NORTH CAROLINA (Théoden Janes/Charlotte Observer) - The most noteworthy film credits he’s got to his name are producing and co-starring in a low-budget faith-based movie titled “Only God Can” and a small role as a character named John Rock in a practically-no-budget comedy titled “Cinema Purgatorio.”
She, meanwhile, is a Charlotte consultant who works with a few private equity firms and has no prior experience in the film industry.
Yet the startup filmmaking team of John Oliver (no, not the HBO talk show host; this John Oliver primarily makes his living as a voice actor) and Stacy Anderson says they are extremely close to beginning production on an ambitious new movie project that features a screenplay by a New York Times bestselling author and is set to be directed by an established Hollywood name.
And the thing they’re most excited about? “Revolutionary!” — which is the movie’s working title — has the Carolinas written all over it.
It’s to be set not far from Charlotte: Based on the Battle of Kings Mountain, the story centers on a ragtag band of militias backing the patriot cause that surprised and overwhelmed British-loyalist forces near the N.C.-S.C. line on Oct. 7, 1780, marking the first of a string of significant American victories that changed the course of the Revolutionary War in the South.
It’s been conceived by people with strong Carolina ties: Oliver is a University of South Carolina alum who lives in the tiny N.C. town of Tryon; Anderson graduated from Duke University and has lived in Charlotte for 28 years; Patrick A. Davis, the bestselling novelist who wrote the script, moved to Landrum, S.C. (about 90 miles due east of Charlotte) three years ago; and director Nick Searcy is a Cullowhee native, a product of UNC-Chapel Hill, and a former longtime resident of Wilmington, where he cut his teeth as an actor.
Plus, if all goes according to plan, it’s to be filmed almost entirely in North Carolina: They hope home base for the shoot will be a 50-acre private plot of land near Hickory that’s home to the largest collection of historic log structures in the U.S.
They say pre-production is done, that the basis for their financing is in place, and that they’re in the process of finalizing a deal with “a major distributor” (although they say they can’t reveal which one quite yet).
“Knowing the industry as I do,” Oliver says, “I hesitate to make any predictions. But this is as close to happening as you can possibly imagine.” If all goes according to plan, he and Anderson say, they will start shooting this winter.
The question is: Will all go according to plan?
THE OVERMOUNTAIN MEN
Oliver, who calls himself a “lifelong horrific history nerd,” will happily spend all day giving you the background behind the story that “Revolutionary!” hopes to tell.
“I have a swear jar that’s barely full,” he says, “but I also have a telling-people-about-history-who-didn’t-wanna-hear-it jar, and it is overflowing.”
In a nutshell, though: By September 1780, things were looking bleak for the patriot cause in the South. Charleston and Camden had fallen to the British, who had recruited scores of Southern loyalists to take up arms against their patriot neighbors. British Col. Patrick Ferguson, on orders from Gen. Charles Cornwallis, was set to keep the momentum going by marching through the backcountry and vanquish its non-loyalist inhabitants.
The British plan completely backfired. Refusing to be intimidated, hundreds of men living on the outskirts of the Carolinas, Virginia and what is now Tennessee banded together and hatched a plan to defeat Ferguson. On Oct. 7, they did just that, crushing the colonel and his loyalists in a battle at Kings Mountain. It was over in about an hour — and it changed everything.
As word spread of Ferguson’s defeat, patriot spirits soared, and inspired thousands more to join the fight for independence. Meanwhile, loyalists deserted the British army in masses. One year later, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown and the Americans effectively won the war.
Those backcountry rebels would come to be known as the Overmountain Men, and Oliver had been trying for years to talk filmmakers into celebrating them — theirs is what he calls “the greatest story never told” — on film.
“I begged famous executive producers and producers that I know well to do this, and they were always tied up with other projects, as one would expect,” he says. “And one of them, frankly, put his arm around me one day and said, ‘Look, if you want this to get done, you’re just gonna have to do it yourself.’”
HOW HE MUSTERED HIS TROOPS
It’s not every day that someone who is hot to make a historically accurate war movie just happens to randomly cross paths at a dog park with someone who used to make a living writing stories about the military. But that’s what happened in Landrum about three years ago, shortly after Patrick Davis and his wife had moved there.
Oliver and Davis parted ways that day without discussing Oliver’s dream or Davis’s former career.
“He did his homework, though, somehow,” recalls Davis, an Air Force veteran who flew U-2 spy plane missions during the first Gulf War, worked as an airline pilot after retiring from service, then became an author of military mysteries for powerhouse publishing company Simon & Schuster.
“The next thing I know, we end up linking up at the dog park again. And John goes, ‘I’ve got an idea for you.’ That’s what started it. ... I was kind of burnt out from writing; I’d given it up quite awhile ago. But he talked me into it. He just had this remarkable passion for the story.”
Shortly after that, Oliver tapped a team of National Park Service historians — led by John Slaughter, superintendent for the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution Parks Group — as consultants.
Then a year and a half or so ago, Oliver scored another coup when he landed Nick Searcy, a well-known veteran character actor whose resume includes supporting roles in 2018 Best Picture “The Shape of Water” and the Emmy Award-winning TV series “Justified,” which aired on FX from 2010-15.
Searcy, who was fresh off directing a more-modern based-on-true-events film titled “Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer,” was drawn to the story for many of the same reasons Oliver was: “These aren’t people who signed up and were paid a salary to be in the army. These mountain men ... were fighting for an idea. It was about the idea of liberty, and being able to live your life the way you want to, rather than being a subject of a kingdom.”
(He also appreciated Oliver’s desire to deeply weave the Carolinas into the fabric of the production, both in front of and behind the cameras — and, as it happens, Searcy hopes to be both in front of and behind the camera himself. “There’s a character who is the leader of the hillbillies that I’ve kind of got my eye on for myself. I mean, I’m a hillbilly, so who better to lead them?” he says, laughing.)
Stacy Anderson, a vice president at Smith Barney in New York in the ’80s who founded a successful venture capital fund in Charlotte in the ’90s, then came on board as executive producer.
With her help, the pieces on the business side of the project quickly and smoothly started locking into place — though quite frankly, it could have been a whole lot more problematic from a budgeting standpoint.
But they found a surprisingly perfect solution right in their own backyard.
THE PERFECT PLACE TO FILM
It’s called Hart Square Village, and it sits mostly hidden away from the rest of civilization in Vale, N.C.
The roughly 100 structures — dating from between 1760 and 1870 and including everything from corn cribs and cantilever barns to churches and trade shops — have been moved there one by one for preservation purposes. Each one is furnished with original period pieces, with all of the homes, for instance, “decorated in a way that looks like the family just got up and left the kitchen table,” says Hart Square executive director Rebecca Hart.
About 50 years ago, her grandfather, Dr. Bob Hart, found an old cabin on someone else’s land that he liked for his property, so he bought it and had it moved. Then he found a couple more and did the same. As word spread, people in the area started giving their cabins to Hart on the promise that he would maintain and preserve them, and their histories.
“So he accidentally has the largest collection of these structures in the country — and probably the world,” Rebecca Hart says.
In 2001, Bob Hart and his wife Becky established a nonprofit foundation to raise money for the project, and in 2017, they donated the collection to the foundation.
Today, it is open to the public on a limited basis, for things like public school field trips. But they’re building an education center that should be completed in the spring; after that, it will be open more frequently.
Among the many admirers of Hart Square, Rebecca Hart says, is Charlotte Regional Film Commission director Beth Petty, and Oliver says it was Petty who turned his team on to Hart Square.
But it initially wasn’t a slam dunk.
“I assure you that my first arrival there was not exactly greeted with glee by Dr. Hart,” he recalls. “I had to spend almost a year convincing him that it would be OK to allow us on his property.”
Like others who came before, they eventually were won over by Oliver’s passion, and now “Revolutionary!” has the promise of a location — centrally located for the principals involved and not far from where the actual battle happened — where he says they can shoot 95 percent of the film.
“With two or three years advance warning you could not begin to assemble what they have there, from an authenticity standpoint,” Oliver says. Adds Anderson: “It’s a $6 million budget, which will be augmented by the 25 percent North Carolina Film Office rebate. So that gets the budget up over $7 million. But we’ll save $5 to $10 million easily in production costs by filming at the Hart site.”
And it’s a pretty big deal for the Harts, too: Rebecca Hart says this would be the first film ever shot on her grandfather’s land.
LIGHTS, CAMERA ... ACTION?
If Oliver & Co. can pull this off, it would be a somewhat rare trick.
Since North Carolina’s heyday as a hotbed for Hollywood productions — back when the state’s film tax credit was extremely attractive, back when Jennifer Lawrence was kicking around the area while making “The Hunger Games” in 2011 — movie shoots of note have become fairly uncommon in these parts.
In the past 18 months, while Georgia’s tax-break incentives have attracted more than 100 film projects, North Carolina has hosted just six, according to the N.C. Film Office website. If “Revolutionary!” stays on track, it would be the first feature-film activity in the state since July.
So the filmmakers are now just waiting for the green light, while trying to be careful not to jump the gun.
They’ve filed the initial paperwork with the N.C. Film Office. (Petty referred the Observer to the state film office; the office’s director, Guy Gaster, told the Observer he is unable to discuss pending projects.) They’re working on finalizing that distribution deal. (Oliver and Anderson say they can’t comment because it’s not yet signed.) They’re trying to assemble the best possible cast they can. (Says Oliver: “Rest assured that we’ll have a ton of people that you probably will recognize, who have relationships to the Carolinas, like Nick.”)
And warily, they’re eyeing a release date of late 2020.
Though Oliver had previously said he hesitated to make any predictions, in closing the conversation, he makes an emphatic one: