Back in 1994, when James Suttles was growing up in Brevard, a bit of Hollywood stardust descended on his adolescence. A film crew had arrived to shoot part of a summer camp comedy called Heavyweights,
written by a then-unknown Judd Apatow, and James was cast as an extra. "I was only 13 or so but I was enthralled by the collaborative nature and the amount of work it takes to make a movie," James says. By the time he reached high school, James was making short films with the help of supportive teachers; and now, he's directed his first feature film, opening this spring.
Red Dirt Rising — which James not only co-directed with writer Kathleen Bobak, but for which he also served as a producer, editor and director of photography — tells the story of the origins of stock car racing in North Carolina between the two world wars. It was shot in and around Wilkesboro, home of the historic North Wilkesboro Speedway, where the film premiered last month.
"The film has been from the very beginning a labor of love for everyone involved, including myself," James says. "Jimmie Lewallen, who is the central character of the film, was loved in the community of racing, not only as a driver but also has a great friend." Privately financed by a group of investors with a love of racing, the picture went into production in the fall of 2007 with a cast of 23 actors. "Pretty much all of the investors who came to the table did so out of a desire to see the story on the screen," James says. "From day one, this has been a project that defines grassroots."
The usual challenges of shooting any film were augmented for Red Dirt Rising by its dedication to period authenticity, from locations, wardrobe and cars that reflected rural North Carolina between the wars, to the mythology of bootlegging, an important cash source in those Depression-era days and the activity that inadvertently gave rise to the modified, fast-moving automobiles that were the first stock car racers. The Wilkesboro Speedway grew out of those early races, so it's an especially appropriate location for the premiere. "It was an historic event in that the Speedway itself is from the era the film presents and hadn't been actively used for more than 12 years," James says, noting that the track now remains open for business. "It's a neat way to introduce the Speedway to the 21st century."
Coordinating a sizable cast with a crew of over 40 technicians working mostly outdoors would be a big enough job for a first-time director, but the added responsibilities of producing, lighting and editing could have easily swamped anyone. "It all came down to hiring great people to work on the crew," James says. "90 percent of the film was exterior and we had an entire week of rain during our four-week shoot. I remember one morning, every single truck we had was stuck in the mud, but the crew worked hard pulling them out. And here's where community support came in — we had a tow truck on the set within ten minutes from one of our investors."
But the work didn't stop when the shoot wrapped, or even when editing and scoring was complete and the picture was locked down for release. "I think the biggest challenge is what you do with the film after it's completed," James says, looking back over the two years preparing the film's release. "Anyone going into this business thinking it's all about the art is in for an awakening. You have to be able to manage the business and the creative as a filmmaker. It's just the reality. You have to convince investors that waiting two or three years before they'll see any return is worth it."
With the Wilkesboro premiere behind them, James and company have entered Red Dirt Rising at this month's White Lightning Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee and will move on to the Dunn Tire Speedway in Buffalo, New York in late July before a limited theatrical release for late summer. The film should be available on DVD for purchase or rental by early fall.
Filmmakers also know it's a good idea to have the next project planned as the present one wraps, and James is no exception, with a new picture set in Nashville about a struggling musician trying to raise his young daughter while pursuing a career. He's working with Emmy Award-winning Nashville musician Cliff Downs, who scored Red Dirt Rising, on songs for the new picture's soundtrack. "I'm hoping to shoot it early next year if we're able to secure the financing," James says. "It's an incredible story I can't wait to tell."