As a nationally-known reality show producer and filmmaker, Mount Airy native Bill Hayes has a good idea of what will entertain and educate audiences, including his film, “The Real Mayberry.” The documentary will be screening Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Starmount Crossing Cinema in Jonesville.
Hayes, after growing up in Mount Airy, graduating from North Surry High School and Duke University, in his late 20s got into documentary film making, first working on medical education films. But when he got into producing shows like “Breed All About It” on Animal Planet, Hayes said he decided his company Advanced Medical Production needed a new name. Figure 8 Films was born, based off the way film strips twist around into an 8 shape.
“My company has a brand known for our authentic reality shows,” like “19 Kids and Counting,” “John and Kate plus 8,” “Sister Wives” and “Salvage Dawgs,” said Hayes, who now lives outside Chapel Hill in Efland.
His background was in making documentaries documentary shows, having made and produced more than 1,000 TV shows, he said.
“It just shows that a chicken, tobacco, dairy farmer from Mount Airy can become a film producer. Anything is possible,” said Hayes of his family’s history in Surry County, where Noah Hayes Road is named after his grandfather and Clyde Hayes Road is his father’s namesake.
“My normal gig is to make a series of things. ‘The Real Mayberry’ started out as an idea for a web-based series on Mayberry, but there is a formula for making those successful. So in the meantime, I thought why not make a documentary about Mayberry. Mount Airy, the real Mayberry, is like Mayberry but more complicated and diverse,” said Hayes.
As he went through the process of how he wanted to present the story, he knew “I needed to make it so Mount Airy represents thousands of small towns all over American, and it does. It isn’t dissimilar to Elkin, Lexington, or little towns in Iowa or California,” he said.
“Small towns afford people the opportunity to connect to each other,” Hayes said. “There is not the fear or overwhelming energy of larger towns and the disconnectedness with people in cars with tinted windows who don’t know each other. It is a blessing, not a curse, that in small towns we get to know each other. It is important for humans to get to know each other and be with each other, that is one of the problems with our wired society.
“That was my motivation. People don’t usually make television shows for altruistic reasons, but I did this one,” he said. “It is an example that life can be better and be connected.”
But he also knew that he had to make the film something others would want to watch and be part of, “You’ve got to ask the hard question — why should anyone else want to watch this story?” he said. “It is an important question you have to ask and answer and then deliver a story people want to care about.
“I looked at Mount Airy, the people love ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ 50 years later it’s still holding up on TV all over the country,” said Hayes. “I watched all the episodes and thought what are they doing and why does it work so well?
“In a structural way, it was funny but it didn’t make fun of people. It was funny, but also serious at the same time, and there was a lesson without being heavy handed. It was nonpartisan.”
So he set out to make a documentary that mimicked that design — “funny with fun humor but not making fun of people with a bit of moral to the story and celebrating the essence of small towns in rural America,” he said. “That’s what we set out to do with the film, and according to the people who have watched it, that’s what we’ve done.”
The goal of the film isn’t to necessarily make a profit, Hayes said he’s put a sizable investment into the film with the 13 clips from TAGS costing him $50,000 alone. But he would like to at least recoup his funding.
“We entertain the audience and we’ve educated them at the end of it,” he said of the film.
“A lot of small towns have a great history and Mount Airy is rich in moonshining, the railroad, Eng and Chang, Donna Fargo, Sulphur Springs. I’ve had people from Mount Airy tell me they learned something they didn’t know, and that’s great,” Hayes said. “It will play great to any and all Andy Griffith fans, and any and all small towns can appreciate it.”
It addresses some of the issues small towns face, including “the overarching problem [of] how to get or keep our young people, either stay or move back. In an ideal world, it is get young people to go out, get educated and then move back to their hometown and apply it and build on it,” he said.
A town has to be able to “provide education and jobs, worthwhile jobs, it needs to be fulfilling work and make a living and push them to the limit of how much can you achieve,” said Hayes.
“Elkin’s got an incredible history of athletics and a tremendous high school there, and so does Mount Airy and North Surry, so education is terribly important, and jobs. But you’ve got to provide some culture for them, music, art, we need culture to enrich us and keep us entertained.”
He highlighted some of the stories told in the documentary about the Rees family and how they would let people have a suit on credit; about the Webbs and Old North State Winery and the Fish Hippie brand; about the closing of the Spencer’s mill and what is happening with that property now; about Nester Hosiery and the Farm to Feet socks.
The film lasts a little more than an hour, and Hayes said it tells “an honest, accurate story,” as is his policy. “I want it to be 100 percent accurate, so we let everyone involved in it see it first to make sure it’s right. At the end, everybody is happy about it.”
After watching the film, Hayes said he had someone tell him “it was a love letter to small towns in America.”
The film was screened first in Mount Airy at the Earle Theatre, and it’s been screened in Winston-Salem, Durham and Chapel Hill. Following Thursday’s screening, there will be a question-and-answer session with Hayes, who said the film took five years to make and could have been sold to a television station for $300,000.
“The Real Mayberry” was produced by Hayes’ documentary company, Thunder Mountain Media.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.