The future of the Spencer’s Inc. building may be up in the air, but a scene from its past has played a major role for one filmmaker native to Mount Airy.
In 2008, Rob Connolly filmed his master’s thesis project in the former children’s clothing factory, involving a slew of local residents as well as 100 concrete deer posing as plastic lawn ornaments.
The short film, “Our Neck of the Woods,” was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival the following year.
Last week, a feature film co-written and directed by Connolly was released in select theaters.
Feature film, as in, a real movie.
“Edge of Winter,” which was also made available for download on iTunes and Amazon Video, stars Joel Kinamann (Suicide Squad, Robo Cop, AMC’s “The Killing”) and Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man).
“It feels like an achievement,” he said. “It’s been a long process.”
Connolly graduated from Mount Airy High School in 2000 and earned his degree in industrial design from North Carolina State University in 2004.
Since graduating from film school at the University of Southern California in 2008, he’s been living in Los Angeles and working toward his big break.
Which “Edge of Winter” very well may be.
“It’s definitely a huge step forward,” Connolly said. “Especially in an industry where so much weight is put on being able to work with name actors.”
Even in a relatively low-budget film, (Kinamann apparently had joked that the lunch budget for “Suicide Squad” was more than the entire “Edge of Winter” budget), “You’re dealing with huge amounts of money,” Connolly said. “It’s a crazy thing to trust someone with no track record with millions.”
Surry Arts Council Director Tanya Jones said the movie will play at the Earle Theatre in Mount Airy “as quickly as we can.”
She is well familiar with Connolly, who had been involved with the arts council since he was a little kid.
“This is very special for someone so early in their career to have this kind of opportunity,” she said.
“I could not be prouder,” said Jones, who downloaded “Edge of Winter” from iTunes and watched it.
“Seeing his name scroll on credits as both writer and director, certainly makes me, and I’ve been doing this more than 30 years, so proud of what we’ve done for so many kids,” she said. “It’s sort of incredible to see all these kids and see them so successful. I know his parents are just bursting with pride.”
His parents, Alice and Alan Connolly, of Mount Airy, flew to Toronto, Canada for a special screening for industry professionals — a premiere of sorts.
“The screening was great,” Alice Connolly reported in an email. “The theater was nicely full and the movie was well received. Rob introduced the movie, then answered questions from the audience afterward. Lots of good questions which he handled very well (totally objective opinion). We thought the movie was great!”
When talking about the film, Alice Connolly seemed more interested on how her son’s success reflects on the community rather than him personally.
“Of course we’re very proud parents,” she said, recalling that Rob Connolly had always been creative.
“He was my child who anytime I wanted him to do something, he didn’t do it in the conventional way. Quite often it was a better way, but usually involved negotiation,” she said. “But this is another example of someone who has come from this little town and gone on to do exciting things in the entertainment business.”
Admitting some bias due to 18 years as a guidance counselor, “I give a lot of credit to Mount Airy City Schools,” she said. “Both my children had excellent educations at Mount Airy schools, not only in the basics, but they did have opportunities for creative ventures.”
“The arts are a huge piece of quality of life to this community,” she continued. “This area has produced actors, back to Andy Griffith, musicians and other people in the entertainment industry. I think one reason is the school is doing a good job of continuing to offer the arts,” she said. “I know everything has been cut so much,” she said, “We’ve certainly been appreciative that the arts had been a part of our children’s education.”
That the arts are valued in the local community may have been evidenced by the support shown for Rob Connolly when filming in the Spencer’s building.
Alice Connolly recalled how the Crossingham family gave her son free run of the old Spencer’s building, and how hundreds of residents volunteered to appear in the film, which featured only two paid actors.
From local businesses such as Biscuitville donating food every day for the cast and crew each day to residents opening their homes to house total strangers, “The whole town, I felt, got behind it,” Alice Connolly said.
Jones noted that Rob Connolly had raised about $65,000 for that project, “from folks who believed in him,” she said. “That’s an incredible statement of support from the community.”
The film was shown to a packed house at the Earle Theatre.
“It was a very exciting night,” Jones recalled. “We don’t often fill up the Earle for a movie. It was a very big deal for the community, which supported somebody who was also very talented.”
Rob Connolly draws a direct connection between that production and his current success.
“This wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for that,” he said. “It was amazing. It involved a lot of people through which it wouldn’t have happened without,” he said, and funders who couldn’t hope for any tangible return on their investment.
“This wasn’t an investment,” he said, referring to “Our Neck of the Woods.”
“Short films don’t make money. It was an investment in me and in the community. That’s something I’ll always be grateful for.”
The recently released film was a stylistic departure for Connolly, he said, describing the Spencer’s short as a quirky comedy.
“This is a much darker character study,” he said of “Edge of Winter.”
A synopsis available on Imdb.com summarizes the plot: “When two brothers are stranded by a brutal winter storm with an unpredictable father they barely know, the boys begin to suspect their supposed protector may be their biggest threat.”
He said he was drawn to the script because of his own experiences hiking and backpacking.
“I know that world,” he said. “The mind wanders to what’s the worst thing that can happen?”
Following where that question led was “something I really connected with at that time,” he said.
The film was shot in northern Ontario.
“It was an incredibly grueling shoot,” Rob Connolly said.
Brutally cold and windy one day, the next day the snow might have melted entirely, he said, making it tough to match frames.
“That’s something I’m proud of,” he said, “having pulled off a shoot that technically difficult.”
Connolly is not sure what is next in store for him, but he is working on new projects.
“I’m excited for it (Edge of Winter) to move out there,” he said, “and excited to keep moving along.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.