The elderly black man fell into step alongside the younger white one, whom he'd seen on the set of the movie being shot in Shelby. "They're gonna blow up a car tonight," he said. "I'm waiting to see that."
No, his younger companion replied: A police car was going to be overturned by angry citizens in one scene, but nothing was going to shoot sky-high.
"You kidding?" the old man asked. "This is a Jeb Stuart movie - the man from 'The Fugitive' and 'Another 48 Hrs.' You know he'll blow something up!"
They parted in pleasant disagreement, and Jeb Stuart walked away from his new friend with a hidden smile.
Never miss a local story.
Stuart derailed a passenger train in "The Fugitive" and savaged a skyscraper in "Die Hard." But the main thing he explodes in "Blood Done Sign My Name" is his reputation as an action movie writer.
He grew up in Gastonia and Charlotte and joined Hollywood's A-list with a series of pulse-throbbing thrillers, has quietly reinvented himself by writing and directing a story based on events in Oxford, N.C., 40 hot summers ago.
There is one killing: A black Vietnam vet falls beneath the boots and fists and triggers of three white men, allegedly for making a sexual remark about a white woman. Molotov cocktails do go through an empty factory's windows, after black citizens of Oxford decide an all-white jury didn't stand up for justice at the murder trial.
But the film is a low-budget adaptation of the memoir by Tim Tyson, who now teaches history at Duke University. It splits its time between Tyson's dad, a white minister who promotes racial harmony (played by Rick Schroder), and Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), a black Oxford teacher permanently politicized by the event.
People fond of Stuart's incendiary mayhem may not see any connection between it and the intimate tone of "Blood."
But he does.
"I'm in the hero business, and these are the heroes of the South," he says of the people who protested racial injustice. "These types of stories draw from the deep wells of what created our country. The same revolution that spurred the Boston Tea Party motivated the people at lunch counters in Greensboro and other sit-ins.
"Now, I'm not in the business of making spinach, making a movie that's good for you and saying, 'Eat it.' I prefer that folks think they're going to get a Hallmark Hall of Fame special and be slapped in the face with something complex."
Finding a new voice
Stuart, who lives in Connecticut, met Tyson when the latter spoke at Yale University.
"I gave him a song and dance about North Carolina and felt I had really scored. We actually knew people in common. At the end, his agent whispered in his ear, and Tim said, 'Uhhhh, I kind of promised (the rights) to somebody else." I told him, 'I'm your man, and I'm going to wait this out.' So we did.
"The other people did a script, which we did not read, and after a year and a half Tim took the project back. I told him, 'I don't think there's anybody coming along after me to make this movie. And you're not going to find anyone who understands the world of the South we're trying to (show).'"
Directing wasn't new to Stuart when he came to Shelby and Charlotte two years ago to shoot "Blood." He had written and directed his last project, "Switchback," with Dennis Quaid and Danny Glover. But that came out 13 years ago. What happened afterward?
His first wife's childhood cancer recurred, and she went into a coma for six months and came out a diabetic. When she awoke, caring for her "became my full-time job, and I took a hiatus." (She died in 2001.)
Stuart remarried in 2003 and wanted to jump-start his career, but "I was like Rip Van Winkle; I went back to Hollywood to a different set of executives. I did a lot of script doctoring. When 'Blood' came to me 31/2 years ago, I wanted to tell a story about a different type of hero."
Learning a new style
He learned quickly what low-budget filmmaking was like: "I ordered a crane for a day and got a 16-foot ladder from Home Depot." On the other hand, the vision for the project was entirely his, abetted by wife Mari. "I could never have made this without her (as producer)," he says. "She's a Harvard business school grad, and that allowed me not to have to focus on that aspect."
And he knew this world, from the pine paneling of a down-home restaurant to the proper volume of cicadas on a summer night. When he made a decision, "nobody called a 25-year-old executive (to get) clearance. I was the studio."
But not a studio with a distribution arm, alas. The producers submitted the film to Sundance, but it wasn't dark or quirky enough for that festival. Tribeca passed because it had neither New York connections nor an urban feel. The Toronto fest told him the story wasn't relevant in a post-Obama age.
"I was barking up the wrong tree;" Stuart says. "This is a populist movie, not an art-house movie. Then I came upon Mark Urman, who used to run ThinkFilm and had just started a small (distribution) company called Paladin."
The name is apt: A paladin is a knight who champions causes, often for underdogs. But Urman's mighty optimistic.
"I found 'Blood' very marketable by independent film standards." Urman says. "It struck me as a strong entertainment for African-American audiences fed up with or alienated by the typical 'gangsta' fare that is normally defined as 'urban'...
"We are also interested in a white audience that cares about social justice and human rights. These two constituencies are by no means mutually exclusive. Combined, (they're) a sizable audience by any standards, not just 'indie' ones."
Facing the future
So what does Stuart do now?
Urman thinks he could go back and forth from big budgets to small: "Jeb doing 'Blood' is no different from Nicolas Cage doing 'Leaving Las Vegas' or Anne Hathaway doing 'Rachel Getting Married'.... Movies take so long to develop and finance that filmmakers who restrict themselves to major studio fare can go for years without making a movie.
"You'll find A-list directors such as Steven Soderbergh or Martin Scorsese making a low-budget film or a documentary between bigger projects. It's the best way to keep creative juices flowing and develop ways of filming or storytelling the studios will not foster."
Stuart can be choosier than he was when he entered the industry a quarter-century ago.
"My résumé is peppered with low-hanging, overripe, nasty fruit I've picked," he says with a laugh. "As I get older, I have a different type of sensibility. I love to hear the voices of the South, what's happening on the Great Plains. Those are the kinds of stories people (will) always want to hear, as well as the other kinds of stories that have no relevance.
"I still love action movies. My new company is set up to make medium-budget, PG-13 action movies for $25 to $30 million. They can be sold to international audiences, and they can be character-driven.
"I always like to see myself as a storyteller first. Even 'Die Hard' had elements of originality. It looks like a template now, but it didn't when I wrote it."