This thoughtful, quirky documentarian became famous through a film which took five years to make, and went through many personality changes before emerging in 1986 as "Sherman's March". McElwee was born and raised in the deep South, then spent several years in France (as a wedding photographer's assistant), Iran and India. Returning to North Carolina, he worked as a TV cameraman for local stations. McElwee first began making his own films while at MIT in the mid-1970s; early efforts included shorts such as "68 Albany Street" (1976), about the evolution of a local lab, "Charleen" (1978), the bittersweet tale of a local schoolteacher, the longer "Space Coast" (1979), the bizarre recounting of three Cape Canaveral families, "Resident Exile" (1981), about an Iranian prisoner, and the autobiographical "Backyard" 1982).
McElwee began filming "Sherman's March" in 1981 as a straightforward travelogue of the General's route through the South, but the project became more personal when the director was dumped by his girlfriend and began interviewing old (and potential) girlfriends along the way, ruminating on the past and present complexes of Southern mentality. The film--not released until 1986--was a surprise hit, rocketing McElwee to fame as a cinema verite filmmaker. He followed up with "Something to Do with the Wall" (1991), a documentary about the Berlin Wall, and another autobiographical film, "Time Indefinite" (1993).