From funerals to films: 'Whit' Whitley's work on display at Gem on Saturday
By Hugh Fisher
KANNAPOLIS — Say “funeral director,” and the images that come to mind might be black suits, grieving families and somber words.
Laughter, mystery and cowboys on the range? Not so much.
But local funeral director William “Whit” Whitley, whose family operates Whitley’s Funeral Home, made the jump into independent filmmaking for the same reason he said others in his field take up golf.
“If you check around, you’ll find that most funeral directors who really care about their professional positions find other ways to enlighten or add to their lives after leaving work,” Whitley said.
Saturday, Whitley’s short films will be screened at the Gem Theatre, 111 W. First St., Kannapolis.
The 10:30 a.m. showing, which is free to the public, will feature the premiere of “Listen Hear, Mug,” Whitley’s most recent movie, plus two other films he’s made in recent years.
All three are family-friendly mixtures of mystery and comedy.
In Whitley’s home office in Kannapolis, next to his computer, is a shelf full of books on comedy, along with history books and volumes on writing.
There, in his spare time, Whitley has pursued stand-up comedy and independent filmmaking, passions he’s had for years.
“I started on my own pursuing entertainment in the early 1980s,” Whitley said.
“I performed colorful monologues, sang songs and even danced.”
He said his experience in small roles in Piedmont Players productions, under director Reid Leonard, helped him develop his talents.
There are plenty of other funeral directors who tell jokes, Whitley said, “but probably not as many that like entertainment to the degree that I do.”
His love of film goes back even further, to the late ’60s when he and a cousin used to make movies with a “Super 8” film camera.
“I have never been shy with the public since the early days,” Whitley said.
Watching television helped him decide to develop his voice and his personality, as well as his self-confidence.
That confidence and sense of humor are on display in “Listen Hear, Mug,” in which Whitley’s character, named Lester Listten (with an intentional double-t) appears in a variety of costumes, including a French maid’s outfit.
“Put simply, it’s about a deadbeat boyfriend who sponges off his girl,” Whitley said of the film.
But, through experiences with an unexpected visitor, Lester is transported back in time to the world of 1920s gangsters in order to learn the error of his ways.
Small touches, like the extra “t” in Listten’s name, are Whitley’s way of giving his audience something to ponder.
“I like that touch!” Whitley said, laughing. “I like to leave audiences wondering what’s real and what’s not.”
Another of the films to be shown Saturday, “Not(e) In My Saddle,” follows a cowboy through a parody of old Western films.
But, Whitley said, it’s not just a story about a cowboy, but about paying attention to what’s happening in the world around you.
There are hidden messages scattered throughout the film, some of them obvious, others harder to spot.
“It sort of hones in on your powers of observation,” Whitley said.
Filmmaking has helped Whitley reach out to friends and make new ones, he said.
Partnering with Charlotte-based Dalliance Films, he’s traveled to Love Valley, Charlotte and Oakboro to make movies.
He said “Listen Hear, Mug” is “the culmination of what I have learned about cinema to date.”
Though he’s learned a lot, he said, about writing screenplays and making movies, he also knows the “big time” is still out there.
“I’m not going to tell you what these films cost me,” Whitley said, “but I will say that you have to plan for it like a vacation, then hope you’ll get someone to notice you out there for some talent and entice you on to greater things.”
But, like a vacation, Whitley finds filmmaking to be a way that he can relax, unwind and enjoy himself.
He said his wife, Karan, and their family have helped support his dream.
What’s more, Whitley said, he’s learned a lot about American cinema along the way, even if he never walks a red carpet at the Oscars.
“This film shares a good storyline, and has interesting characters as any film should, but shows my growing appreciation for what others have attained in film production,” Whitley said.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.
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