The road blocks—complete with large equipment-toting trucks one sees around Wilmington—aren’t just an inconvenience; they constitute the film industry’s presence. Though recently it’s been scrutinized by politicians, its existence still entails a significant importance to the local economy. A homegrown crew permits the creation of numerous productions.
One short film, “We Can’t Help You,” which began streaming online (NoBudge.com) in July, holds such ties to Wilmington. Written and directed by Brad Land, author of the gritty, best-selling memoir “Goat,” the Southern Gothic crime drama tells the story of a young vagrant who traverses the foothills of the American South with an alcoholic mentor with the intent to carry out an unsettling act.
“Practically every person involved has lived or currently lives in Wilmington,” Taylor Kowalski, producer and lead actor says. The majority of the forces behind the project attended either UNCW or CFCC. Kowalski, who studied English at UNCW, currently showcases his acting chops on shows like Showtime’s “Homeland” (filmed in Charlotte). As well, he appeared in the 2012 film, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”
“Both experiences brought new opportunities my way, and I’m thankful for that,” Kowalski details. His work gave him his acting pedigree, which lent its hand to “We Can’t Help You.” He first became involved with the film back in 2009 when he did a Cucalorus reading for the screenplay of “Goat,” alongside “We Can’t Help You” co-star Austin Nichols.
“Shortly after this event, Brad started developing these characters for [cast members] Austin, Matt Land, Stephen Elliott, and myself,” Kowalski informs. Brad grounded the script in inspirations, including Larry Brown, Cormac McCarthy, Dennis Johnson, Quentin Tarantino, and Bob Dylan. Themes of male sensitivity and group violence recall his memoir “Goat”; however, the film differs in its fictional approach. It’s categorized as “a mobster crime meets a dirty South gang initiation story.” The film yields an innate darkness in its approach.
“Michelle Boley came on as our main producer with her [company], Rouge Kite Productions Co.,” Kowalski says. The crew came together to edit a 40-page script into a 12-minute short. Their work paid off as they were the recipients of the South Carolina Indie Film Grant.
Though script development began in 2009, production on the film didn’t start until 2010—when they shot their first scene for the film. “Brad found [a second director] Alan Scott Neal who edited the attic scene, and after seeing what he accomplished with the footage, we were all inspired to finish the film,” Kowalski explains.
Shooting wrapped in November of 2011. “Some of my best friendships were formed during this project,” Kowalski shares. “We finally walked away with a film that every person involved is very happy with, which I think is rare.”
Like any production, the film was the crew’s baby. Tireless perfectionism led post-production to extend into this year. “[It’s a] long time from 2009 to 2014 for a short film,” Kowalski quips.
The film screened as part of the Okefenokee Shorts at Cucalorus last November. Jengo’s intimate-style theater granted the film an immersing setting. “We screened in the ‘local shorts’ block, which was the first block in the festival to completely sell-out seats,” Kowalski tells. “We knew going in we would be playing for a packed house, [which is] always exciting. It was the first time I had seen the short with that many people, and there was a palpable energy during the screening, which was cool. It meant we had made something that mostly worked; the tension we hoped to build in those 12 minutes was working.”
Naturally, the film’s grim nature sparks discussions and incites a broad range of reactions. “We’ve received a hearty amount of response that are as varied as they come,” Kowalski reports. “My favorite so far came from my acting mentor and friend Peter Jurasik, who told me it made him think of the Rolling Stones’ song, ‘Wild Horses.’”
Kowalski focuses on the acting abilities of his co-star Matt when he serves as a discussion panelist for the film. The crew hopes more in-person screenings will occur, but for now they revel in the Internet’s ability to exhibit their work for the masses. The film is available for free on Vimeo and NoBudge.com—a DIY indie-film site dedicated to housing thought-provoking grassroots projects.