West Virginia’s
Now-Famous First-Time Filmmakers

 By Steve Fesenmaier

November 4, 2003


Wayne Ewing, who directed his first documentary in West Virginia – and the very first film I saw about West Virginia when I moved here in September 1978, IF ELECTED (1972), about the McGraw Brothers of Supreme Court fame – now has a hit documentary about another genius, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. His film, BREAKFAST WITH HUNTER (2003), is showing all around the country. He reminds me of several other famous documentary directors who also began their careers here. Peter Adair, famous for his Oscar-winning film WORD IS OUT, made his first film in West Virginia – THE HOLY GHOST PEOPLE. (1967). Karen Kramer came to West Virginia to make her first film, THE JOLO SERPENT HANDLERS (1976). Kenneth Fink, a director of episodes for TV series like CSI, started in McDowell County, directing BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE (1981). Jim Rutenbeck, an editor for The American Experience in Boston, made his first film in Clay County, COMPANY TOWN (1983). He screened a recent documentary on a contemporary circuit rider in RAISE THE DEAD (1998) at the spring West Virginia International Film Festival (WWIFF). The film ends in War, McDowell County. His boss at WGBH, Mark Samel, did not begin his career here, but soon after it began he came to WVPBS and directed several parts of THE DIFFERENT DRUMMER series and then WEST VIRGINIA – A FILM HISTORY. He was a guest of the 2002 WVIFF, showing one of his latest projects, about West Virginia native son John Nash, A BRILLIANT MADNESS. John Sayles did not begin in West Virginia, but he came to West Virginia early in his career and directed his first epic film, MATEWAN (1987), here. Earlier he had made several personal films about a small group of people – RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7 (1980), BABY IT'S YOU (1983), LIANNA (1983), and BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984). Andrei Konchalovsky, one of Russia’s greatest directors, moved to the US and directed his first film in Appalachia – SPLIT CHERRY TREE (1982), based on a Jesse Stuart story. He would later direct Hollywood films like RUNAWAY TRAIN, starring Jon Voigt. He would travel to the WV/PA border to direct MARIA'S LOVERS (1985), with Natasha Kinski. Oddly, Francis Ford Coppola came through West Virginia to direct one of his first films, THE RAIN PEOPLE (1969), shooting a scene in a drive-in theater outside Clarksburg – and a young film student, George Lucas, made his MFA film about how Coppola was making his new-technology road film in FILMMAKER (1968). Connie Marks, who screened GREEN CHIMNEYS at Sundance 2003, made her second film, RETURN TO APPALACHIA (1983), in Whitesville, Raleigh County.


James Foley directed his first Hollywood feature, RECKLESS (1984), in Weirton. Also, it was the first film written by Chris Columbus, who has directed the first two Harry Potter films. Bill Brand, a NYC animator and filmmaker, came to West Virginia to make his experimental portrait of Fred Carter in COAL FIELDS (1984), his first long film. Elaine Prater Hodges, a West Virginia State College graduate, made her first documentary about her fellow WVSC student, DOCTOR ETHEL ALLEN: MINUSES AND PLUSES (1984). She has since gone on to make many films about women leaders like Lucrettia Mott. Donn Rogosin, once station manager at WSWP TV in Beckley, had produced an earlier film on black baseball players, but produced his next two films, BALLAD OF A MOUNTAIN MAN (1989) for national PBS, and also produced the only feature biography of Pearl Buck, PEARL BUCK – EAST WIND, WEST WIND (1993). Tommy Dell Smith came to West Virginia after producing the Oscar-winning BROKEN RAINBOW, but while she lived here for a decade she produced BREAKING SILENCE, a film about the nunnery in Parkersburg that was chosen as “best adult film of the year” by Choice magazine. She also made many other films in West Virginia with her partner Susan Pointon from New Zealand for Cambridge Educational. Doug Hawes-Davis came to West Virginia from Missoula, Montana to make his first film, GREEN ROLLING HILLS (1995), about the proposed pulp mill for Apple Grove, West Virginia. He has since made many other films, including another one involving West Virginia, SOUTHBOUND (1995). Be sure to check out their newer environmental films at http://www.highplainsfilms.org/index.html. 


We must not forget Barbara Kopple who first came to Appalachia to study at Morris Harvey College, now the University of Charleston. While here she learned about Appalachia and produced her landmark film, HARLAN COUNTY, USA (1976). She has since returned to make a film in Ravenswood, LOCKED OUT IN AMERICA (1992). Haskell Wexler, one of America’s greatest cinematographers, who shot MATEWAN, put a West Virginia family in his directorial debut, MEDIUM COOL (1969). He presently wants to return to West Virginia to make a portrait of a coal miner he met while shooting MATEWAN. Charles Laughton directed his only film, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), partially in Moundsville, West Virginia. Native son Clyde Ware directed his first two films, NO DRUMS, NO BUGLES (1971) and WHEN THE LINE GOES THRU (1973) in West Virginia years before he directed six other features, mostly for TV. Bill Posner directed only one film, TEENAGE STRANGLER (1964), but it was West Virginia’s first indie feature film and one of the first indie feature films made locally anywhere in the US, making it into the first Psychotronic Encyclopedia and The Psychotronic Video Encyclopedia. Ann Alter, an indie documentary filmmaker, began her career in West Virginia with her TEN LILES TO FETCH WATER (1989). She got her MFA from Ohio University in 1992 and is now teaching at Humbolt State University. Sasha Waters, now a professor at Iowa University, made her only film, RAZING APPALACHIA (2002), in West Virginia. Her film is now distributed by Bullfrog Films – which also distributes two films by Doug Hawes-Davis about West Virginia trees – and has been shown nationally on PBS and at many, many festivals.


After 25 years working in West Virginia, and purchasing every West Virginia-related film I found until 1999, I probably know more directly about West Virginia filmmakers than anyone else. This brief rundown at least gives the reader some idea of how many filmmakers over the years began their careers here. The first filmmaker I personally brought back to the state was Karen Kramer in spring 1979. I traveled with her to Jolo to show some of the people in the film the movie she had recently made about them in her THE JOLO SERPENT HANDLERS. She has gone on to have a fruitful career, teaching at the New School in NYC. She recently told me, after I programmed JOLO at the 2003 West Virginia Filmmakers Film Festival, that she would like to return again. Hopefully we will be able to get many of these filmmakers to return, including Wayne Ewing. I called Attorney General McGraw to tell him about Ewing’s new film on Hunter S. Thompson. He told me that he knew that he had been making a film about him and would love to see it. So would I. (About six years ago, shortly before Film Services was merged into the newly created Library Services Division of WVLC, I was notified that IF ELECTED was finally on VHS. Of course I instantly purchased a copy. It’s still a fine film about two brothers who have helped the working people of this state for decades. Warren is now running for re-election on the Supreme Court. Hopefully he won’t suffer the fate of his brother Darrell, who lost for a second term.)


This article does not discuss all of the many West Virginia filmmakers who began their careers here. I co-founded the West Virginia Filmmakers Film Festival to show all of the locally produced films.  Co-founder Kevin Carpenter is one of the latest, directing ELK HOTEL in summer 2003. Robert Gates was the first independent filmmaker in the state, beginning his career in 1977 with IN MEMORY OF THE LAND AND PEOPLE. Just a few years ago B.J. Gudmundsson, a Pocahontas native living in Lewisburg, made her first film, OUT OF THE STORM. Ray Schmitt, who has been making films for decades, retired to West Virginia in 1997 and has been producing one film after the other. There are several WVPBS filmmakers, notably Russ Barbour, who have been making films and shooting stories for more than 20 years. John Nakashima, Russ Watne, and others have two decades in working for WVPBS. Daniel Boyd and his colleagues at the Paradise Film Institute, at the state’s only film school at West Virginia State College, have produced three feature films plus several good documentaries. Cambridge Educational, now Jaguar Educational, has made many educational films in-state, using in-state talent, winning national awards and selling the films worldwide. Jamie Cope has a local animation production company that sells its state-of-the-art animation worldwide. Mike Lilly returned home from California to direct the best indie feature – CORRECT CHANGE (2002) – using his own $100,000. Hopefully in the future in-state filmmakers will have a chance to travel outside – like Doug Chadwick has done on his two films, TRUE FACTS…IN A COUNTRY SONG (1979) and “OUT OF THE STORM. And more out-of-state filmmakers will come here to make their films – like Lars von Trier, from Copenhagen, almost did.


Additional AppLit Resources: 
Complete List of AppLit Pages on Film

See Also:

Appalachian Film and Television Topics
Dr. Stephen D. Mooney, Instructor, Department of English and Appalachian Studies Program, has compiled a list of film and television shows for his Appalachian Studies Classes at Virginia Tech, VA.   

Appalshop For a complete catalog, contact the Appalshop Marketing and Sales Office at 1-800-545-7467 or appalshopsales@appalshop.org.

Davenport Films and From the Brothers Grimm  
American versions of classic folk and fairy tales, many Appalachian.  Davenport has also made many other Appalachian films.

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
, Huntington, WV

Press release from September 9, 2002, entitled “World premier screenings at Flooded Out Film Festival."
All proceeds from Oct. 10 event go to flood victims.”

West Virginia Film Makers Film Festival

Winning Festival Films, background information on the first festival, local history, links to sponsors, links to information on film such as The Griffin and the Minor Canon, The Night of the Hunter, Invasion of the Space Preachers, etc.


West Virginia Filmmakers' Guild  

The West Virginia Filmmakers Guild was created in 1985 to provide networking and communication between West Virginia film and video makers and those interested in these crafts in West Virginia. Central to its mission are educating the public and promoting West Virginia filmmakers and their films to the public.



Created:  11/15/2003
Last Update:  01/18/2004 11:55:42 AM
Links Checked:  11/15/2003