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Documentary Film I completed in 1979: "Luke A Tribute to Fred" about Thomas Wolfe's older brother

Friday, August 21, 2015

This little project has been fun. And yes, there is a small banjo connection to this post (revealed at the end of this narrative).

Folks reading this blog may have seen J.J. Abram's film entitled Super 8 in which the basic premise is young kids in the 1970s who were into making serious films in Super 8. I could definitely identify with that. I was one of those geeky kids in the 1970s making films in Super 8 where I grew up in South Carolina.

I got started in film work in 1973 at age 13, through my then-best friend whose father was the Dean of Humanities at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC. His father began a regional film festival at Converse, FilmSouth, which sparked the filmmaking fire in lots of young filmmakers in the area.

It didn't take me long to realize I was pretty lousy at scriptwriting, but I loved all the technical aspects of film and began piddling with some early attempts at documentary work.

Not long after the passing of Fred's wife, Mary, I was recruited by him (Fred and Mary lived two doors away from my parent's house) to be his driver as he had recently lost his driver's license due to his age. A neighbor who just happened to be the older brother and only living relative of noted American author Thomas Wolfe.

For those familiar with the works of Thomas Wolfe, it doesn't take long to realize that Wolfe drew heavily upon his real life and experiences to create his literary works. In particular, his moving novel "Look Homeward, Angel" is based on real events and real people and was essentially an autobiography with just the names changed. Fred Wolfe became Luke Gant in that novel.

I really grew to like this old man and became his regular driver for all his errands around town and his frequent trips to his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina and to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial located there. I realized Fred lived for the memory of his brother. Fred had become Luke Gant for real.

I began the project in 1976 at age 16 and continued to work on the it as I could afford to and had the time. As the project grew I really needed help and approached the South Carolina Arts Commission which, combined with additional funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, funded what grew to be a $7000 budget and allowed me to complete the film which was released in late 1979. Along with enthusiastic support and belief in the project provided by Stan Woodward, filmmaker-in-residence with the SC Arts Commission, combined to provide fertile ground for this young filmmaker to take on a project like this.

One of the film's initial showing was for an enthusiastic crowd at an annual meeting of The Thomas Wolfe Society, which presented me with its first ever Citation of Merit. I only recently learned that the Citation award was created because of my film and has been awarded every year since, which is humbling to me considering the company I'm included in among those who received that award.

The film caught the eye of other filmmakers in the area and I was able to freelance in 16mm and video production for about 3 or 4 more years. I was hired by the Appalachian Film Workshop (AppalShop) in Whitesburg, Kentucky as film editor and associate producer for a documentary film there, then worked for about a year as assistant film editor and assistant cameraman for Ross Spears, an academy-award nominated documentary filmmaker based in Charlottesville, Virginia. By the early 1980s, however, the available public funding for filmmaking began to dry up and it became increasingly difficult to finance films which even on a modest budget, were quite expensive for a young 20-something year old trying to make his way in the world. The general rule of thumb in those days was to budget $1,000 for each minute of completed film.

Copies of the film are housed in various collections, including the SC State Archives, and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Thomas Wolfe Collection. The film was entered in the various film festivals and received judge's merit at Sinking Creek Film Celebration in Nashville, 1980, and was shown at Global Village, New York, 1982. Then, as with most niche films like this, it faded into oblivion.

The film was shot and rough edited in Super 8 then enlarged to 16mm for the fine cut, sound mix and negative cutting for release prints. Flash forward 36 years later to now. Film does not last forever, especially when it's not stored in the best of conditions. I was down to only three prints remaining which showed signs of severe color fade and other issues. I recently found in a box of old film work I was digging through, a 3/4 Umatic video of an interview with me from November 14, 1979 on Columbia Cable TV in Columbia, SC, done just after the film was released, which included a decent copy of the film. I was 19 years old when this interview was made.

Because the remaining 16mm prints and the videotape are nearly 40 years old I realized I needed to act quickly before this was lost forever. I just had the film and videotape converted to a digital format I can post to YouTube and share with the world. Here is the brief interview I gave followed by the 24-minute film. I had actually been production director of Columbia Cable TV at the time I was editing this film (another way I helped finance the film) and returned to my old place of work for this interview. That was my old boss interviewing me.

Here it is, for your enjoyment, my film, Luke: A Tribute to Fred.

And oh yeah, that's me playing banjo in the film. I had been playing for two years. When you hear the brief clip of "Old Joe Clark" ... that's me after about 2 years of playing banjo (I picked up banjo in 1977).

I hope you Enjoy :)

NOTE: This video begins with a 4-minute interview of me at age 19, followed by the 24-minute documentary which begins at 3:59


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