The boy was short, soft-spoken, polite but insistent. He had the look of a hungry puppy in front of a plate-glass window, eyeing the world's tastiest beef bone on the other side:
"Ms. Dean, you have got to let me take your film class. I'm born to be a filmmaker."
Paula Dean pondered. Her film courses at Providence Senior High School were meant for juniors and seniors. But this sophomore's eyes burned with a joyous zeal that convinced her to say yes.
And long before Mark Freiburger came back to Providence High to shoot the final two days of his first major feature, she knew she had chosen wisely.
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"He was the go-to guy, the one everyone wanted to work on their movie - not the class nerd, but one who researched every position he could ever find himself in," she recalled.
"You could see the passion in his eyes right away. Some people with a vision never get their feet on the ground, but he was the whole package: He knew how to execute, and he didn't get a big head. I can hold him up as an example today."
Freiburger came home as writer-director of "Jimmy," the third film made from a novel by Charlotte attorney Robert Whitlow. Unlike most of his legal thrillers, this is about a mentally challenged boy who interacts with supernatural beings he calls Watchers.
This is Freiburger's first chance to direct a "name" cast: Ted Levine ("The Silence of the Lambs" and "Monk") as Jimmy's kindly grandpa, Kelly Carlson ("Nip/Tuck") as his protective mom, Bob Gunton ("The Shawshank Redemption") as a sheriff with mixed motives and Chuck Carrington ("Jag") as a friendly deputy.
It's also "the project that put the joy back in my career," said Freiburger, who shot at Providence High six days before his 10-year class reunion. (He was in Florida, spending Thanksgiving weekend with his parents, as classmates gathered at Tilt.)
"You can get beaten down by this industry. A 16-hour day as director, making decisions constantly, actually suits me better than an 8-hour day as a producer. This is my skill set."
An easygoing triumvirate
Freiburger, Whitlow and Gary Wheeler have been a team for four years. Wheeler directed "The List" in 2007, where Freiburger got "special thanks" in the credits for his input, and "The Trial," where Freiburger earned a writing credit. (Whitlow, of course, worked on all three scripts.)
"I don't think cinematically as I write," said Whitlow. "I just stay in my imaginative place, knowing books can carry multiple themes. ... The movie business is so collaborative I have a loose hand in the adaptations."
The idea for "Jimmy" fell on Whitlow from the blue: "I can't tell you why I wanted to write it, but I couldn't wait to get started." And he knows this world: Jimmy's dad is an attorney, and grandpa worked for Georgia Power and Light, as did Whitlow's own father.
Yet the veteran author trusted a 28-year-old who had one paid feature gig as a director: "Dog Days of Summer," a spooky coming-of-age story shot just three months after Freiburger graduated from UNC School of the Arts in 2005.
"Mark said, 'I have a passion to direct 'Jimmy.' ' That's about all it took," says Whitlow. "I saw 'Dog Days' and thought he'd be good with Ian, and he has been. He runs a calm set."
Movie sets are said to be like families, but "Jimmy" was literally so. Robert and Virginia Freiburger came up from Florida to see their son at work in the woods of Cabarrus County. Kathy Whitlow, Robert's wife, served as executive producer and all-around set mom; David Whitlow, their son, shot still photos to be used for publicity.
Cinematographer Rob Givens, Freiburger's frequent collaborator since college days, set up shots with quiet aplomb. The genial Wheeler, who lives in Huntersville, waited to troubleshoot problems but had few.
A readiness for anything
"I had no doubts he could pull this off," said Wheeler, who preferred not to discuss the movie's budget. "Making a film is like fighting a battle, especially if you have 18 days: You make a decision, you stick with it and move forward. Mark's a quiet man, but he's capable of making the decisions.
"When you're younger, you should also be open-minded, and he is. A great piece of advice is, 'Don't ever be afraid to say you don't know an answer.' And he's not afraid to say that."
Freiburger gave orders softly and simply on the set: "Let's send the truck down the hill here" to set up a minor wreck for a stunt driver, then "Let's get him going a little faster" to improve that shot. After two takes, he's ready to move on.
Catch him at lunch in a nearby church cafeteria, though, and he swiftly fizzed over:
"The difference between 'Dog Days' and this movie is night and day. No financial problems, a much more experienced crew, a stronger cast, producers who know what they're doing. And I've wised up over the last six years.
"A lot of things came out of left field this time: An actress who had committed dropped at the last minute. We changed locations when people who'd agreed to a (rental) price suddenly tried to get more money. We had a month for pre-production; that's short, because we had to finish shooting by Thanksgiving. But there's been nothing we couldn't handle."
His management company, he said, plans to use "Jimmy" as a calling card for two inspirational sports movies, one about surfing and one about baseball. ("Inspirational" and "faith-based" mean different things in Los Angeles; the former usually attracts a broader audience.)
Freiburger has made a living by writing and producing, but "Jimmy" could kick-start his directing career. So he can be forgiven the hint of nervousness that led to a recurring dream.
"When I was scouting (locations) at Providence, it smelled just the same," he said. "I started to have this weird dream that I'm in science or math class. I've missed the last few weeks, and I don't know what's going on - which I can understand, because I was always a year behind in math.
"While I'm in the dream, I keep thinking, 'Wait a minute! I thought I had a career!' At that point, I always wake up. And I realize, 'Yeah, I do.' "