Producer Bill Hayes spent his childhood working hard on his father’s 300-acre tobacco and dairy farm in Mount Airy, waiting for the day when he could leave small-town North Carolina to make it big.
Eventually, he’d realize that dream, finding success churning out hit TV shows like TLC’s “Jon and Kate Plus 8” and “19 Kids and Counting” – all from his small production house, Figure 8 Films, tucked away on West Weaver Street in the heart of Carrboro.
Still, this farm boy made good could never turn his back on his humble beginnings.
And in recent years, as Bill started to witness the once bustling manufacturing town – and inspiration for the much-loved 1960s TV sitcom starring another native, Andy Griffith – get hit hard by the economic downturn, he knew he had to tell its story.
“My hometown is an interesting place. It’s similar and very different to the TV show. The real-life Mount Airy is more complicated,” he observes.
“I started spending more time [there] and I looked around, and go, ‘Wow, here’s a town of almost 10,000 people that lost almost 10,000 jobs. How could this be? As I started digging, I realized that small-town America has got a problem, which makes it good fodder for a documentary.”
Through his second company, Thunder Mountain Media, Bill recently released “The REAL Mayberry,” a film that explores the real-life characters of his hometown and the challenges they face to secure the town’s survival.
With a nod to its past, the film includes clips from “The Andy Griffith Show” alongside interviews with a cast of colorful locals: downtown business owners, farmers, factory workers, artists and millennials.
Bill’s wife, Diane, 42, and infant son, Gabe, also make an appearance, as does his now-deceased father, who can be seen making moonshine in old family video footage.
Surprisingly, Bill was reluctant to narrate the film himself because “the journalist in him” didn’t feel comfortable becoming part of the story.
But his production crew managed to convince him otherwise. “As the filmmaker, who also grew up in Mount Airy, he has a knowledge, respect and love of the area that gave the film a very personal approach,” says Erin Cuevas, executive producer with Thunder Mountain Media.
Ultimately, the film’s message remains hopeful. “I’m a flaming optimist,” says Bill. “I believe in our country and small-town America. There are so many great things about it, but it’s challenged to exist. If we can help tell a story that might in some way help rural America be healthier, that’s a good thing.”
The film is now available to rent or purchase through therealmayberry.com, iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. DVDS are also available on Amazon.
To read more about Bill Hayes’ life in Chapel Hill and his thoughts on fatherhood after 60, check out CHM’s First Person interview here.