WILMINGTON — There’s something about a golf comedy that seemingly resonates with movie-going audiences: “The Caddy,” “Caddyshack,” “Happy Gilmore.” Joining the ever-growing lineup is “Birdies” — “a new comedy for an old sport.”
Locally written, produced and cast, the film follows a group of rag-tag golfers, some more interested in having a nip and a sip than turning around the flailing Twin Pines, a golf club that has fallen into disarray. To bring life back into the course, the owner, Charlie Conroy, hires a new golf pro, Jake Baxter, to help rival the fancy Magnolia Pointe resort nearby, which threatens Twin Pines’ survival.
A decade-long project, the film first got its wings in 2009, when Nate Panning — who portrays Nick in “Birdies” — heard from friends Brandon Luck and Dave Longo about a local pro who used to be an exterminator but had an impressive skill for the sport, only surpassed by his penchant for a party lifestyle. The combination seemed like a good foundation for a comedic series.
Panning put together a pilot, with the help of Ryan Small, and shot it with director Troy Carlton. Eventually, the project was tabled and the team began launching short golf joke videos on YouTube in hopes of promoting the series and getting investors. The videos ended up gaining 6 million views and spun a few independent projects, yet “Birdies” stayed in a holding pattern.
The filmmakers had to contend with their own full-time jobs. Longo owned and operated Burrito Shak. Luck was producing commercials and had opened Luck’s Tavern in Castle Hayne. Panning cofounded Neebs Gaming, which streams comedic gaming content online. Carlton was working as a grip in the film industry.
In 2015, he packed up and moved to L.A. and shortly thereafter decided to take a break. “I was just super tapped out,” Carlton said, “and then with the energy that goes into making indie films and the money.”
At the time, he admitted he went through a rough patch: a breakup, his father passed away, and he switched to a corporate job — something vastly different from a fluid, stressful industry he had become accustomed to.
“So I just started writing,” Carlton said. “Even at my corporate desk job. I took Nate’s pilot — the nucleus, which I’ve always seen as a feature film — and started to shape the world around that.”
The comedy, Carlton said, actually helped him navigate his own tragedies. “It was one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done for myself. I had to rebuild myself, and I did it with a project I’ve known I wanted to do — that was just sitting here, waiting. So I had to buckle up and do it.”
By the time Carlton had the script in place and ready for new life, Covid-19 hit. He made a decision to return to Wilmington anyway to ride out the virus, which he thought “would be like the swine flu and be over in a few months.”
Twenty-four months later — still into a pandemic, nonetheless — “Birdies” has wrapped. Carlton and his team of producers and actors filmed the movie over the summer of 2021. It’s now on the editing room floor, undergoing a few more tweaks, before it makes its big-screen debut at Thalian Hall come Friday night.
Making a movie
To see the film through, the majority of the team from the pilot essentially got back together again, with Carlton in the director’s chair.
Originally, Carlton said he had former Wilmingtonian Cullen Moss in mind to play Baxter, the washed-up golf-phenom-turned-exterminator-turned-golf-pro. But Moss’ schedule began filling up, following the recent successes of shows like Netflix’s “Outer Banks” and HBO’s “Righteous Gemstones,” in which Moss plays Deputy Shoupe and Brock respectively.
READ MORE: Meet 3 familiar faces from Wilmington on Netflix’s ‘Outer Banks’ season 2
Producer Reid Doyle (who also acts as Gary in “Birdies”) suggested standup comedian Ryan O’Flanagan (“Dave,” “American Vandal,” “Funny or Die”) instead.
“I was immediately on board because I knew that if Reid was involved, then at the very least it would be a lot of fun. And it was,” O’Flanagan said.
“Birdies” began with a micro budget and grew with the project. Carlton said everyone went in with the understanding they would have to keep finding more money as they spent it.
“Actually, there was a point in time where we thought we wouldn’t be able to afford Ryan,” Carlton admitted. “But he worked with us on the budget because he really wanted to do the part. Thank God, because I think what he did is better than what I wrote.”
Local actor Zach Hanner, who takes on the role as Twin Pines’ owner Charlie Conroy, said the film’s low budget allowed for improvisation on set that mined a lot of comic gold, something that likely wouldn’t have happened had big investors or studios been involved and calling the shots. Hanner called those moments “’Birdies’ magic.”
“For me and my character, the goal was to avoid trying to be funny,” Hanner said. “The script itself was very funny and I realized in preparation, the best thing I could do was simply get out of the way and say the words.”
When O’Flanagan arrived to set, he said his connection with others felt instantaneous — something that helped him ease into character more readily and with a level of comfort to tap into the best of the script’s humor.
“Comedic acting can be a challenge when you’re not familiar with the other actors — your timing can be off, your improvisation might not go anywhere, you don’t know what the other actor’s tendencies are,” O’Flanagan explained.
Hanner had known the crew and some of the cast for the greater part of two decades. For five years, he was a spokesperson for a local company in over 300 commercials that were made with the help of “Birdies” producer Brandon Luck, who also plays the role of Dogleg in the film.
“Brandon is the king of making connections and getting things to happen,” Hanner said. “I can’t tell you how many times favors were called in and people just showed up to help because they knew someone on our team. It was crazy to watch as several of the producers were also acting in the film but then had responsibilities as crew as well. To watch them shift in and out of jobs seamlessly and keep the ball rolling was impressive to say the least.”
Carlton said Luck was the one who found the rundown Belvedere course in Hampstead a few years ago as the main filming location. Ironclad Golf purchased it in 2020 and was redoing the greens for its venture, but the film crew was able to access areas the new owners had yet to upgrade.
“The place was almost too perfect,” Carlton said. “For 25 days, Ironclad was the Twin Pines playground.”
The crew rolled scenes at Beau Rivage, too, as the backdrop of rival course Magnolia Pointe. Some of the cast member’s homes also became a location, including that of Sydney Penny.
Well-known for playing in soap operas “Bold and the Beautiful” and “All My Children,” Penny takes on the role of Sarah, someone she described as a “nice counterpoint to the rest of the lunatics in the story.” Penny also was in the “Birdies” pilot 12 years ago.
“This story is all about second chances and friendship and the good glue that sticks all of us misfit toys together, and everyone can relate to that,” she said.
Conroy is Hanner’s first lead role in a feature film in his 30-year career (his first film was “Forrest Gump”). He has worked with the likes of Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Melissa McCarthy, as well as with directors Robertson Zemeckis, Tim Burton and Barry Levinson.
He described his “Birdies” character as an “irredeemable loser,” who is only on the up and up because of the people around him. Hanner said Conroy’s temperament is apparent in his first scene: He cracks a beer at 8 a.m., takes a toke from his joint and cruises around the golf course, before rolling up near a lady spread out on the grass beside an overturned golf cart.
“Charlie calmly addresses her and makes sure someone brings her a beer so she can carry on with her round,” Hanner said.
O’Flanagan’s Baxter is the saving-grace to Conroy. He’s also one of the more sensible roles in the script, who O’Flanagan said is comparable to Ben Stiller in “Meet the Parents”: “a well-meaning everyman who finds himself way over his head in a world he wasn’t prepared for.”
Altogether, the team brings to life a modern underdog story, with likable characters that keep the audience rooting for them to rise above the fray.
“The movie works because of its sincerity,” Penny said. “You can write gags or jokes or outrageous characters, but if there’s no heart, no one will care.”
Like every underdog story, the characters have a chance to prove themselves in the culmination of a championship tournament. Both Hanner and Penny point to the scene as one the most memorable filming days.
“It was a big day with a lot of moving pieces, several dozen extras, a lot of things that went wrong,” Hanner said.
The mood was jovial, nonetheless, Penny described, remembering her creation of “an epic daisy chain crown from the flowers by the cart path.”
“It was amazing to watch what would be considered a very small, low-budget crew capture that [tournament] in such a grand fashion,” Hanner said. “I feel like when your intentions are good and you are working hard to make something happen, you will most likely be rewarded and that is definitely what happened with us on this film.”
According to Carlton, “Birdies” will carry forward on the same independent path as its grassroots efforts began. “We are self-distributing as of now and we are still getting some offers here and there,” he said.
After Friday night’s screening, the mainstream comedy will be available on the film’s website birdiesthemovie.com. On Feb. 22, viewers can rent it for $8.99 or purchase it for $15.99 with extra behind-the-scenes footage.
Tickets to Friday’s 6:30 p.m. screening at Thalian Hall sold out. A Saturday night screening was added after the publication of this article since demand was so great. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased here.
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