“The World Made Straight” is as much a product of North Carolina as any film. Written and filmed here, it’s based on a real-life Civil War-era massacre in Madison County – and directed by a Tar Heel native, with soundtrack music from North Carolina artists.
But the project had its beginnings in a vow made on the other side of the world. Five years ago, UNC Chapel Hill alumnus David Burris often traveled to the South Pacific while working as executive producer on the CBS reality series “Survivor.” Burris would stop off and visit Michael Wrenn, who worked for the New Zealand Film Commission and was a friend since their days at Raleigh’s Broughton High School.
“On one of those visits, we were both going, ‘It’s just ridiculous we’ve never made a film together,’ ” Burris said. “‘We’ve been friends since we were 14 years old, and we really need to do it.’ So Michael and I made a pact to do a movie about North Carolina, in North Carolina, and to do it in the next four years. And here we are.”
A coming-of-age thriller, “The World Made Straight” is Burris’ big-screen directorial debut. Wrenn and Todd Labarowski were among the producers, along with Bill Wagenseller and Matt Garrettson of Charlotte. The film is playing at AMC Carolina Pavilion 22 in Charlotte.
Burris and crew shot “World” in Madison and Buncombe counties in 2013 on a $3 million budget, with former “ER” star Noah Wyle and Jeremy Irvine as primary stars. But country singer Steve Earle flat out steals the film as a terrifying Appalachian drug overlord.
“Noah’s family is from Kentucky, and he’s always wanted to do something sort of rural and Southern,” Burris said. “He was one of the first few names I wrote down for this part, someone who’s gone through experiences and come out a little wounded, rougher and tougher. But yeah, Steve did an amazing job. He shows his dark side, for sure.”
Not long before Burris and Wrenn made their vow, Burris’ mother had sent him a book for his birthday with a note: “You should make a movie out of this.” It was “The World Made Straight,” a 2006 novel by North Carolina writer Ron Rash.
“The World Made Straight” is primarily set in the 1970s with flashbacks to 1863. The Civil War part of the story involves the notorious Shelton Laurel Massacre, in which a Confederate firing squad executed 13 unarmed Union sympathizers (age 13 to 60) in a Madison County valley.
Charles Frazier fictionalized some of the Shelton Laurel Massacre’s events in his 1997 novel “Cold Mountain,” including the execution of the mentally challenged fiddler Pangle. And the massacre is central to the plot of “The World Made Straight,” especially the book and movie’s running theme of how hard it can be to tell who is on whose side.
“From what I can tell, I had family on both sides at Shelton Laurel,” said Rash, who also teaches at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. “It’s something I was always aware of and found troubling. It’s almost a microcosm of what we’ve seen happen since in places like Rwanda and Bosnia, where people who have been living together for generations turn on each other. When I was writing the novel, I went out there to where it happened. Talk about a haunted place. I really felt it.”