For more than half a century, the city of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, has basked in the reflected glow of the TV screen as the real-life inspiration for the fictional Mayberry of the “Andy Griffith Show.” Mt. Airy is the hometown of Andy Griffith, who starred in the No. 1-rated CBS TV show during the 1960s.
Unlike Mayberry, Mt. Airy (population 10,000) can’t resolve its difficulties in a single half-hour episode. The 68 minutes that constitute Bill Hayes’ documentary, “The Real Mayberry,” take the viewer much further down the road toward understanding a contemporary small city. But like any honest look at small-town America, the engaging film has no pat answers. What it does have are the right questions:
What is special about our place? What is here that we can build on? How do we create opportunity while preserving what we love? And how do we pass on our town to a new generation that has new ideas?
Hayes is the founder of Figure 8 Films, which produces “nonfiction” television shows. He has produced more than 1,000 TV shows over the years, he said. The Figure 8 website features blurbs on shows like “Sister Wives” (TLC), “Growing up McGhee” (UPtv), and “Salvage Dogs” (diy).
“The Real Mayberry” does not follow a cable-TV formula. It walks a fine line between keeping the material engaging without resorting to tricks – there are no traps, no teasers saying “watch what happens next.” We meet people – not caricatures – from the city, hear their stories, and observe the day-to-day decisions that small towns make in response to outside economic forces and internal tensions. Your hometown may not have inspired Andy Griffith, but we bet it has more than a little in common with this former mill town on the North Carolina Piedmont.
Like Mt. Airy itself, Hayes’ documentary uses the pop-culture notoriety of Mayberry to create a connection. Once you’re inside the city limits, the viewer is prepared to have a much deeper conversation about the future of small-town America.
You don’t have to be a fan of the “Andy Griffith Show” to enjoy this documentary (though I am and enjoyed the TV references). But the Barney impersonators and classic squad cars linger only long enough to make a nostalgic viewer smile, without producing a frown from someone who is a little more future-minded.
We spoke with Hayes via a video call from his home outside Carrboro, North Carolina. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:
Tim Marema: Mt. Airy has traded on its fame as the “real” Mayberry. Your documentary takes a similar approach to attract viewers with something they already know about. Tell me about that.
Bill Hayes: Quick research told me there were hundreds of thousands, millions of people who watch the “Andy Griffith Show.” It was one of three shows to end its run at No. 1. And 50 years later it’s still on television. Mayberry was synonymous with the American small town.
So I thought, “Well, that’s my town.” That is literally my town. I grew up there and had umpteen connections to Andy, organically with my aunts and cousins, … so I thought let’s leverage that to get somebody’s attention [to talk about] what we’ve always thought of as small town America. Well, small town America still exists, very much. But it’s very different than [Mayberry, yet] it’s similar. That’s why I thought it would make a good story. Juxtapositions, you know, paradoxes, ironies, all those kinds of things that make for a good story.
And then what makes for a good documentary? Characters. … I didn’t have to look any farther than my front doorstep to find characters. I grew up with characters. Plenty of them.
… Then I circled my staff and we started asking this critical question, “Why does anybody else care about Mt. Airy?” … And I felt like the answer was because our country is built on small towns in rural America and I feel like they’re misunderstood and don’t get the proper nurturing. … Why can’t we be kinder and friendlier and more accurate and honest and provide positive examples and still get viewership?
Tim: Tell me what you think about the role of your movie – and media, in general – in addressing rural development issues, because it’s not like you’re paving roads or laying block or starting a business.
Bill: You start with one act of kindness at a time, in terms of making the world a better place. “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch.” [That’s a quote from the subject of another Figure 8 documentary about basketball coach Morgan Wooten.] It means you try one little act of kindness at a time, one positive example, one story at a time, and you keep working at that. And you keep working at it until you build up an inventory, a library, a resource where people can go to and find these things and start to feel connected, empowered, enlightened.
Will our film make a difference? I don’t know. What we’ve tried to do is put out there at least a legitimate stab at the questions which are: How does a small town survive and keep its heart and soul? What are the challenges facing small towns?
Tim: So how does a small town survive?
The answer is pretty simple, but not easy, which is a small town survives by getting its young people to move away and come back. You want to get them educated and you want them to come back with some education and some knowledge and apply that to that community.
So how do you get your young people back? Jobs that are going to pay them a decent wage and some culture. … Quality of life means different things to different people, obviously, but culture is, I think, embedded in there somewhere and eating good food, being connected to your people, feeling your kids are safe, having a place [to raise a family].
Tim: The documentary shows tension between the older and younger generations. Younger people were interested in going in a little different direction. How big is that issue?
Bill: It’s still there. We probably downplayed it. There’s just as much tension in a small town between the haves and the have nots. It’s interesting because popular press tries to make the tension out between black and white, and if you ask me, the tension in small towns is probably as much or more between people with money and people without money.
Because, historically, in the South, particularly, the large factory owners had a lot of money. They made a lot of money off the working class.
Tim: One story arc in the film is the auction of an old mill. Will anyone buy it? What will they do with it? Ultimately the city council plays a big role in that. This is something you see when there isn’t the private capital to invest in infrastructure. Is that the problem?
Bill: You know, that’s an interesting question for Mt. Airy because the honest truth is, down there is a pretty rich town. There’s a lot of older rich people, … but these people don’t spend their money. It’s more a lack of vision and know-how than it is actually capital. Because there’s people there worth a lot of money, truth be known. There’s probably more than enough capital there if you had the right [projects] … But building consensus and attitudes and back to what you were saying about the tension between the old and the new, and the fear that, you know, people love Mt. Airy because it’s a beautiful place. And their phobia becomes if it grows up it becomes something that it’s not now and that’s the thing that they love, so what will that do to the thing that they love and can they handle that?
Tim: Is that changing in Mt. Airy?
Bill: Let me give you an example of what’s happening. In Mt. Airy, there’s an endurance runner named Jannkriska [“Jan”] Kriska. He is a cardiologist. He is a sleep disorder doctor. He and his wife, who’s also an M.D., have a brewing company in Mt. Airy on Franklin Street called Thirsty Souls Brewery, gluten free beer. You can get your Belgian Rouge at 10%. He makes homemade gluten free pizzas. So I’m up there a couple of weeks ago with some friends from Liverpool and I’m thinking, they want to watch the Liverpool-Chelsea football game and they’re like, “It ain’t gonna happen.”
But anyway, we go around the corner and sure enough, there it is on the giant screen and Jan’s about the most knowledgeable European football fan in America, probably. We sit there for two or three hours drinking good beers, talking and stuff.
There’s a South African doctor whose wife’s got a horse farm. You know, so what happens is piece by piece people are finding out, they come to these areas and they go, “Wow, this is a beautiful place to live.”
Tim: One litmus test for your film is what local folks think of it. Have you shown it there and what’s been the response?
Bill: Oh yeah, yeah. We packed that Earl Theater that’s in the film and everybody loved it. The mayor at the time, David Rowe, said it made him want to be a better mayor. And I had other people say, “I learned things about my home town that I didn’t know before.” So those, I felt were pretty great. I didn’t have a single, solitary soul say anything negative about it. [Hayes routinely screens his work for participants during production to ensure accuracy and fairness.] I was trying to be careful not to play the media game for sensation’s sake. I was trying to be very balanced and careful, in the spirit of the “Andy Griffith Show,” I asked myself how can I not be judgmental? How can we be funny and fun and poignant and leave our audience with a smile on their face, yet at the same time, have something legitimately intelligent that we did. Because that was the “Andy Griffith Show.”
Tim: Have you had any reaction from other smaller communities or people who have seen it who said, “My town’s like that”?
Bill: Well, that’s the sticky, tricky business of filmmaking right now is how do you break through the clutter, break through the noise, break through the preponderance of other options for people to watch?
We’re still at it. The frustrating thing is that, what I didn’t calculate was [an audience development campaign] … This film is about a $300,000 film. I spent a chunk of that out of my own pocket, but it would probably cost twice or three times that to build the audience because it costs that much money to market something.
So anyway, we’re trying to fight that fight, I guess, in different ways and I’ve made a good living making commercial television shows, so I know what it takes to make a good commercial TV show and then the question is, you’ve gotta make them commercially viable so you can be sustainable. You get a hard time [from people] saying, “That’s just too commercial.” Well if it’s not commercial then it means that people aren’t watching it, and it means you’re not sustainable. How do you create sustainability?
Tim: When you figure that out, could you send me an email?
Bill: Yeah. We look at everybody’s model and try to figure out what the heck [might work].