by Brian Clarey

You might not recognize David Gordon Green if you saw him on the street — he’s just a regular looking dude, thirties, in a pair of ripped jeans and an unbuttoned flannel, sitting in the back row of the Main Theatre at the UNC School of the Arts.

But seeing as he’s the most famous recent graduate of the school — with successes like George Washington, Pineapple Express and the HBO series “Eastbound Down” starting to pile up — and Joe, perhaps his biggest film to date based on the Larry Brown novel and starring Nicolas Cage, is about to make its North Carolina debut to a room full of students who hope to someday work for him, work with him, be just like him… well, it’s impossible for him to keep a low profile.

The lights dim and the narrative unspools: an itinerant and dysfunctional family, small town, a lot of hard work to do. Cage plays Joe, inhabiting the title character as a mishmash between Brown’s stoic, sparse antihero, the one interpreted by screenwriter Gary Hawkins and Cage himself. He’s clearly having a fantastic time with the role — at one point he advises the film’s young charge Gary, played with raw beauty by Tye Sheridan, to “stand like you own land.”

It’s a solid piece of work with flourishes of cinematic genius for which Green is becoming known: He cast a homeless man he met at the Austin, Texas bus station to play Earl, the heavy, and recruited to play a team of laborers an actual team of laborers, chosen one by one in the morning outside the hardware store like any other work crew.

At the School of the Arts, the lights stay down for the credits, and the big names get applause from the crowd of film students. Afterwards, Green takes the stage for a Q&A with UNCSA film school faculty member Dale Pollock, who himself has produced 13 features. Green dishes a bit about his early work, shooting in his home city of Austin, a great story about Cage, a lighter and “crazy hooker eyes.” Hawkins and Sheridan take seats on the stage, too, fielding questions from students now more engaged than most college kids get.

The official, special screening, long since sold out, pushes up against the Q&A, and the moment the students file out the ticketholders come in. Among them is UNCSA grad Angus MacLachlan, the guy who wrote Junebug, but the only people who seem to recognize him are the guys he went to college with.

This is what Winston-Salem is like during RiverRun: a cozy community of film lovers, some of whom happen to be famous, everyone with ties to the city.

Down on Fourth Street, A/perture has just let out a doubleshot of festivalgoers onto the thoroughfare; they funnel into the restaurants and shops, grab a drink or an éclair before catching another film or the real-world drama of the clubs.

The Saturday-night screening of Late Night Shorts, a collection of strange, dark and quirky short films, has become a regular event for the offbeat among us. This year’s show, a sellout, begins at 9:30 p.m. in A/perture 1.

Molly1The 10 shorts have dark humor in common; each one elicits at least one laugh. Bob Odenkirk, the guy who played “Better Call Saul” on “Breaking Bad,” produced one, “Funnel,” that consisted entirely of a bro talking on his cell phone while walking to his car. One was an ultra-short doc about a couple with matching handguns, called “Tim and Susan Have Matching Handguns.” My favorite, “Molly,” about a lovelorn, not-so-young man, begins its second act with a great line: “I’ve been thinking I should have a breakdown of some sort,” the heartbroken lead says to his friend. “If it’s done right….”

When the lights come up, it’s the end of the first full day of RiverRun. There are eight more to go.

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