Michael Knox has ridden bareback on elephants and come down intact, ridden blindly into documentary filmmaking and come out with his eyes opened, and written a chapter in the cultural history of Cabarrus County that has come off remarkably well.
The Modern Film Fest, which he co-founded with James Nix and Ben McNeely in 2009, begins its fourth outing Friday at the Gem Theatre in Kannapolis. It opens with a very big bang: An appearance by director Nicholas Meyer, who’ll host a screening of his “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” By the time the fest ends Sunday night, it will have offered the local premieres of films about everything from textiles to vampire relics to folk-rocker Andrew Bird.
Knox tells you right away that he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (You would not have had to ask.) But the most telling thing about him may be that he spent his youth with a circus: Life has become a multiring extravaganza for Knox, with fascinating activities happening in each ring simultaneously.
“He’s more curious about anything and everything than any man I’ve ever met,” says Nix, who first encountered his tipsy friend-to-be at an Ozzy Osbourne concert. “Knox will talk to a stranger in the street for an hour to find out about him.
“When you run a film festival, that’s how you have to be. This year, we have movies about The Beatles and (camera collector) Martin Hill, a faith-based drama, a supernatural film. He cares about all of them.”
Knox proudly says a local judge once compared him to Charles Kuralt. “I want to hear everybody’s stories, because I want to steal them,” he says. “I’m a moviemaker!”
Small wonder, then, that he works for a newspaper: the Concord-based Independent Tribune, doing a kind of dream job he’s had since 2011: “I cover whatever I want, write about cops when I’m needed, and maybe one out of 10 stories is an assignment.” The day before we met, he had profiled a man who’d made a miniature Old West town out of his chicken coop.
Knox is hard to miss or forget, once seen: jazzy shirts, broad-beamed smile, hats rarely found on anybody younger than 50.
Those hats were initially a way to keep the sun off his head as he directed his first documentary, “Tearing Down the Tent.” This “Doctor Who” fan also wears them as a tribute to actors on that series. Some have meanings: His Scottish golfing hat signifies he’s in no mood to think about work that day.
“I can’t explain the hats,” he says. “They were an accessory to make me look professional at work, but they’re also fun.” He laughs. “And they show I’m not normal!”
A past off the beaten path
Not much about Knox’s life has been traditional. He was born into a circus family in DeLand, Fla.; his grandfather, he says, invented the hydraulic lifts used to erect tents and carry elephant wagons. His folks came up to Rock Hill, then moved to Lexington, which he calls “my hometown.”
After high school, he worked part time and full time for newspapers around the center of the state: Salisbury, Stanley County, Lexington, the Independent Tribune. (He’s now in his second stint there.)
But the memory of the circus never dimmed. He calls himself a “third-generation circus traveler,” because he toured with Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus as a young man, alongside his grandfather and uncle. He reflected on those days in “Tent,” which he finished in 2009.
“I didn’t know if I could direct a film,” says Knox. “I tend to bite off more than I know I can chew, then try to chew it.”
He convinced a bartender friend, Jamie Reel, to “run away” to the Cole Brothers Circus when it was passing through Wilmington; Reel acted as a newbie through whose eyes the audience could absorb the experience. Circus folks trusted Knox because of his patronage and willingness to stand in the Moto-Globe of Death, with motorcycles whirling around his head.
He was living in Asheville at the time, in a 104-year-old mansion – but in the mud room, paying $250 a month in rent and sharing three bathrooms with 10 people.
“That was the first time I’d experienced poverty,” he says. “I worked for Carmike Cinemas, earning $700 a month. Sometimes my dinner was popcorn, nachos and soda from the concessions stand. The good thing was, the digital projector had a DVD player, and we used to watch all kinds of movies on the big screen after the cinema closed: ‘Alien,’ Universal Studios’ horror films, ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.’ That planted the seed of what we do now at The Gem.”
Asheville did a lot for Knox. His association with the now-defunct Asheville Film Festival showed how such an event could be run. His interaction with filmmakers encouraged him to make not only the first documentary but another one that’s now in the editing room: “Kill as a Family,” about a roller derby team called the Blue Ridge Rollergirls. (The title comes from their series of chants: “Skate as a family! Fight as a family!” You get the idea.)
And it was while he toiled in Asheville that he and Nix became artistic director and creative director of the Modern Film Fest.
A ‘Modern’ way of working
“Michael and I balance each other,” says Nix. “We joke about this: He’ll come up with harebrained schemes, and I’ll try to make them work. He’s a visionary who has 100 ideas a minute; I’m more reserved, the guy who throws them against the wall to see what sticks. But it’s his ‘What if we do this?’ attitude that has led to big things.”
Steve Morris, who runs the Gem, smiles when he remembers his first meeting with Knox. “He was bizarre, loud and boisterous, with totally inappropriate language for a theater where families bring kids. He was also good-hearted, had a lot of energy and was very passionate about films.
“The (N.C.) Research Campus was under development then. I’d been involved in discussions about what we, as a community, could do to make new people feel welcome, people who’d come with different lifestyles. A film festival could do that.”
It could also give Knox a place to show “Tearing Down the Tent.” And it could (and did) lose income for The Gem.
Knox, Nix and McNeely first set it in September, trying to pick a week when Morris wouldn’t have to pass up a Hollywood blockbuster on their behalf. They were heartened to get more than 300 folks to attend, though Morris smiles again at that thought: He often got a bigger crowd for a single showing of a conventional movie.
But Morris stuck with them, and the fest picked up friends. Becky Tolle, special events coordinator for Kannapolis’ Parks and Recreation department, helped the founders plan events. John Cox, president of Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, came up with the idea of monthly screenings at the Davis Theatre in Concord, to keep the fest alive in folks’ minds.
Thinking big – and bigger
Knox wonders each year how the festival can top itself. This time, it will begin with excerpts from “The Lion King” by New Wine Christian Arts Youth Academy, the costume contest, a VIP reception with Meyer, a performance by the band The Graveyard Boulevard, then a screening of Meyer’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
Knox likes to bring directors in for Q-and-A sessions. For instance, Charlotte’s Mark Freiburger will come for “Jimmy,” the drama he adapted from Robert Whitlow’s book about a mentally disabled boy who witnesses a crime. (By happenstance, that movie was shot partly at Steve Morris’ house.) But Meyer is Knox’s biggest coup.
“One of my favorite questions is ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ ”says Knox. “I sent an email, and the answer was, ‘Pay my accommodations, and I’ll be there.’ ”
Knox, who is single and childless, now tries to keep all the balls he’s been juggling aloft: the ever-broadening festival, the monthly screenings, his newspaper job, the roller-derby documentary he’s editing with Nix. (That’s why he moved back to this area last year.) None will make him rich, but all will probably make him happy.
“Michael’s totally unaffected by money,” says Morris. “He’s satisfied to have whatever he needs to eat today. His passion motivates him.”
Right now, that passion has led to a new outlet: fiction. He’s working on a screenplay titled “Sunstroke,” a western on acid he thinks could be shot for a pittance of $25,000 at Kill Devil Hills and a faux western town in North Carolina, maybe Love Valley or Ghost Town in the Sky. He’s toying with a fantasy novel called “Dragons, Dreams and Kitty-Cat Screams.”
Knox remembers reading a story as a kid – he doesn’t recall which one – and complaining to adults that he didn’t like the way it ended. “I was told, ‘If you don’t like it, write one of your own,’ ” he says. “That got me interested in telling stories.
“I have ideas in my head that I have to get out one way or another, in print or onscreen. Movies cost a lot more to do, but they’re also more sensory because they combine sounds and images and dialogue. But I’m going to tell them somehow.”