West Texas is the worst place in the world to be when you hear spectacular news, according to Grainger David. Especially if, like the former Wadmalaw Island resident and blossoming wunderkind filmmaker, you find out that your short film was accepted into the Festival de Cannes in France. David's wife, their dog, and their material possessions were packed into a U-Haul as the family trekked to their new home in Los Angeles when he received word. As fate would have it, cell phone reception in the wilds of the Lone Star State was spotty, so it was difficult for David to share his success with family and friends.
And with only a month to go before the French film festival, there was a lot of work to be done immediately once the Davids touched base on the West Coast — prepping press packets, rescanning the short's negative, color correction — all with the ultimate payoff: donning a tuxedo, walking the red carpet, and seeing some of the best films of the year made by some of the best directors in the world. And, of course, seeing his own film, the only American film accepted into the shorts competition this year, in the Grand Théâtre Lumière. "Meeting agents and producers and all the people that come to that festival was a pretty spectacular experience for someone who has been hunkering around in rural South Carolina making little passion projects," he says. "It was more than a dream scenario."
Though this West Coast move was made partly to accommodate David's wife, who will be starting a fellowship at Stanford later this year, it's a sensible step for the writer and director of The Chair, a film that, besides the Cannes acceptance, won the Short Film Jury Award at 2012's South By Southwest festival. "I think it's very distinctive, and that has so much to do with that part of the world," David says. "I think people haven't seen South Carolina and that part of the Lowcountry on film as much as other parts of the South, and people really responded to that." And because of the recent accolades, now seems the best time for someone with David's increasing cred to be exposed to the Tinsel Town industry. "I really wanted to meet people who were financiers and producers," he says of the migration. "I'm talking to agents and managers as a result of the success of this short, and so it seemed like a really good time to make that transition."
Born in Atlanta, David relocated to Folly Beach as a 5-year-old before his family eventually settled semi-permanently on Wadmalaw Island. A Princeton alum, David spent some time as a journalist in New York City, where he got exposed to the kind of small, independent movies that he hadn't really seen or paid attention to while living in South Carolina. These movies felt more like novels to the former English major, and he started to fall in love with the art form. David wrote a screenplay and did some projects in his free time before completing NYU's graduate program in film. The Chair was written as David was driving around Wadmalaw, where he returned for a few years after school to live in his parents' house. The plot evolved as he scouted locations and knocked on neighbors' doors, asking for permission to feature their homes in his project.
David's story is about one boy's reaction to a sci-fi like outbreak of poisonous mold in his small town, an idea with layered inspirations. The filmmaker has childhood memories of his mother scrubbing mold off of their ceiling after the family had been away for a stretch of time. "And kind of looking at that ... having that feeling of this sort of encroaching omnivorousness of the natural world that you can feel so much in the Lowcountry," he explains. "The way that you can walk away for a week, vines will start growing on your house and mold will start growing on your ceiling, and that world will just quickly start to eat up whatever is left untended. There's something kind of darkly fascinating to me about that."
While doing research for The Chair, he found a Biblical versus — specifically in Leviticus — that detailed the practical instructions for what to do if you have mold in your house. First, you take the "offending stones" to a garbage dump. If that doesn't work, you take all of the stones of the structure to a place far outside the city. The Chair borrows from these steps, but "in my story, they burn the chair, which is sort of a more spectacular rendering of just taking the stones some place far outside the city."
As it is a locally made film, there was a big local push in terms of actors for The Chair. Star Khari Lucas is a School of the Arts student, and auditions were held at area schools. Extras came from Wadmalaw churches like Salem Baptist (whose pastor has a significant role in the short) and New Jerusalem. "People got really behind the production and told their friends," David says. "When we needed extras, people just came out and kept giving to the production in a really cool and supportive way." Most of the crew was New York-based, peers from David's time in film school, but there was also some signifcant support from Trident Technical College students, who had the unique opportunity to not only work on a set, but to work with 35 mm film. "They make a point at Trident Tech of really teaching old-school filmmaking, but obviously it's hard to find (someone) that is actually shooting film these days, so they were all really excited," David says.
As he networks his way through the Hollywood system, David is currently at work on another short, The Edge of the Woods, which was funded in part by a $100,000 grant from the South Carolina Film commission. In the film, which is set in the 1940s, a little girl befriends the monster in her basement (created by visual effects company Framestore, who worked on The Dark Knight, many of the Harry Potter movies, and more). This short has more familiar faces than The Chair, including Sean Bridgers (Deadwood), Tony Award nominee Maria Dizzia (known for roles in Louie and Martha Marcy May Marlene), and particularly its child star, Kiernan Shipka (better known to Mad Men fans as Sally Draper). "I was sort of afraid of what that would be like," David says of working with the underage celebrity. "She's a child star, she's from Los Angeles, she's a vegan. She's working on a tiny movie in rural South Carolina. What's it going to be like?"
Painless, apparently. David says Shipka was incredibly easy to work with, poised and professional and supported by her equally easygoing parents. The director points out how important this was, since the film features complicated visual effects and there was only so much time and money to work with.
The Edge of the Woods was shot near Columbia, employing 20 S.C. students according to the grant's requirements. It's currently in post-production as David and his editor trade the Final Cut project back and forth from the West Coast and New York, where the editor lives. David also recently got a grant from the Tribeca Film institute for Penny Stock, a script he wrote while in school that he'll be developing this summer. And he hopes to be back in South Carolina next summer or fall, filming his first feature.