After a career spent creating non-fiction television programs that have aired around the world, Mount Airy native Bill Hayes realized the most compelling story needing to be told was right in his own backyard.
He’s spent the last few years producing and directing “The REAL Mayberry,” a documentary film that explores the real-life characters that make his hometown tick and the challenges it faces moving forward.
Looking back on the now-completed project, Hayes said one reviewer’s description of the film as “a love letter to small-town America” was spot on.
This love letter, which premieres Saturday to a select crowd at The Earle Theatre, is one the producer may not have written when he first left town.
Hayes grew up on a large dairy and tobacco farm in Stewarts Creek, the only boy out of five siblings, helping his father manage daily tasks such as tending to 15,000 chickens.
After graduating from North Surry High School in 1973, he headed to college at Duke University.
“I couldn’t wait to leave,” he admitted, but four sisters, who still reside in the area, and his now-deceased parents kept him tied to the community.
“I learned to appreciate it a lot more as I got older,” he said, “the beauty of it and the people.”
The larger Mount Airy family also continued to make an impact.
Hayes still recalls how, freshly graduated from Duke, he couldn’t afford a suit for job interviews, but was provided one on credit from F. Rees Company.
He went on to found and lead two production companies, Figure 8 Films and Thunder Mountain Media, and has produced, directed or executive produced more than 900 television programs for cable networks such as the Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet and National Geographic.
Memorable titles include the award-winning series “The Operation,” which aired for 10 years.
Based near Chapel Hill, Hayes said making commercial television shows is his day job.
“People use the word ‘reality TV’,” he said. “We’re on the authentic end of that spectrum.”
Serving on the board of Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Festival helped rekindle an interest in that medium for the television producer.
“It’s a return to what I had started doing a long time ago,” he said.
One project currently in the works examines the impact of Hall of Fame high school basketball coach Morgan Wootten, DaMatha High, who coached players like Danny Ferry, Adrian Dantley, Sidney Lowe and Joseph Forte.
But Hayes was also drawn to the dynamics unfolding in Mount Airy, and so developed “The REAL Mayberry” project.
“It’s a fascinating community,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of people love ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and this idea of Mayberry. And Mayberry is as much not just a town, but a notion, an idea, a feeling. And I felt like my hometown, our hometown, Mount Airy, was very similar to the fictional town, only I felt it was a lot more complex, more diverse, more interesting.”
Hayes, reluctant to include himself in the story, said his team convinced him to narrate the film himself.
“Since he is the filmmaker, it made the most sense to have him also be our narrator as someone with a knowledge, respect and love of the area,” said co-producer Erin Cuevas. “Bill was born and raised in Mount Airy, and he still has a house there where he visits every few weeks. He has family and friends in the area, as well. Each time we were discussing the film, Bill was always able to tell us something new and insightful about the town, its people and its history.”
Illustrated by footage shot over the past few years, as well as relevant clips from “The Andy Griffith Show,” the film includes interviews with residents from a variety of backgrounds: downtown business owners active in restoration efforts, entertainers, farmers, factory workers and representatives from the so-called millennium generation.
Their reflections shape a profile of the region, showing evolution from its roots as a manufacturing center and the development of the Andy Griffith-centric tourism industry.
It also touches upon the sometimes lesser-known aspects of history, but all with an eye toward the future.
“Our tag line is ‘How does small town America keep its heart and soul,’ so it really does explore rural and small town America and how it can survive in today’s world,” Cuevas said.
The auction of the Spencer’s property downtown, which was filmed by the production team, provides a “great pivotal point,” Hayes said.
“It’s such a game changer for downtown, such a visual representation of the best that could happen and the worst that could happen,” he said.
Stylistically, Hayes said he tried as much as possible to mimic key features of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Sheriff Andy Taylor was never judgemental in the show, Hayes noted, or if he was, realized it by the episode’s end.
“I’ve thought a lot about this because it’s hard not to be judgmental,” but as a piece of art, especially one digging into the Mayberry connection, the director found it important for the finished piece not to have a judgemental tone.
Hayes described another takeaway from the show: “It’s really fun and humorous without making fun of people,” he said.
So while the film acknowledges some unfortunate economic realities, “we also try to have some fun moments,” he said, for example: “You get to see my wacky dad making moonshine.”
And finally, “The Andy Griffith Show” always included a bit of a moral message.
In “The REAL Mayberry,” the moral of the story is that “small towns are important, they can survive,” Hayes said. “It’s not easy; it’s tricky, sticky business,” but Mount Airy’s story has a lot to offer.
“I’m hoping other small towns look at this and think, you know, we might could do this,” said Hayes. “We have a lot to be thankful for as people and a lot to be hopeful about, if you choose to focus on that.
Hayes viewed the film at The Earle earlier this week in preparation for Saturday’s showing, finding it “surreal” to see a film of his creation playing on the same screen where saw his first movie in 1964.
“I think it’s poetic justice,” he said of his choice to premiere the film locally to those “crazy enough to let us point the camera at them,” along with their friends and family.
“I felt like I wanted to say thank you to the town for letting me tell their story.”
In the end, it’s those people, including those whose stories were not included in the film, that solidify the producer’s own belief in Mayberry.
“The kindness, the friendliness you saw in ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ that you look for when you come to Mount Airy, does exist,” he said. “I just feel it.”
To rent or purchase a digital copy of the “The REAL Mayberry,” visit TheRealMayberry.com. In January 2017, the film will be made available via platforms including Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.