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Charlotte filmmaker's dream is coming true — after 23 years and quitting his job

Ashley Forrestier, left, and Maurice Kerry, playing Cadina McThaddeus-and James Richards, have a tense moment in a scene from "Urge," the new film from Charlotte's Peter McNeil.
Peter McNeil
Ashley Forrestier, left, and Maurice Kerry, playing Cadina McThaddeus-and James Richards, have a tense moment in a scene from "Urge," the new film from Charlotte's Peter McNeil.

When Peter McNeil and his family relocated to Charlotte nearly 20 years ago, he wasn’t just following a feeling that North Carolina was where he was supposed to be. He was following a dream he’s had since the late ’90s — to become a filmmaker.

“I remember we went to the movie theaters at the Beacon Theater in Harlem and saw'Mo' Better Blues,'” McNeil said. “When I left the theater, something inside me said, 'You could do this.' That was in '89 or '90 — whenever that movie came out. Fast forward to '97. That's when I started to activate the gift in me.”

"Urge" premieres this weekend at the Ayrsley Grand Cinema.
Peter McNeil
"Urge" premieres this weekend at the Ayrsley Grand Cinema.

As a native of New York's Brooklyn, McNeil was heavily inspired by famous filmmaker Spike Lee, who is also from the borough and directed "Mo' Better Blues," among many other films. Before leaving New York, McNeil began working on his first screenplay, “Postal,” a story centered around his time working in a post office. In the midst of that, McNeil met his wife, Pamela, a writer and teacher. She became a huge part of his journey to filmmaking.

“She just complements me in every facet, and she keeps it real," McNeil said. "She'll let me know when everything's good and when everything is not so good. And that's what I need.”

Upon arriving in Charlotte, McNeil completed “Postal.” He shopped it around but no one was picking it up. So, McNeil decided he would film it himself. At the beginning of 2020 — and after over 20 years of working on it — he was finally ready to begin.

But he wasn’t totally sold on this idea. His plan didn’t feel right.

“I was feeling like I was forcing this to happen. 'Postal' wasn't really getting anywhere,” McNeil said. “I said, ‘We're going to go ahead and do this ourselves,’ and we went forth doing it. But God said, 'That's not the project you’re really going to introduce yourself to the world to.' So, when the pandemic shut it down, I felt like a big relief was off my shoulders.”

McNeil decided to scrap production for “Postal” and use the downtime to figure out what was next. Between prayers and conversations with his wife, he landed on his next step: Resign from his job and keep writing. He left his job at a steel plant in August. After a year of writing, he’s finally produced what will be his first feature film: “Urge.”

But it didn’t come without sacrifice. To fund the production of the movie, Pamela McNeil said they refinanced their home and used Peter McNeil's 401(k).

“It has taken sacrifice. We haven't done any upgrades in our house,” Pamela McNeil said. “We haven't got new vehicles because everything we've been working toward is to get this done, like whether it was having the actors to come to Charlotte for a table read and putting them in a hotel and buying their food, it's been an ongoing investment.”

“Urge” is about a man’s fight to overcome his addiction to pornography. The character, who’s loosely based on McNeil, gets to a point where he must choose between his addiction and his family.

For years, before meeting his wife, McNeil struggled with his own addiction to porn.

“I was in it for a while before I met her. When I met her, you know it stopped,” he said. “And then when we moved out here and the computer came into our house, it just came back up and I was in a dark place for a while.”

After 23 years of working to reach his dreams, Peter McNeil has produced his first feature film, "Urge."
Peter McNeil
After 23 years of working to reach his dreams, Peter McNeil has produced his first feature film, "Urge."

He eventually got to a place where he was just sick and tired of dealing with his addiction. After noticing how much time it took away from his writing, and how much work he put into satisfying his needs, he knew he had to do something.

“When you're fighting, and your higher spirit or God is telling you, ‘You better than this,’ and you set forth on ‘I'm good, I'm going to overcome this,’ that's when the urge wakes up like, ‘Oh, I got to fight this. I want him back down here to be in shame and be a misery,’” McNeil said.

He says it took some time to overcome his addiction, but he was inspired to get through it by hearing other people talk about their porn addictions. With his faith and his wife’s support, he was able to get past it.

“It took a while, but eventually I got over that headspace and I feel so energized — like, I want to get stuff done now,” McNeil said. “I wasted enough time with that. Now I got to do the stuff that God wants me to do.”

Today, he’s completely immersed in his work as a filmmaker. His main hope for this film, aside from having it picked up for distribution, is that it will help and inspire people.

“I was telling one of my friends what the movie is about. And he asked me, ‘Are you embarrassed?’ And I didn't flinch,” McNeil said. “I said, no, because somebody needs to hear this story. Hopefully, it will help them and motivate them or encourage them that they too can overcome whatever obstacles they have to overcome in life.”

“Urge” premieres this weekend at the Ayrsley Grand Cinema in Charlotte before heading to Atlanta in November and Houston in December. Tickets can be bought on Eventbrite.com.

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Gracyn Doctor is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity for WFAE.