The Goldsboro Entertainment Dispatch – January 12, 2016
High School Drama, the Projection Booth, and Oscar Winners
Goldsboro Native Noel Manning Shares his Film History
By Charlie F. Caine
GOLDSBORO, N.C. – Next weekend the 21st Annual Critics’ Choice Awards will be handed out live on the A&E network celebrating the best in Hollywood filmmaking, and former Goldsboro resident Noel T. Manning II played a role in voting for the nominees.
A Rosewood High School graduate, Manning pursued a love for film during college. In the years since, he has worked with Oscar winners; produced award-winning projects; taught film criticism; served as a consultant for filmmakers; has reviewed hundreds of movies; and co-founded an international film festival. His passion for cinema is deep, and his love for the art form is something he will readily discuss. On the eve of the Critics’ Choice Awards we asked Manning to share some cinematic memories with us.
Caine: You’ve been involved with many aspects of film over the years, and you’ve seen tons. What were some of your earliest movie memories?
Manning: The first movie I remember watching in theatres was actually one that was released several decades before I was born. My mom used to take me to the Myers Movie Theater in Ayden, N.C. where my Uncle Vernon was a manager and projectionist. On Saturdays we’d watch monster movie matinees. I really loved those. Boris Karloff starring in Universal’s Frankenstein was the first film I ever remember watching in a theatre. I was also a fan of Disney’s live action films like The World’s Greatest Athlete & The Snowball Express. But I really lived for adventure flicks. One of my early favorites was Doc Savage: Man of Bronze; he was a cross between Indiana Jones and James Bond. I remember after I watched the Doc Savage film, I started reading books and stories based on his character.
Caine: You mentioned Bond, were you a fan of those films?
Manning: Yes, and I still am. The first two 007 films I saw in the theatre were Live and Let Die, and the Man with the Golden Gun. I still find myself drawn to espionage thrillers today. People sometimes ask me my favorite Bond actor. That’s really a tough one, because I think that each Bond actor brought something different to the role. The history of the Bond franchise is pretty amazing, and it goes back (on film) to the early ‘60s. It’s going to be around for a while. When Daniel Craig leaves the role, you can bet someone else will follow. That’s a franchise that won’t die.
Caine: So you have a actor choice for the next James Bond?
Caine: Interesting. You mentioned the Myers Theatre in Ayden earlier. Many small towns like Ayden, or Goldsboro, for that matter, had only a few of cinema choices when you were younger. They didn’t have the multiplex options we have now. Right?
Manning: Yes, in Ayden at that time, there was one theater and one screen. Of course larger towns had more options, but in the 1970s things really changed and we saw a larger demand from audiences to see films, so theatre owners had to build more screens to meet that need.
Caine: Why? What happened in the 1970s to make that happen?
Manning: Steven Spielberg & George Lucas. When Steven Spielberg released Jaws in 1975, the game was changed for fans and for theaters. People would line up for blocks just to get a chance to see that film; coincidentally that’s where the term blockbuster film comes from, people stretching around blocks. Then, a couple of years later Star Wars was released, and filmmaking completely got upended, as did expectations for the audience. I remember watching Jaws when I was at the beach for a summer, yeah, I know, not the smartest decision of my life (laughs), and I think that I ended up watching Star Wars about ten times when it was released. It was magical; it was unlike anything I’d experienced before in a movie theater.
Caine: What was it about watching films in movie theatres that you liked so much at that time?
Manning: The experience was literally larger than life. Stories unfolding on a giant screen several stories high; adventures igniting my imagination; and engaging with compelling and unusual characters, all added to the joy of it. It was entertainment, sure, but I also remember getting lost in the films and feeling like I was becoming a part of the narrative. I really loved that. I’d even go home after the movie was over and pretend to be the characters from those films, and I’d create new stories of my own. Movies had a way of taking me to strange new worlds, on wild and crazy journeys, and into unique places that seemed to jump of the pages of books. Seeing the actors, the sets, the locations, the special effects, and then hearing the powerful film scores, all made the stuff of dreams come to life. Watching films in a theater can still have that kind of impact on me.
Caine: Yeah, I feel the same way with some films. You just mentioned acting and compelling characters; I’ve heard that when you were in high school that you were a pretty good actor yourself. Were you drawn to acting after watching those early films?
Manning: No, actually I signed up for Drama as a high school freshman because I was avoiding a history class (laughs). But, once I got into drama I found out pretty soon that I had a knack for it. I took it all four years, and during that time became a real student of all aspects of acting. Film though was where I found most of my inspirations as an actor. There was just something that fascinated me about the ‘film actor.’ By the time I was a junior in high school, my plan was to move to Hollywood and pursue an acting career.
Caine: Why didn’t you do it?
Manning: I was invited to the Governor’s School for Drama, and encouraged by my acting teacher Gretchen Jordan to apply to the North Carolina School for the Arts for drama. But, I let life get in the way. So that dream was sidetracked.
Caine: Do you ever regret not pursuing acting beyond high school?
Manning: As a career? No, not really. I honestly wasn’t mature enough at that time to really take on the responsibility that would’ve come with that kind of life. I really think it would’ve been a mistake had I done it. I did get an opportunity to act on stage in college and in some indie films. That was fun, but I really found myself more interested in all the other aspects of making a great production come together. Acting is just one component of that, and I really started to explore the other elements of filmmaking while in college.
Caine: Yes, you got to work on an Oscar-winning film while you were still in college. How’d that happen?
Manning: I was taking a film history class during my junior year at Gardner-Webb University and we had a guest speaker share with us about filmmaking opportunities in North Carolina. He told us that Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day Lewis and director Michael Mann were going to bring the classic novel, Last of the Mohicans, to the big screen. He said they’d be filming in the North Carolina mountains during the summer. As soon as I heard that, I knew that I was going to work on that film, someway, somehow. So, two of us from that class explored the possibility of getting internships on the film. After meeting with one of assistant directors (AD) we got an offer to work on the film as production assistants with the AD office. We couldn’t believe it, we were actually going to be paid staff, not just interns. It was absolutely the best office to work for in the film.
Caine: What made it such a great experience?
Manning: Everything goes through the AD office. It is really the machine that keeps the production moving. There were days I’d work with the camera crew, and other days I’d be working directly with the principle actors. I really got a much deeper understanding and appreciation for film as a whole because of that experience. I was able to work closely with the special effects crew, location scouting, stunt coordinators, props, set design, casting, costuming, and more. It opened my eyes on a personal level to the many pieces of the puzzle that it takes to make a script come to life. It was a rich opportunity for me, and one I’d recommend to anyone. As Mohicans was wrapping I actually got other film offers too.
Caine: Did you take any of those offers?
Manning: No I decided not to. Working on a feature film that went on to win an Oscar was astounding. I got to meet and work with people who are still making positive impacts on cinema today. The friendships, and the education I gained, that was absolutely incredible. But when the project wrapped, I knew that I didn’t want to have the vagabond & nomadic lifestyle that can go hand in hand with major filmmaking. I really wanted to settle down and plant some roots. It was pretty cool to be able to make the choice to say, ‘No, I’m good. I’ve just fulfilled a dream to work with the best in the film industry, and I am completely content to never work on another movie again.’ But, I knew that film, or at least the love if it, was still going to be a major factor in my life.
Caine: That’s right, you found another way to be connected to movies. Not long after Last of the Mohicans who got work doing film reviews on TV, right?
Manning: Yeah. But, I had actually first started writing film reviews for the college newspaper, The Pilot my freshman year. By my sophomore year I was a regular contributor for a weekly paper writing film reviews and film columns. I was also working as a projectionist at a movie theatre, and I had another job in a video store. All of those experiences increased my exposure and tastes to different types of films. Honestly, I wanted to watch everything I could find. It opened my mind to so many great movies that I would’ve never seen otherwise.
After ‘Mohicans’ I took an internship with a local CNN Headline News affiliate, and about three weeks in I was asked if I wanted to review films on air? I didn’t even hesitate. I said yes right away.
Caine: I bet that came pretty easy to you since you’d already had a few years of writing reviews.
Manning: You would think so, wouldn’t you? (laughs) I had never done film criticism for a TV audience, and that was a much different animal than print. My first few TV reviews were pretty rough. My delivery was awful; my articulation was over he top; my hand motions were robotic. It was really, really horrible. But my boss had faith in me and encouraged me. After a short while it became very organic for me, both in the writing aspect and in the on-camera delivery. It also opened the door to join the BFCA (Broadcast Film Critics’ Association), the parent organization for the Critic’ Choice Awards.
Caine: How’d that happen?
Manning: Once I started regularly reviewing films, I contacted all the major film companies to get on the critic’s list for screening invites, and film junkets. When I got on the film publicists’ radar things really began to change. I had about six months of on-air reviews under my belt, and received an invitation to join the BFCA. I didn’t really know the impact of what that meant until months later.
Caine: You mean getting to vote in the annual award’s show?
Manning: Yes, that and more. Because of membership in the BFCA, I’ve had more
opportunities to interview filmmakers and TV stars. I also get access to private screenings and press conferences with industry leaders too. The BFCA has given me a chance to see a different side of the film industry. The making of a film is a big deal, without a doubt, but filmmakers are equally as interested in audience reaction. And for the studios funding these productions, their interest resides in making money. That equals people in seats, or people paying to view the projects. As a film critic, you can play a major role in that success or failure of box office earnings.
Caine: You’ve continued to serve as a film critic in some way ever since that time at Headline News, right?
Manning: Yes, when I left Headline News, I started working at Gardner-Webb University in Public Relations. I still continued to contribute reviews to the TV station, but also began a weekly radio show on filmmaking offering reviews and perspectives for WGWG radio. That was 1999, and I’m still doing that today. Since 1999, I’ve provided reviews and film columns for print, online, and TV as well. My day job is focused on public relations for the University, but the connection to film has continued throughout the years. I’m thankful for that.
Caine: I’ve listened to some of your archived radio shows, Cinemascene, and I’ve noticed you have college students co-hosting with you from time to time.
Manning: Yes, the BFCA offers internship stipends for college students interested in pursuing film criticism. Over the years, I’ve tried to recruit students who I feel have an appreciation of film beyond the surface level. I nurture that film exploration in the student and help them gain experience by reviewing films and talking shop. When they co-host Cinemascene with me, they are invested in it as much as I am. I think giving them that opportunity allows them to think more deeply about why films can mean different things to different people, why Tom Cruise is appealing to some, and appalling to others.
Caine: So, do the students get all the same benefits with the BFCA that you do?
Manning: No, those are reserved for BFCA membership. But I do give students opportunities to attend screenings as my guest. But that happens beyond the radio show. Students in my film classes also get that benefit sometimes.
Caine: That’s right you teach film courses at Gardner-Webb too.
Manning: Yes, I first started in January 1999 teaching a special topics film course on independent film producer Earl Owensby. Since that time I’ve taught a multitude of film-related courses. Each fall I teach a film critics course, and at the end of the semester I try to secure a screening for an unreleased film for the students. That way they’re able to experience exactly what paid critics do. They get invited to watch the film and sit on critics’ row, and after the movie is over, they get to immediately share feedback with a film publicist. I’ve had several students over the years talk about the impact that made on them. I love being able to work with the students and find ways for them to experience the real world of film. They do get to meet filmmakers, and even engage in Q&A with them from time to time in my class. That takes the class beyond the theory and into the practical.
Caine: What do you love most about the teaching film?
Manning: When I see students explore films, and filmmakers, beyond their comfort zone, and learn how to appreciate those; that is what really makes me happy as a teacher and film lover. Everyone has certain film genres, or actors, or directors they don’t particularly like. But when we are able understand the value of even the films and filmmakers we don’t call our favorites, then we’re becoming true connoisseurs of the art form. Filmmaking is more than just lights, camera, and action. When students appreciate the many other elements of cinema, like scriptwriting, fundraising, set design, musical scoring, and more, they begin to get a clearer picture of just how complicated the filmmaking process really is. It’s not just – put an actress in front of a camera and turn it on. There’s much to it than that. I love it when that clicks with students. The love of film and film understanding is constant. There’s always more to learn.
Caine: More to learn? Really? Even from film experts?
Manning: Absolutely. I’m no film expert, but I do feel the more we engage in dialogue with others about film, that’s when our knowledge expands. When my students and I explore the art together, that’s when we grow. When we listen actively to others; to their ideas and opinions, and with openness; we can become a more educated and understanding film society. We can learn to appreciate the differences even if we don’t always agree.
There will also always be new advances in filmmaking techniques, breakthrough artists, and avenues to experience film. In continuing to be connected to those changes, we can find new ways to appreciate film. Think about it, the first film I ever remember seeing was in a one-screen theater that was built in 1948, and now I’m watching movies created for digital platforms on my smartphone. It really is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Caine: You mentioned earlier that you hope to bring students out of their comfort zones. Are there certain films, actors, or directors you’d rather not review?
Manning: Well, I’ll pretty much review any mainstream or indie film I’m given an opportunity to. The more types of films you watch, the better you can become as a critic. But, I’m not a particular fan of pure gross-out comedies, films that use gratuitous language or sex, or Nicholas Sparks love stories. Now, I may chose not to go see these films, but I can appreciate that there is an audience for them. I also steer away from 3D films given the chance; some exceptions apply to this though.
Caine: Given your choice, what films will you pay to go see?
Manning: You know; it really depends. I like so many different types of films, still. But the ones I go see for purely entertainment purposes; I’d have say are; action, adventure, sci-fi, and really great comedies. The Marvel super hero universe has really gotten my attention in the past few years too, and recently, I actually paid to go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens four times. That film definitely took me back to my childhood.
Caine: That’s pretty cool. Is that why you still love watching films in theaters today, because you’re transported back to your childhood?
Manning: Hmmm, good question. I’ve actually always appreciated the shared-audience experience you get with a crowd when watching films; theatres are best for that. And yeah, there are certain films that definitely remind me of my youth and the pure joy associated with those early movie memories. But I think one reason I still enjoy watching films on the big screen is because great stories, compelling soundtracks, brilliant acting, and spectacular special effects are still best experienced at a movie theatre. Nothing really duplicates that for me. When I can limit distractions; turn off my mobile device; focus on the screen ahead; and truly get pulled into a film; I’m able to escape the chaos of the world for at least 90 minutes. I’m able to experience the lives of others through a medium that continues to be captivating and engrossing. Films in general can still frighten me; make me laugh or cry; take me into other worlds; or even transport me into the past or the future. Hmmm, so, yeah, I guess when I really think about it, all those things are what actually compelled me to keep watching movies as a kid too. That’s interesting, I hadn’t really thought about it that way.
Caine: Noel, do you think you’ll ever go back to acting or feature filmmaking?
Manning: I don’t have any plans to do that, although I do hope to continue to review movies, write about them, interview filmmakers, and teach film criticism. That is something I really do enjoy. I will also continue to serve as a consultant for filmmakers and participate as a judge for film festivals. That’s how I anticipate being involved film from here on out. That is unless I get a call tomorrow from three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis.
The 21st Annual Critics Choice Awards airs live on Jan. 21 at 8 pm on A&E. Tomorrow, Manning will share his predictions for this year’s award winners.
**This interview is only a creative example of how one can share a personal film history. The interview never actually took place, but the answers to the question are true. Charlie F. Caine is connected to the film Citizen Kane, do your research and you’ll find out how.