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WCU Stories

Outlaws and Educators



Higher education is probably not the first or 10th thing that comes to mind when considering what makes up a Hollywood film production.

But for Joshua Russell, Western Carolina University’s recently retired Film and Television program director and associate professor of screenwriting, it is always at the forefront of his mind on any project, whether in the classroom in Cullowhee or a multimillion-dollar Hollywood production.

With the support of WCU, the David Orr Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts, the College of Business’ Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, as well as a WCU Provost Internal Grant and grant-supported initiatives, Russell co-founded Local Cinema Studios, a nonprofit dedicated to connecting higher education to the film industry with Dustin Whitehead, former faculty member at WCU and current assistant professor at the University of South Carolina’s Department of Theatre and Dance.

“WCU encourages professors to pursue professional endeavors outside of the classroom,” Russell said. “This in turns allows us to bring back real-world experiences to share with our students.”

With recurring, yearly grant funding from the South Carolina Film Commission, students who are part of the fully institutionalized program get a six-week experience of being on a film set and working hand-in-hand with department heads, who are industry professionals.



“This program allows students to have a slower-paced introduction to the film industry,” Russell said. “It is a good halfway point between college and the industry. They are on set for four to five 10-hour days each week and this allows for plenty of space for student learning. While filmmaking is always challenging, we make sure the culture on set is supportive for them and that students come out having a positive experience.”

After their first Local Cinema Studios project, the locally shot WCU grant-supported film titled “Bruiser,” Russell and Whitehead got some industry attention and were introduced to Quiver Distribution, who started working with them and financing projects.

Russell, who is also a partner and producer at the film production company Iris Indie International, met well-known director, actor, producer and writer Mario Van Peebles at the Rome International Film Festival in Rome, Georgia, through a mutual friend and head of the festival Seth Ingram.

joshua and kip


After their initial meeting at the film festival, Van Peebles introduced Russell to Quiver and fellow producer Kip Konwiser, who also spent several years in higher education at the Syracuse Newhouse Film School in LA. Russell worked alongside Konwiser as producing partners on Van Peebles’ latest project called “Outlaws Posse,” a Black western designed to be a homage to Van Peebles’ highly regarded 1993 film “Posse,” which is set to be released in early 2024.

The film stars Whoopi Goldberg, Cedric the Entertainer, Van Peebles, Neal McDonough and several others. WCU faculty member Colin Wasmund and alumnus Sean Bridgers ’92 also have roles in the film.

Russell, along with Iris producer Kevin Greene, shared several of Van Peebles’ projects with Quiver including this latest one.

“We recruited some of our Local Cinema graduates to come work on set and one actually ended up being Whoopi Goldberg’s stand-in and body double,” Russell said. “Not only are they learning rigor and protocol, but they are also meeting a lot of dynamic people. And my current WCU students benefited because when you’re working with Mario, he undoubtedly gets roped into a zoom during class. In fact, I reworked the syllabus for one of my classes to include some of Mario’s work, so students were better able to appreciate the value of the experience.”



Van Peebles emphasized the importance of creating a fun, cooperative culture on set and having diversity in front of the camera and behind it.

“If America is a melting pot, I wanted to cook this cinematic gumbo with laughter, love and jalapeños,” Van Peebles said. “I like to think of this film as an ‘us’ western.”

Russell noted Van Peebles’ mentorship to everyone, especially the Local Cinema graduates who were working on set and still in the processing of learning the ropes.

“Mario is this great father figure and mentor and they learn so much from him and the positive culture he promotes for his projects,” Russell said.

Ensuring that he promotes a positive culture comes down to a simple mindset that Van Peebles keeps in mind on each set – summer camp.



“I like to look at it as if we were all kids at summer camp, we would be having fun playing games with each other and learning from each other, so that is what the set environment needs to be like; fun and supportive with learning opportunities,” Van Peebles said.

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