Even as the film industry has been brought to a standstill over the past several months, Graham filmmaker Cornelius Muller seems to be more at work than ever.
With one movie under production, another soon to be released, and a long-awaited dream of teaching finally realized, Muller, 50, is now taking the time to reflect on and share the trials that brought him to where he is now.
A North Carolinian for nearly two decades, the filmmaker started out as an aspiring professional basketball player in 1980’s Brooklyn, his home city, later putting aside his plans.
“It was almost assumed that I’d be playing basketball,” he told The Alamance News,” so when basketball didn’t work out from the standpoint I wanted it to, I said to myself, ‘My family, my friends, my peers would not understand why I am throwing in the towel. So, what’s the next best thing?’”
Acting, he thought, sounded like a good fit.
“I just threw that out there, not realizing that several years later I’d end up loving the craft.”
Even after returning to North Carolina, where he’d attended both Western Carolina and Elon University, with the intent of diving into the then-thriving film industry in Wilmington, Muller says he was “just going through the motions” to appease friends and relatives who would ask about his basketball career.
Gradually, he fell out of shape and became discouraged as his window of opportunity for professional play drew to a close.
That time of depression during his 20’s, he told the newspaper, is where his in-production film, “Make Him Famous,” begins.
The inspirational-genre movie — hoped by the filmmaker to come out next spring — is based on Muller’s experiences, following a young man aspiring for wealth and fame who stumbles into a small town in an attempt to start over.
Facing both his own past failures and the critique of others as he finds work at a homeless shelter, he wins over the shelter’s residents.
“He starts doing amazing things in this community,” Muller explained. “Meanwhile, these church people are trying to kick him out of the homeless shelter based on what he’s done years ago in his past.
“It’s a story about how God doesn’t use perfect people,” he added. “He uses imperfect people to perfect the situation. This guy desires to be famous, and he ends up making God famous.”
Muller’s own turning point, he says, came when he was fired from his first major job at a bank in downtown Graham. After being terminated by a generous mentor at the behest of a board of directors, the then 31-year-old took it as a sign to try for more.
“It really gave me the push I needed to have to depend on myself,” he says. “Nobody owes me anything.
“I was just floundering with a college degree, taking part-time jobs, quitting, blaming the system, and realizing that the only common denominator was me.”
“An ‘until God calls me home’ type deal”
Despite the human services degree that he had earned from Elon University, it took years for what Muller had gleaned in the classroom to truly shine through in his work.
His first line of service has been on-screen, where he’s acted, written, produced, and directed films that are centered on inspirational or faith-based storylines.
Muller’s first project as a writer, the short film “Brother’s Keeper,” was based off of his family’s own tragedy, and prompted him to dive into screenwriting. His newly-finished film, “Sacred Hearts,” is planned to be released before the end of this year. That film, he says, follows a married couple as they battle with one’s temptation to follow fame and fortune.
In his off-screen work, Muller devotes much of his time to the Burlington YMCA, where he began coaching young basketball players and refereeing after originally getting a membership to play pick-up games. Much of his support, he notes, has come from the hundreds of families he’s met through the sports program.
In addition to serving at the YMCA, the filmmaker also devotes profits from his movies to the organization, as well as to other charities like Hope International.
His latest venture, and one of his largest undertakings, has been opening the Actors Studio, a school for those interested in film and television, alongside producing partner Joseph Gray, who will also be an instructor. The studio, opened on October 19, is located at 422 Huffman Mill Road in Burlington.
The opening of the studio coincides with Muller’s ongoing plans for film and television, with ideas for two television series and a dozen films on his mind.
Still, the success that he’s had so far and that he hopes for with his current and future projects is largely rooted in support from friends and partners in the county. The YMCA, Lamb’s Chapel, St. Mark’s Church, Elon University, and Alamance County as a whole, he says, have been instrumental in bringing his dreams to fruition.
“It’s been an awesome ride and journey,” he says. “This is going to be, hopefully, an ‘until God calls me home’ type deal.”