Labor of Light

Lights, camera, action! Robbie Opperman, Frank Daniels IV, Taylor Homes, Beau Vorous, Patrick Shanahan, and Paul Hesselblad of Empirica

Lights, camera, action!
Robbie Opperman, Frank Daniels IV, Taylor Homes, Beau Vorous, Patrick Shanahan, and Paul Hesselblad of Empirica

by Andrew Kenney

photographs by Missy McLamb

Patrick Shanahan lives in the wrong city.

He’s a movie maker. He shoots on film because he needs its grain and grit. He bought a ’57 Chevy Bel Air, matte black because it was the car his script needed, and drove nine people across the country to make Empirica. Because you can’t fake a road trip.

But Raleigh really isn’t supposed to be the place to make movies. This is a city that hasn’t had a star turn since Mitch’s Tavern appeared in Bull Durham in 1988.

“If you said to anyone in the film industry, ‘I live in North Carolina and I make films,’ they’d go, ‘Oh, Wilmington?’ ” Shanahan says, referring to the Hollywood outpost on the coast.

Yet a new cinema scene has flickered to life in the capital city, powered by talent and money from unexpected sources. Two local films – Shanahan’s Empirica and Drawbridge Media’s Harbinger – have been released in the last year to plaudits and honors. Their makers scrapped their way through ambitious plans and low budgets, setting the script for the city’s youngest form of art.

“People want something to go to, they want something to see,” Shanahan says. “That’s why we started to create local cinema.”

Paul Frateschi, Andrew Martin, and Kieran Moreira of Harbinger on location.

Paul Frateschi, Andrew Martin, and Kieran Moreira of Harbinger on location.


“We’re working jobs that aren’t that exciting, so we can one day do the things we think are exciting,” says Andrew Martin, producer, co-writer, and co-editor of Harbinger, a dream-like film that runs 23 minutes.

He has made a living putting together the kind of high-fidelity corporate video that’s in heavy demand at places like Duke University and Research Triangle Park.

It wasn’t exactly the cinema career Martin imagined during long shifts at The Movie Bar video store – yet those commercial jobs are the foundation of local cinema circles.

“It was always professional filmmaking that got me into it. But as a 21-year-old coming out of school, there weren’t a lot of those jobs available,” Martin says. “So making corporate, commercial videos was the best option.”

His years of commercial work provided not just the experience to make Harbinger but also a crucial connection: His one-time employer, Drawbridge Media, backed and helped to bankroll the project. The firm’s owner, Kevin Wild, freed up money and equipment – including top-line RED cameras, editing stations and storage for terabytes of footage –and set Martin loose, along with Drawbridge employees Kieran Moreira and Paul Frateschi.

Their only mandate: Be creative.

The trio started with about 40 scripts from authors across the country. They didn’t use one. Instead, Moreira had the kernel of an idea. He saw a boy trying to reach the sky.

Over the next few months, that boy became a loner with a wooden mask, running through the woods of a boyhood dream. Then the boy had a mother, and an elaborate treehouse that reached, in the creators’ minds, toward a starry sky.

Soon, their script seemed to call for a whole world.

“When you’re writing something you’re going to make, you’re trying not to put this negative spin on your writing,” Martin says. “It’s tempting to say, “‘This is going to be really hard, don’t write it.’”

The filmmakers first found Cristian Dunston, a middle schooler from Haw River, to play the boy, Harold. His mother-on-film would be Dana Marks, an actor and professor at Duke University.

To record the pair, the directors would need engineers to work microphones, camera people to train lenses, and editors to stitch the film together.

“You need somebody of almost every discipline involved, and if they’re good at it, you pay a good wage for it,” Martin says.

The directors decided to ask the internet for the bulk of the film’s budget. They posted an online fundraiser packed with nicely produced videos, hoping for $15,000.

It kind of worked. They raised $3,000 – not bad, but not enough to pay wages. With funds running low, they instead asked their colleagues to volunteer.

“Are you available on Saturday for 12 hours?” they’d ask. Often enough, the answer was “Yes.”

And so, on borrowed free time, they patched together the people and places to make their script reality.

They found the tree for their treehouse in an Apex backyard, and local developer Greg Paul sent his carpenters to build the thing. For the night sky, they found starry photos from the Raleigh Astronomy Club, and decided to paint them, digitally, into the final footage.

“That’s part of the magic of this process – it all seems to work itself out,” Moreira says. When they needed views of the horizon, Wake County let them climb an emergency-services training tower near the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant.

When they needed a burning house, the rural Mebane Fire Department let them tag along for a controlled training fire. For a soundtrack, the Raleigh band Goodbye, Titan lent soaring electric guitars.

They did all this because they wanted “something big, and something that looks ambitious and looks hard to do,” Martin says.

Their finished product seems large indeed. It looks at home in theaters, every square inch filled with the details the camera caught, or the subtle digital embellishments.

During a screening at The Cary Tehatre this fall, the film won a long round of applause when the lights came up.

And when it came time for questions and answers, Harbinger’s makers knew they’d done their job right: The audience wanted to know how they’d made a dream so convincing.

A still from Harbinger

A still from Harbinger


Patrick Shanahan, the director of Empirica, is a painter, but he started his work in film during college seven years ago.

It was an improvised art at first – “You. Here’s a boom pole.” – but now his productions’ budgets have been edging toward $50,000.

That’s not amateur money, and there aren’t many film philanthropists in this town. Or there weren’t, at least, until Shanahan made some new friends.

“Strangely enough, our funding comes from tobacco farmers,” he says. “A lot of them are conservative, Southern guys, and they have money, and they like the arts.”

Shanahan made his prospective partners a creative deal. He would make a documentary about tobacco if the agriculturalists would also pay for Empirica, a neo-Americana piece that he co-wrote with John Luke Lewis. It’s his second feature-length film.

Buchanan’s script put two troubled brothers on a road trip across the country. The artist first drove the route himself, from Los Angeles to Raleigh.

“I mapped everything out, from Monument Valley down to Albuquerque, this crazy zig-zag route,” says Shanahan, a graduate of Cardinal Gibbons High School, N.C. State University, and the N.Y. Film Academy.

Back at home, the director assembled a huge crew. He got Taylor Homes and Lewis to play the main characters. Shanahan knew he wanted to take his group on the road to film, but he’d have to make some compromises. “I couldn’t take 60 people across the country.” A careful viewer can see Raleigh in the finished film – in the form of cameos from landmarks like Mecca Restaurant – but the film’s heart lies in its cross-country journey.

The film’s core crew of nine took that journey. They set out on a summer morning in 2013, stopping first at Peace Camera, where they loaded final supplies into their gear trailer.

The trailer promptly dug into the bed of the truck, which set the tone for a mishap-prone journey.

“We were stressed to the max,” Shanahan recalls, “and I’m in charge of all three cars, all nine people, and somehow I have to direct, keep up morale, keep everybody fed.”

But something gorgeous emerged as the days passed, Shanahan says. As they shot through reel after reel of 16mm film, the actors played out many scenes in just one take as a verdant landscape rolled past.

“You see a lot of backwoods Louisana, old ’50s cars in the middle of Amarillo.”

The trip was ten days in all – a long haul, imprinted forever on film.


A still from Empirica


The finished projects, Harbinger and Empirica, are very different pieces. Harbinger lasts 23 minutes to Empirica’s hour-plus. Harbinger has a beautifully surreal look, complemented in parts by digital imagery, while Empirica is defined by the rich, classic tones of physical film, soundtracked by Iggy Cosky, Stuart McLamb, and David McConnell.

The place the two films meet is their shared community.

“I think that we are establishing our roots,” Shanahan says. “It is a long process.”

This city won’t likely compete with Wilmington for the big studios’ attention. North Carolina may lose Hollywood altogether, given the elimination of filmmaking incentives. But Raleigh has the cameras and the people – and with enough of both, something’s bound to happen.

“There is a lot of talent in the filmmaking community in this area, and it’s just a matter of time until something local breaks to the national level and draws even more attention to the area,” writes Kevin Wild, owner of Drawbridge Media, in an email.

The filmmaking scene is powered by “these stories that people have in their minds,” Moreira says. “It all comes down to storytelling, and inspiring people to want to bring those stories to fruition.”

Martin has started a new firm, Art in M, to provide personnel and support for films and commercial video projects. One day, he hopes that movies will be his main business.

“Raleigh’s the goal for me. To turn this into a real, full-time production community,” he says.

Shanahan, too, believes that Raleigh is fertile ground for indie film.

“I don’t think I could do this anywhere in the country. We have people that have money that want to give to the arts, and want to give back to the community.”

At the same time, it’s still a community in its formative stages. There are occasional events and screenings, but it’s not always obvious where a new filmmaker or viewer should begin.

“The film community is kind of a closed-off group of people,” says Josh Hardt, co-organizer of the Triangle Film Community meet-up group. “Every other arts community, there’s pretty good networking going.”

That’s changing, though, with each new film. Every day on set is a new combination of cast and crew, and each of those meetings could seed some future project. The community also is increasingly receptive to newcomers; Triangle Film Community, for example, may soon offer educational workshops on lighting, audio, and other technical skills.

“The thing about film, especially,” Shanahan says. “It brings a lot of people together.”

Harbinger will be screened March 14, 12:00 noon at The Colony, 5438 Six Forks Rd. There will be an introduction and question-and-answer session with the filmmakers, and a second screening of a short film.

Empirica, alongside Harbinger, will be screened March 24, 7:30 p.m., at The Rialto, 1620 Glenwood Ave.