mean eight sounds stages, including a water stage, offices, dressing rooms, catering facilities, a hotel on the premises for housing cast and crew, a runway… The man was serious. Were his movies going to Cannes or getting Oscars? No. They were legitimately entertaining and low-budget (“each for under a million,” he used to say in interviews).

Last week I found myself watching “Wolfman,” his 1979 werewolf pic (which Owensby stars in). The art direction is a little confusing—it could be set in the 1870s or the 1970s.

I kept wondering aloud to Jock, “Mmmm, she just needs to get her cape, but for the ‘big hunt down the wolf’ scene. All the guys have really great pump-action rifles…

“Mmmm, it looks like the crew were asked to bring their hunting rifles to work that day…

“But Earl managed to get David Allen Coe to work with him—and Ginger Alden, who was Elvis’ fiancée at the time the King left us for the great rhinestone-covered stage in the sky. She starred as a version of herself in a thinly-veiled biopic of Elvis, titled ‘Living Legend: The King of Rock and Roll.’”

“Playing Elvis himself!” Jock exclaimed. “Now that takes balls—to play the King with his former fiancée. That’s interesting.”

Jock nodded his head. “In a film about Elvis’ life—just after he died? Woah.”

We saw one of the jumpsuits on display at the History of NC Film Exhibit in Raleigh last year.

I was cutting vinyl for the life-sized Scrabble board while watching “Wolfman.” I became pretty impressed with Owensby.

1974 wasn’t like today in filmmaking: The digital-camera revolution has made it much easier and more affordable to be an independent movie producer. Earl was buying old-fashioned film by the foot, running it through a camera that probably cost more than my car, and then paying to process it. By comparison, my reflections on the Scrabble board seemed a bit paltry.

For someone who can’t spell, I have spent a lot of time meditating on Scrabble lately. To be honest, it is destroying me from the inside out—or so I thought. I keenly have been aware I haven’t had the mental or emotional space to work on any of the creative writing projects on my “to do” list since last year. Finally, last week, while laying out the grid on the Scrabble board, I had a break-through realization. Over the last few months, I have not been producing anything close to my best work at the keyboard. It’s painful to know that is the case—to not have a wonderful feeling of satisfaction that starts in my stomach and spreads upward when I’ve written something I’m really proud of. Usually that only happens about twice a year if I’m lucky, but right now I cannot remember the last time I accomplished it … maybe the earlier part of 2015. Part of it is I have been writing “safe” things to avoid confrontation and injured feelings (that doesn’t mean those things haven’t happened—I’m just saying I’ve made more of a conscious effort to select stories that fall into those categories). That’s not a good sign for a writer.  My job should be to provoke discourse, not smooth the waters.

Part of the problem has also been that I have been so overwhelmed with the number of projects on my plate I just haven’t had the mental or emotional space to work on any of the creative projects I want: my several novels in progress, a play that has been nagging at my consciousness for a few months now, a novella. Chief among the projects has been the second-floor renovation project at the bookstore (my country music song as I refer to it. I’ve been working on it so long, the refrain has become, “This year I’m going to…., this year I’m going to….”). But the leap forward is just amazing, and I am months away from opening a literary loft for lodging themed around North Carolina writers. At the center is a life-sized Scrabble board on the living-room floor, with tiles almost a foot in size. The entire space is pretty remarkably curated, if I do say so myself. What I finally realized last week is I have been consumed by a giant art-installation project and rather than failing to do anything creative, I have actually been hard at work on a project of vast scale.

The second realization that came via Earl Owensby is a bit more complicated: Success isn’t measured by the yard stick others hold up for you. Owensby’s films are works of love—even the strangely violent ones that almost got an X rating instead of R. But they were his—what he wanted to do. He built it from the ground up in the most improbable place and made movies he loved without the backing and infrastructure of the Hollywood-studio machine. He was true to his calling. I have been so obsessed by one project I couldn’t see the forest at all, let alone realize there were trees instead of leaves. This curated art-installation project is supposed to celebrate and honor North Carolina writers in a way that has never really been explored before: to literary eat, sleep and play, immersed within their words. None of that would be possible without having grown up surrounded by those creators, nor having spent my adult life with their work. Doing this is essential to what I need to do to stay on track and find—to ultimately curate my own voice.

What I forget (in moments of self doubt and melancholia) is this amazing community is where I finally found my voice. Keeping on track with the work is what, at the end of a life, one has to look back on and has been part of something larger than one’s self.

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