Interview* by Sandra Davidson | Photos Courtesy Cynthia Hill
I first heard of Cynthia Hill in an undergraduate folklore class at UNC-Chapel Hill. One morning my teacher, folklorist and rock-and-roller MC Taylor, screened “Tobacco Money Feeds My Family,” Cynthia’s first feature film, as an example of a folklorist’s approach to documenting something controversial — and cultural — like tobacco. In the film, Cynthia chronicles the lives of tobacco farmers from her hometown while reckoning with the deathly implications of the crop. It was the first time I’d seen a documentary about a North Carolina community like the one I am from, and the first time I’d heard of a woman from our state doing that kind of work. It was life changing, and it greatly influenced my own choice to pursue documentary work.
It’s been over a decade since Cynthia scrapped together the resources to make that film, and things have changed dramatically for her. She’s produced two feature films: “The Guestworker: Bienvenidos a Carolina del Norte” (2006), a film about Hispanic farmworkers in rural North Carolina, and “Private Violence” (2014), a documentary about women who are survivors of domestic violence which was screened on HBO. She’s won two Emmys and a Peabody Award for her hit television show “A Chef’s Life,” and moved Markay Media, her production company, from her house into an office-space in Durham, where she now employees around 10 people full-time. In our interview, she reflects on her unlikely journey to filmmaking, her dream of making North Carolina a celebrated documentary hub, and how she managed to get unprecedented access to film one of the best NASCAR teams in the country.
What got you interested in making films?
It’s not a natural path for me to get to being a filmmaker. I grew up in eastern North Carolina in a very rural community. Professions for women were pretty much schoolteacher, nurse, and then pharmacist, [which] was an outlier but I had a direct connection with the pharmacist in town because my mom worked for him. I thought, “That sounds like a pretty good profession.” I was always really good at science and math, so it seemed fairly logical and I went to pharmacy school. When I was in college, I wasn’t necessarily enthralled with pharmacy, and you had to have a huge chunk of hours in a pharmacy, and I just kept putting it off because I didn’t really like it.
At the time I was bartending [at a place] called the Omni Europa. I met this crew [there] from Los Angeles, and they were there doing one of these accident reconstruction shows that was really popular in the early 90s. I started hanging out with them and going on set and I thought, “This is kind of fun.” So, I went to LA. that next summer and worked in a pharmacy, but [I] got to hang out with people who were doing more creative things. [I] realized there were other things out there you could do besides science and math. It was just a whole new world, and I didn’t even know it existed.
So when I came back to school, everything I started doing had a video component to it. If you were supposed to write a paper, I would make a video instead. I [had] this weird roundabout way of getting into it. I just was good at it, and I don’t know why.
I was just good at storytelling. I think that’s probably something about being Southern and hearing your grandma and your granddaddy tell stories all your life. You just sort of pick it up, and you don’t even know you’ve picked it up.
I was going to ask you about that. I notice narrative similarities in how approach documentary work and the way my family has always shared stories. I’ve wondered if you felt that when you’re putting together a story or a film.
I think so. It’s also [about] trying to make connections. All my life I’ve been really shy. I’d stand back. I don’t usually engage. That’s how I developed as a filmmaker. I’ll go into a scene, and I won’t say anything. It makes me a really good observational filmmaker. These things felt like deficits when I was growing up. I wasn’t really comfortable engaging with people, or having conversations. But what it’s allowed me to do is just be really curious about other people. I’m a really good listener. I pay attention. That is something I’ve carried over to the filmmaking process.
How did we get from you making films associated with coursework to you making your first independent project?
I started really brewing on this idea of wanting to tell the story of tobacco because through pharmacy school and graduate school, tobacco was really vilified. I grew up working in tobacco, and my family did that kind of work. That’s what I did every single summer. I was struggling with how to compartmentalize my affinity for the crop. I didn’t know what to do with knowing it was so harmful. I also could see tobacco farmers struggling, and I could see on the horizon that things were really going to change for our community and the regions that depended on tobacco. So I had this notion that I was going to make a film about tobacco farming. I set out to try to raise $10,000, and I was going to spend a season filming tobacco farmers. I was going to have a film by the end of that. Five years and about $100,000 later, I had my first film.
It just was an organic process of having a story inside of me that I needed to tell. I’ve tried to continue on that path of telling stories that are important to me. [I’m] not just doing this to be a media maker. The drive for me is the story. If I don’t have that, it’s hard for me to do anything. It’s hard for me to work if I’m not really passionate about the story itself.
When did you first identify as a documentarian?
After my second film. Or maybe it was my third film. It took me even longer to call myself an artist because I didn’t feel like I really was.
And why was that?
I don’t know. I just didn’t feel like I was legitimate. Until this past summer, I was still on the roster of Walmart and working periodically as a relief pharmacist. It took me that long to feel, one, financially comfortable with letting go of that security blanket of being a pharmacist, and two, to say, “I really am a filmmaker, and that’s what I do.”
How has that changed the way that you carry yourself as a working artist?
Now when I fill out forms, filmmaker is the first thing I put instead of pharmacist. When they say occupation, filmmaker is the first thing because before I would put pharmacist/filmmaker.
I think that would surprise people.
I struggled with it. I think it’s because I didn’t have any training for it. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t do any of the coursework. I didn’t know the history of the format. When I think about what is my training as a storyteller, I watched a ton of T.V. growing up. That’s what I did. That’s it, and listening to the folks around me tell stories, and just being observant. That’s really my training. For a long time it felt like I’m just sort of dabbling in filmmaking. I realize I’m no longer dabbling. I’m really making films.
When did “A Chef’s Life’ become a concept that you wanted to pursue?
Vivian reached out to me because she was really interested in telling these stories about the dying foodways of our region. We met a couple times and talked about it. I got to know her and realized that she could be a good conduit for that story. Her story in [and] of itself was really compelling. She was impressive, and I really didn’t know that. We grew up together, [but] she was much younger than me. I knew she had come back to Kinston and opened a restaurant, but I honestly didn’t think it would succeed because that town was dying, but she was doing it anyway. I admired her drive, her tenacity, and her bravery. Then I realized she really knew what she was talking about, so it made sense to try to use her as a conduit.
At the time, I had this loose connection to somebody in New York who was like, “Yeah, I can get something on the Food Network.” So I talked to Vivian and was like, “Let’s just shoot the pilot and just see if we can get it on the Food Network. The Food Network said no. Vivian was an unknown in the South. I was an unknown in the TV world. They didn’t pay us any attention whatsoever.
I knew we had something special, but I needed somebody else to realize that we had something special. I sent my friend from the PBS station in South Carolina [an] 11-minute clip and she called me back in 12 minutes. She was like, “Oh my God. This is so good.” It took off from there. I think both Vivian and I were naïve enough and passionate enough just to jump [in] headfirst. We didn’t care if it was going to be successful. We just wanted to do it because we felt like it was important. That’s the reason it is successful, because our motives were pure. We wanted to tell a story about our region and the people we love. We felt like the South had been maligned for a very long time, and we felt like we needed to tell a different story about the South.
To see what has happened in Kinston as a result of what y’all have made together definitely shows the power of the arts. How has the success of that show changed or challenged the way you think about impact?
It’s like how do you repeat that? That’s really the scary thing, and also it’s sort of scary thinking that we can’t stop. It seems like there’s a lot that relies on us telling these stories and having that presence on national T.V. We do recognize the power of that. We recognize that it’s much larger than either one of us. That’s a lot of pressure.
Well tell me about your new NASCAR series which seems like quite a lane shift.
Yes and no. It might look like it from the outside, but for me it’s one of those iconic, Southern topics that people think they know. I’ve had this list of things I would love to do, and it’s always been in the top five. I grew up watching it on Sundays because my granddaddy was a huge Richard Petty fan. You had to watch it. There was no choice. It was on.
I think that you have to be really passionate about what it is that you want to do in this world because, if not, you lose your way. You really do. You get so many roadblocks in the process. You have to be driven.
Sometimes things work out for you, and that was the NASCAR thing. We had a connection via another connection who sent notes to Hendrick for us, and then we got a reply back. Within six months of us proposing it, we were filming with Hendrick Motor Sports, which, I would say, is the most successful NASCAR team/company out there. We were getting access like no one else was getting access, especially to their teams because they were so private, but they really liked the work me and the team had done, and they understood what we were trying to do. It was really challenging for us, but I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish.
What’s in the hopper now?
We are working on a new concept with Vivian that’s going to be an hour-long and on primetime. It’s still rooted in the South, but it’s about looking at other communities in the South — immigrant communities and native communities — and their foodways and how our food overlaps. The first season is going to be six episodes. It’s different. It’s a new challenge for both me and Vivian and the team. We’ll see, but just because you’re successful with one thing doesn’t mean that it’s going to translate for the next thing. It makes me nervous. The other thing we’re working on is a future doc with HBO. We’ve been working on it for about two years, and I really can’t talk about that too much because it’s kind of secret. It’s exciting.
Tell me about your role in establishing the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF).
I founded that with a group of people. I don’t think that when we started the organization that I knew how important it was going to be. I was struggling, personally, and the filmmakers and the artists in this community were also struggling because we didn’t have a support system. We were operating in our silos. We needed to have some connections, some connective tissue. We also just needed basic functions of being able to raise money, and we didn’t have anything set up here in this state or even in the region that served that purpose. It was so hard. We weren’t respected outside of the region, and we weren’t respected in the region either because there was this thought that if you were talented you wouldn’t be here. You would be in New York or LA. Because we stayed here, because we wanted to stay here, because the stories we wanted to tell were here, we were looked down upon. We were making — and I was told this on many occasions — local stories with a little “l.” I started saying, “We’re making local stories with a big L.”
Every film is local. Every story is local. It just depends on what your local is. If you’re making a story about Brooklyn, that’s local. But for some reason that has more of an appeal than making something about Pink Hill, NC. Why? If it’s a good story, it’s a good story no matter where it is.
I agree. Amen. So, when was Southern Documentary Fund established?
2002. I think there’s maybe 60 projects that SDF is sponsoring. I’m very proud of that legacy. I’ve stepped back, and I’m an informal advisor. It’s way bigger than I ever thought it could be.
The Southern Documentary Fund has received fiscal and leadership support from the North Carolina Arts Council and I believe you received a program grant for your film "Tobacco Money Feeds My Family." What that mean to you?
It validated the work for me. It showed that other people thought it was also important, not just me. Knowing that other people saw the value in what I was trying to do and the stories I was trying to tell was important to me, especially early on. That’s why these grants that we’re trying to give out with SDF are so important for people who are getting started on projects. It’s showing that other people see value in what you’re doing.
What are the biggest strengths of the arts community that you are a part of in North Carolina?
I would say that we’re all really supportive of one another. It doesn’t feel competitive, which I think is really unique in this community. I hope that this area becomes an area for makers. It’s not just an area for education. I think we are getting to a place now where other filmmakers think, “You know, I could end up in Durham, North Carolina, and there are folks like me there.” People who graduate from schools here and want to be a filmmaker—they don’t automatically just leave. That wouldn’t have been a reality for folks ten years ago.
How can North Carolina better support artists?
Valuing it more. The resources are limited, and that’s always been [a] big frustration for me. Understanding how intricate art and artists are to the success of a community and a state is really important. You are out there talking about economic development and trying to woo companies to come and be a part of North Carolina. Having that art community is a big draw, and artists need support so that we do have assets to offer to our own communities.
*This interview was edited and condensed.
In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.
Interview* by Sandra Davidson | Photos courtesy the Duffer Brothers
The wait is almost over. On Friday, October 27th Netflix will premiere the second season of Stranger Things, the Spielberg-esque series that took the world by storm in the summer of 2016. Matt and Ross Duffer, the 33-year-old identical twins who created and directed the hit show, are excited and a bit anxious about the impending premiere.
“It’s weird,” says Ross Duffer. “We have expectations now. We also know people will watch…which is a new sensation.”
The Duffer Brothers grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and whether they know it or not, North Carolinians are proud to claim the filmmakers. When I caught up with the Duffers for their 50 for 50 interview, I wanted to know how their life in Durham shaped their craft and whether we could ever hope to see a Duffer Brothers project filmed in North Carolina. The answers lie below.
Where did you grow up?
Matt: We grew up in the suburbs of Durham, kind of in the middle of nowhere by a tobacco farm. We had woods and creeks, tobacco fields [and] train tracks. It was beautiful.
When did you start making movies?
Ross: I think we got a video camera in fourth grade. In fifth grade we made our first “feature-length film” which was an adaptation of this card game called Magic: The Gathering. Our best friend lived right next door to us, so he was our partner in making all these movies. Every summer as soon as we got off from school we would all start brainstorming the next movie to make, and we would spend all summer making it. We never went to camp. We just stuck around the neighborhood and wandered around and made these movies. All we’re trying to do with our lives is just capture that feeling again. That’s really what it is.
I hope you still have that old footage!
Matt: We do. I mean it’s a little embarrassing…you don’t want to show it to people publicly, but it’s nice that we have it because it’s a document of the greatest times of our lives.
Ross: It’s interesting to watch the progression year-by-year. It starts out very crude and becomes a little more sophisticated as we started to learn, and then [our] equipment got better.
What drew you both to film?
Matt: I think it was Tim Burton’s Batman. I remember seeing a TV commercial for it and going, ‘I want to see that.’ It was dark for that age and it took a little convincing, but eventually our mom let us see it, and then we fell in love with Tim Burton. He has such a signature style that even at a very young age – like first grade – we were able to track [from] film to film. We started to learn what it meant to be a director, [and] we started to find other directors we liked…obviously, Steven Spielberg being one of the main ones. From that our love for movies grew. Also, our dad was a big movie goer. He’s not in the arts himself, and none of his friends liked going to the movies particularly, so we were his movie-going partners. We just went to every movie regardless of whether it was appropriate or not for children. We went to everything.
I think by early middle school we were pretty determined that this was something we were going to pursue. Aside from our neighbor Tristan, who did everything with us, we were the only ones really into movies as much as we were. We were weird in that sense. We were certainly the only people making movies, so it felt unique until [we moved] out to Los Angeles.
Ross: We had this plan mapped out very early on. We knew that we were going to go to film school, that we were going to California.
Were there early mentors who helped you figure out how to manifest that dream?
Matt: We went to Duke School for elementary and middle school. The teachers found out I loved making movies, and they were very encouraging. No one was like, ‘Let’s be realistic, maybe you should also study to be a lawyer.’ People said, ‘You can do whatever you want to do.’ No one told us how difficult it was going to be. If anything, we were very deluded when we came out here, but I think that was actually good because I think you have to be a little insane.
That’s where we went to school with Charles Frazier’s daughter, and I saw Cold Mountain become a big phenomenon, and that showed me it was possible. We were from this small city in North Carolina, but [we] can still make a cultural impact! That was unbelievable to me.
We [also] had an amazing drama teacher – Hope Hynes (at Jordan High School). She was incredible. She more than anyone influenced us. We’re terrible actors, but I just wanted to be part of the drama department because she is an incredible director. She was fantastic with kids, and fantastic with people who hadn’t acted much. She was brilliant, and I still pull from the lessons I learned from her.
They were doing a big musical [our] junior year. Ross and I cannot sing, so we weren’t really going to be able to be part of it, and we asked her if she would let us do a documentary on her and the process of putting together this musical, and she let us. We really got into documentary films because there was a documentary film festival at the Carolina Theater…Full Frame, and the whole goal was to get into Full Frame. They didn’t let us in.
Matt: We got about 100 rejections. It was only good in the sense that it prepared me for all the rejections that were to come, but it was an amazing experience putting the documentary together. That was when we learned how to edit.
I think Full Frame still really motivates a lot of people locally. There’s a big documentary filmmaker presence here now.
Ross: We loved going.
Matt: We volunteered there. We worked there, and I saw so many documentaries and discovered so many documentary filmmakers through that festival. And now I boycott it because they rejected me (laughs). I’m still very childish about it. I’ll get over it eventually.
I think they might take a film from you now! But let’s back up…when you were growing up, North Carolina’s film industry was booming. Were you aware of that?
Matt: Oh yeah. [It] must’ve been early middle school…this is clearly the most important part of my life…but we went to these studios in Wilmington. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie set. I remember [seeing] a house for this new show called Dawson’s Creek, and then I became an obsessive Dawson’s Creek fan because I knew they shot it here [and] it was about a kid from North Carolina who wanted to be a filmmaker. That was my first real experience with the North Carolina film industry. Honestly it would’ve been great to film in North Carolina.
That would have been awesome. I hope we get a Duffer brothers story set here one day.
Matt: I know! We need some better tax cuts. I love Georgia, but it’d be more fun if the industry were in North Carolina. It’d make it easier for my parents to come to visit. Our first movie was Vancouver doubling for North Carolina, and it just bothered me the whole time because it did not look anything like North Carolina to me. I’m convinced that at some point we’re going to come home and make something.
Ross: Hopefully now that we’ve had a little more success it will be easier to figure out a way to film in North Carolina again.
Matt: Remember when we were [first] doing Stranger Things it was a miracle that anyone was letting us do anything at all.
Do you ever make it back to North Carolina?
Matt: We still get to come to North Carolina. I get my barbecue fix and my Bojangles fix once a year. Realizing there were no Bojangles in California was a big deal for me. It took a lot for me to come to terms with that.
How do you think North Carolina shaped the work you are making today?
Matt: What we wanted to do with the show was to take what it felt like growing up as a kid in North Carolina and translate that onto a screen. I don’t know what it would have felt like growing up in the 90s in any other area, but I just know we had a wonderful childhood. We are the last generation to grow up without cell phones, so in the summer we would just wander off with our friends, and you felt completely disconnected from your parents in a very good way. It felt like you were very much on your own, and [that] anything could happen to you. The possibilities were endless.
There’s a particular feeling that I experienced in those summers in North Carolina that we are attempting to recapture because they were the best times of our lives. The work that really meant a lot to us when we were growing up captured that feeling. The reason something like The Goonies resonated as much as it did with us is because it really felt like us and our friends.
As much as Stranger Things is a love letter to these films and books we grew up loving – it’s just as much a love letter to our own childhood in North Carolina.
Ross: The other thing [I think about] is how supportive and friendly everyone was. I remember just wandering around being able to shoot in basically any restaurant or property we wanted to. Everyone loved the idea of us making movies. I remember we did one movie where the opening was shot in an abandoned mall, and we just asked this mall to let us in before it opened at like 5 in the morning, and they said sure. It was just this incredible experience. You can’t go and ask ‘Can I film in a mall before it opens?’ in L.A. That won’t go over very well. We learned that very quickly when we went to film school in California. Everyone in L.A. is jaded about film, but there was just an excitement about it in North Carolina.
You are firmly in the commercial side of the industry, but I wonder has your life and career intersected at all with public funding for the arts?
Ross: You know what’s funny…one of our mom’s friends loved that documentary about the Jordan Drama Department so much that they did a fundraiser using our documentary as a centerpiece to raise money for the Durham Arts Council. It was great for us because that was the first thing we’d done where there was actually a screening that people other than our parents and a few friends attended.
The North Carolina Arts Council’s founding mission was driven by the idea of “arts for all.” Why does that matter?
Ross: I think what inspired us the most about Hope Hynes was seeing how the arts brought everyone together. Everyone in that department was from very different backgrounds. It wasn’t really like that at the rest of the school. That’s the reason we made that documentary. It was so inspiring back then, and it still is.
Matt: Cinema and the arts in general are very powerful. Cinema in particular because of the number of people it can reach on a global scale.
Ross: I think that’s why you want the mass number of voices and the most diverse number of voices watching and communicating with [art]. It’s a very, very powerful tool.
Matt: And if used correctly it can do incredible things. The most powerful thing about art is it can be very relatable. It can reveal things about yourself that you don’t know, but it can also reveal things about other people. It can do a lot in terms of improving general empathy for others. It can certainly bring everyone closer together. That is why it’s so important for the world. That’s why it’s always been a part of every society throughout human history. I think we need it. I think it’s like water. It’s necessary for our own survival.
*This interview was edited and condensed
In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.