Interview with Mark Cornell and Paul Newell of The Fog
We’re excited to share an interview with the creators of The Fog, a feature-length film shot at The ArtsCenter (TAC) with just an iPhone that will be premiering Friday, October 28th at TAC.
The Fog is an ode to the history of the local performing arts community and the building where Mark and Paul forged deep connections. It also looks towards the hopeful future, where TAC continues to foster collaboration and spark creativity.
All proceeds of the premiere will fund TAC’s new home at 400 Roberson Street. Get your tickets here.
You can also view the trailer for The Fog at the bottom of this page.
1. What are your backgrounds?
PAUL: Hi, my name is Paul Newell, and we are Full Nelson Theater. I’m someone who comes from the upper Midwest, originally from Milwaukee. I’ve been working to get rid of my accent all my life. I moved here to Chapel Hill in 1990 with my wife. We raised two kids. And I’m happy to say that I’ve graduated now into a time of life where make-believe can be done on a more energized and full-time basis. And so, we’re very happy to have The ArtsCenter as a home that welcomes people who work in make-believe.
MARK: And I’m Mark Cornell. Paul and I have worked together on a number of shows going back to the Roundtable, which was here for over a decade. We started a theater company together, and we’ve been doing a number of plays together, original works written by either Paul or myself. I’m also part of Marked Men Films, which is the partnership I started with Mark Jantzen, who is in The Fog. And Marked Men Films combined with Full Nelson Theater to make this movie. I am from California. I’ve lived here in Chapel Hill for 18 years. I have a wife and son, a 16-year-old son.
PAUL: Yeah, we thank our wives for putting up with what we do.
MARK: We do. We thank our wives. We couldn’t have possibly done this without their blessing.
PAUL: To Jean and Nancy.
MARK: To Jean and Nancy.
2. What does The ArtsCenter mean to you?
PAUL: Well, The ArtsCenter, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it, for 17 years now, has been a home for both Mark and I. It was back in 2005 when a very dynamic artistic director, Lyndon Harris, who has gone on to start something called Hidden Voices that you may have heard of, invited in a group of playwrights. And Mark and I were two of about ten playwrights that came in. And as it turned out, we had a ten-year run with something called the Playwrights Roundtable. This was an ensemble of playwrights that would stage their own works. We would work in a collaborative way, directing each other’s works, and acting in each other’s works. And the idea was to allow playwrights to get their hands dirty with the production process and to help their playwriting through that. And as it turned out, we put on 120 short plays and evenings of short plays that, we did, 20 of them. And as I say, it was a way for playwrights to get their hands dirty with the production process, and it couldn’t have been done without the Arts Center as a home.
MARK: For me, just having an artistic home at all has been terrific. Both Paul and I live in the same neighborhood, and The ArtsCenter is about eight minutes from our houses. And we have been in this building a lot, doing a lot of different creative things. And it’s kind of fitting that we end our relationship with this building by doing a movie set in this building, showing every room, seemingly every light, and every corner of the space. And Paul and I know it well here, and it’s been wonderful to be able to have a place to go to, an artistic home to go to. And we’re very lucky.
3. What is your favorite memory of The ArtsCenter?
PAUL: I’ll always remember several years ago when a production that was brought in here by Joseph Megel of UNC. He brought in a production of Athol Fugard’s Blood Feud, and he did it with student actors. And I got to tell you, on a sunny afternoon, a weekday several Octobers ago, the house was full, and in the audience was Athol Fugard. And the whole day was just an example of quality theater that can be done right here in this room, as a matter of fact, in Carrboro. One of the actors, a young man by the name of Alphonse Nicholson, a student actor, was in one of Mark’s short plays a few years after this, was in the show. He’s gone on to have a very successful career in New York. And as I say, the whole day was just an example of quality theater done right here in this room here in Carrboro. And it was very inspiring to me.
MARK: For me, I’ve had a lot of really good memories here. But honestly, my favorite memory will be doing this movie with Paul. Paul and I have been good friends for a long time, and we’ve collaborated on a number of things, but this was a different beast. How many shoots did we do, Paul?
MARK: 72 times we came over to the ArtsCenter to shoot this movie. And you kind of got to like a person and respect a person to be able to spend that much time with them. And for me, it was a great collaboration and a great experience to be able to make a feature film in a space that feels like your home, your artistic home. And I’ll always remember it. It’s my favorite memory. Maybe not for Paul, who likes the Fugard show, but for me, this will be my favorite memory.
PAUL: Well, with 17 years here, actually, we have a lot of good memories, and that’s the truth.
MARK: Yeah, that’s true.
4. What are your hopes for the new ArtsCenter?
PAUL: That it survives and that it thrives. You know, there are a lot of communities that would like to have an arts center and arts institution that has a brick-and-mortar presence in its downtown. Where kids can come in and have art camps in the summer or after-school programs where adults can take art classes on a part-time basis. And where working artists can come in and display their works in the gallery or in the live performance center—depending upon the media. But it’s just not often in the cards for communities to have a place like the ArtsCenter in their downtown. And in part, that’s just because of the high cost of real estate. It takes a community; it takes community support. It takes people showing up in a variety of ways as donors or as patrons for something like this to happen. And Mark and I have seen, at least with theater over the last decade or so, things that are not here anymore. Names like Common Ground Theater, where Mark had a play done, and Deep Dish and Man Bites Dog for one reason or another, changing times, raising rents, and those kinds of things, they’re no longer here. So, our hope is that the ArtsCenter is able to stay here, and it takes a community to be able to do that.
MARK: Yeah, I mean, I would agree with Paul. I hope The ArtsCenter continues to be integrated into the community just like it is now. It has a real presence here in Carrboro. Everybody knows about it, knows where it is. It’s one of the places in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. And for us personally, and me personally, just to continue to have an artistic home where we can put on plays or have readings, or shoot little movies, that kind of thing.
5. What is your creative process like?
PAUL: Well, I can say that there’s been some changing over my lifetime with that. I started out as an aspiring screenwriter out of Los Angeles, and that was a creative process in which the end product is so far away and what I’m doing is so removed from the end product that sometimes you can just be very stymied by those conditions. Whereas here, moving to Chapel Hill and starting to work at The ArtsCenter, you had very much on the scene, the end product, the place where something was going to be done. And I got to tell you, a writing process where, you know, there’s a set date, and there’s a set time and a set group of people that you’re working with, it’s been very enhancing for the creative process. And along with that, it has really bumped up the collaboration that’s involved with the creative process, which has been very good for me.
MARK: Yeah, being able to work directly with the actors, being on the stage to create this thing that you’ve written is much different than, say, a lot of my plays get done elsewhere as well, and I don’t have anything to do with that. And so, the process by which they create that thing that I’ve written down on a piece of paper is entirely left up to them. They have a framework. They have a blueprint, but I don’t really have a lot of say in what goes on. But when we’re here, Paul and I work on a project, we can talk and discuss and bounce ideas and create the thing here. This movie, for example, if I had written this script and sent it off to someone else versus Paul and I doing it here, there’d be two completely different things. So, one of the advantages of having an artistic home is you realize the full creative process from scriptwriting to end, and you can see your result.
6. How did you come up with the idea for this film?
PAUL: Well, the idea for this film actually was at the prompting of The ArtsCenter. Mark and I had started this little outfit we call Full Nelson, and we had done a couple of plays here in 2019. Full-length plays and full production. It was great to have that opportunity. And then COVID came along, and the Executive Director who was here at the time, Dan Mayer, said you guys have anything that we might be able to put online while the things are kind of closed down here? And we had a videotape of a play that I had done here in 2019 called The Devil in Mark Twain. So, we did a cutting from that, and that was good. That worked out well. And then I said, Mark, there was that story telling thing that you had, you read it in a music stand for one of our playwright’s shows years earlier. A thing called The Fog. I said, well, why don’t we film that?
MARK: It was much shorter than this film is, which is 90 minutes.
PAUL: And one thing led to another once we got started.
MARK: Yeah, I just had this thing, and Paul and I decided to do it. And we spent a long time working on the script, fleshing it out, making some of the characters a little more full, and creating a throughline. We incorporated COVID into the piece. So, yeah, it was never intended to be a movie, but we had this space, and we started it last summer, and it was empty. And we thought, well, we could shoot this here; the theater is empty. We have this story. So, it felt like a great opportunity. Now, our hope was to finish it last year, but we didn’t quite make it, so we finished it this year.
7. Why did you decide to use an iPhone?
MARK: Well, I’ve been making a number of short films with Marked Men Films with my partner, Mark Jantzen, and using an app called FiLMiC Pro, and I’m getting better and better and better at using this app. I don’t own any other camera. I enjoy using the iPhone. We started really small, just seeing if we could do it, and we enjoyed it. There are some real advantages to the iPhone. It can go places that other cameras can’t. It looks great on screen. There’s a depth of field difference between the iPhone and normal film cameras, but it’s easy to transport, and I’m familiar with the camera and Filmic Pro. So, when we talked about doing this movie, there was no question we were just going to use an iPhone. There was some talk about hiring someone, but Paul and I have done so many projects together, and it was a Full Nelson thing and a Marked Men Films thing. It just felt like we would just do it between the two of us. We’re not that tech-savvy. Paul a little less, though, than I am, but it’s just the world we understand better.
8. What was the filming experience like?
MARK: We had made a few short films together, so I thought we had a decent idea of how long it might take. I think I originally said it was going to be…
PAUL: Eight to ten shoots.
MARK: It turned out to be how many?
MARK: 72. I may have been off a little bit.
PAUL: We just did one today.
MARK: Okay, so it is actually 73.
PAUL: I’m losing count
MARK: But we knew in the first couple of days that it was going to take way longer than we thought it would. And it just required a certain amount of perseverance and trust. And I come back to this, but you have to kind of like the person that you’re working with because it’s been 72 days. There has to be a certain amount of mutual respect and understanding of how the other person works. So, I think Paul and I are pretty good collaborators, and we both sort of push the things that we want. The other person listens, and sometimes they say yes, and sometimes they say no. We both are full of ideas.
PAUL: But then after saying that, I’m just like, oh, God, no. He says, “Paul, I have an idea.” And he tells me what it is and how we want to do it. And I’m like, maybe if we did it this way. Yeah. And that’s how we kind of work. Actually, this was the most collaborative thing that I’ve ever worked on. So much so that I can’t keep track of who came up with what. In terms of the ideas. One of the things that was very good during the filming process is Mark was editing as we went along. And so, we got a real up-to-the-minute sort of view of what the pacing was and what needed to be reshot or rethought about or what have you. And that helped quite a bit.
MARK: Yeah, we reshot a fair number of things just because we would see it later, see it in its context, and realize we could do something a little bit better.
PAUL: And halfway through the shooting, we figured out that we weren’t just going to put this online for the ArtsCenter. It was like, why don’t we actually do a premier showing in the theater and do it as a fundraiser for The ArtsCenter? And that kind of just bumped up our commitment to this. And so it’s been a year and a half building this thing block by block. And it was good for the audience.
MARK: It was mostly just the two of us. I mean, Paul did a lot of camera holding and microphone holding. And there were times when to say that it was difficult for him would be putting it mildly. There were times he was squeezed into uncomfortable positions where he had to walk or move the camera and the mic at the same time. He was a superhero.
PAUL: Walking backward or high up on a ladder. We had this joke. We call ourselves Full Nelson, and it’s like, watch it; we’re going to go to Half Nelson. So, it was fun.
MARK: We survived. And we did well. We did ask a few other people to help. When something was really, really difficult, we would ask for help. But mostly, it was just the two of us in the theater.
9. What was the most challenging aspect of directing this film?
PAUL: I say the most challenging aspect of directing this film was knowing when to step in and when to step back. We had a range of actors who had a range of experience. Some had a ton of experience before, and some had never acted before. And when I was working with my former group, it was just to let them play, let them do things, and kind of step back, and that often worked with the actors who hadn’t had much experience for me to be very prescriptive about what we wanted them to do. It worked out, and they seemed to appreciate that. Basically, it was just knowing when to step in and when to step back and let the actors do what they do.
10. What are you most proud of about The Fog?
MARK: I mean, I’m most proud of the fact that we that we finished. I mean, we were following along with the script, and some days we didn’t get very far. And it can be kind of overwhelming when you flip forward, and you see all the many pages you have left to shoot. And some days were difficult. We didn’t get a lot done. Either it was a technical issue, or I couldn’t get my lines right.
PAUL: There are a lot of lines.
MARK: Yes, there are a lot of lines. I wrote them, but I still had trouble remembering them. And that could take a lot out of you when it’s midnight, and you’ve shot four days in a row, and you’ve just had a lousy day, and you know, you’ve got a whole bunch of pages left to do. It can be draining, but just finishing, accomplishing it.
PAUL: What I’m most proud of, really, is the kind of the stick with it attitude. This was a year and a half experience and journey, really a lot of discovery along the way. And I have to say, Mark’s first talent really isn’t acting; it’s writing. But just this relentless stick-with-it-ness, to get the range of emotions that was in this and the tone and the rate and the physical dexterity and the pacing and all the language. I’m quite proud of the fact that the stick-with-it-ness kind of pulled me along and pulled everybody else who was involved with the film. And one of the things I’m proud of is what we kind of found is that the film has a kind of a theme of remembrance and of changing times and of rebirth. And as we find, this is also kind of parallel to the story of The ArtsCenter. The film goes back to the year 1975, which just happens to be just about the time that the Arts Center moved into this space here on Main Street in Carrboro. And there are a lot of parallels there. And I think it’s just really natural what we’re doing to tell the Art Center story along with this story, The Fog.
11. What recommendations would you give young filmmakers who want to use the iPhone and other new DIY technology?
MARK: Definitely get some kind of a film app because the iPhone built-in camera doesn’t allow you to do a lot with light and color the way FiLMiC Pro does. It’s quite dynamic. I mean, I understand a very small part of the app. It’s really quite exceptional. There are plenty of other filmmakers who use it, iPhone filmmakers who use it and love it. If you’re starting out and you want to shoot with your iPhone, get FiLMiC Pro and learn it and just start shooting with your iPhone. It’s amazing what you can do with the iPhone. As I said before, depth of field is an issue, but you can get lenses that you can attach to the iPhone. There’s all kinds of other things that you can put with the iPhone to help you. I don’t use other lenses other than the lenses that come with the phone for a variety of reasons, including cost, and sometimes I feel so that you can get hung up on getting that exact film look. And I’m discovering that just trying to put stuff in the foreground as much as you can to give the illusion of depth of field can really help. But just get the phone out and start filming things to film a scene, you know, remake a favorite scene from a movie that you’ve loved. Get used to working with lights. I’m getting better and better with lights.
When I first started, it helped that I was on set with other local filmmakers like Ken Peterson, Todd Tinkham, Jim McQuaid, and Estes Tarver. They were very, very instrumental in helping me learn. And I still have a long way to go, personally, but just get the phone out and just start messing around with it and see what you can do to me. The way you can move it, the places that you can put it. It’s quite remarkable.
PAUL: Yeah. The other thing is it can’t be overestimated. Just all the opportunities there are with digital filmmaking. Mark mentioned filmmakers starting out now. Well, I’ll admit I’m old enough that I started out as a film student 50 years ago. Yeah, 50 years ago. Just the simple thing of being able to see what you shoot. You had to go develop the film there was cost. The raw stock there was cost. The rental and the film equipment were cost. The weight of it and the clunkiness of it, all of these things.
12. Is there anything else you would like to share?
PAUL: Well, you know, this is a real watershed event for this institution, The ArtsCenter that’s been in this location for 48 years. And it is soon to close and move to a new beginning just four blocks from here, downtown Carrboro, which is a real plus. And what we hope is that this film is kind of a tribute to this space, the main stage that has hosted so much theater over almost half a century here. And so, we hope we have a permanent record of this place. And so, this is a time to celebrate it, to honor it, and to support it with this benefit performance we’re doing of The Fog for the Arts Center. So, consider coming out and joining us.
MARK: Yeah, we love this old space. We just love for people to come and celebrate it with us. And I hope that this film captures aspects of The ArtsCenter that people remember. And yes, we’re very proud of the film, and please come for our sake and for the actors’ sake. But also, this is a benefit for The ArtsCenter. So, all ticket sales are going to go to the ArtsCenter. Paul and I thought that from the very beginning, we just were so happy that they allowed us to shoot here. And we thought it was important that the final product is about The ArtsCenter and for The ArtsCenter.
PAUL: Yeah, come on out. We hope it’s a real community event.