Cornelius Muller ’93 had never heard of Elon University before coming to North Carolina for college basketball. But after a year at Western Carolina University, Muller transferred to Elon, a decision that had a profound impact on his career path.
Growing up in New York City, he focused on playing basketball and hoped to make it to the NBA. But Elon provided an outlet for Muller’s creativity and set up the foundation for his next passion: filmmaking.
With his third film at Cornelius Muller Productions, LLC currently in postproduction, Muller continues to find ways to stay connected with Elon and has aspirations to make more films and expand his company.
Windy road to Elon
As a boy, Muller played both baseball and basketball. When he reached high school, he was cut from the baseball team — so he instead devoted all of his energy to basketball.
Growing up in Brooklyn with crack cocaine on the rise, Muller saw two options: get involved in using and selling drugs, or stay off the street and play sports.
He chose the latter.
“Basketball is what really saved me,” he said. “A lot of the guys I grew up with were starting to either experiment with drugs or sell drugs.”
Elon was not Muller’s first choice for college basketball. Initially, he chose Western Carolina in Cullowhee. At the time, Western Carolina had hired a successful coach from a small school in upstate New York, and Muller was eager to play for him. But things didn’t go as planned.
“We thought we’d come and put this school on the map,” Muller said. “It just did not work out.”
Looking for a change of scenery and a fresh start after his freshman year, Muller remembered Elon, a small school Western Carolina had competed against the season before. Muller decided to call head coach Bob Burton, who brought him in for a workout. After a tour of the campus, Burton offered Muller a full scholarship.
“It ended up working out for the best,” Muller said. “I had a great three years there. Elon certainly stands out as one of the best parts of my life.”
Muller earned two All-South Atlantic Conference honors (2nd team in 1992, first team in 1993) and finished with more than 1,000 points in his three years at Elon.
Multiple NBA teams came to watch him play at Elon, including the Charlotte Hornets, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trailblazers. In his office, he keeps a letter he received from the NBA, which visited Elon to inform him that he was on the draft list as a potential draft pick.
“I thought that if I didn’t get drafted into the NBA, I would at least get drafted into the CBA,” he said.
But neither option worked out. Still holding tight to his dream, Muller played basketball internationally for a few seasons, but quickly realized that it was not for him.
“That wore me out mentally, emotionally, physically, and I think I got depressed because a lot of my peers were playing basketball in the NBA,” he said.
It was time for Muller to find a career in something else he loved. So he turned to another passion: film.
Trials and errors on screen
In high school, Muller was named Brooklyn’s Basketball Player of the Year, meaning he was one of the top five players in New York. The expectation was that he would play professional basketball.
Seeking the life of the rich and famous, Muller hoped that acting would give him the same kind of financial rewards as being a basketball player.
“I quit basketball and said, ‘I want to be an actor,’” he said. “It sounded like the next best thing. If you’re expecting to play basketball, you can’t tell your buddies you’re quitting basketball, so acting sounded good.”
Muller struggled to find his footing as an actor early on. From the outset, he said he was only calling himself an actor so he wouldn’t have to admit that he had given up on basketball. But his new career path grew on him in unexpected ways.
Muller enlisted himself in classes at the Carolina Actors Group in Winston-Salem. It has been 15 years since then, and Muller is still developing his skills as an actor.
“The more I took [acting] classes, the more I realized how hard it is,” he said.
But acting is not his main source of income — he owns Xplosion, a personal training business based just outside of Elon in Burlington.
Xplosion allowed Muller to pursue his aspirations while keeping a steady income. He established the business as he found cameos on television shows and made appearances in commercials. But he knew he wanted something more, so he began working on his own film.
Purpose through filmmaking
Muller’s first film, “Brother’s Keeper,” premiered in April 2011. The short film follows a man whose brother has committed a serious crime, and it focuses on how the man deals with his brother’s actions and tries to help the victim’s family cope.
Muller said at the time, he was still honing his craft as a filmmaker.
“Looking back, I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t ready,” he said. “I sent that film to Sony Pictures.”
Reaching out to Sony worked in his favor in the long run. For his second movie, Muller was able to secure national distribution through Wal-Mart and Lifeway Christian stores and stream the movie on a multitude of platforms, including Amazon Instant Video and Google Play.
That second film, “Find A Way,” was his first feature-length film. The movie tells the story of Harry Cohen, a star quarterback from Williams High School who died unexpectedly after a game in 2011. The news was particularly difficult for Muller to handle, as he had trained Cohen at Xplosion and had known him since he was a young boy. Muller had already completed the script for the movie, but he decided to rewrite it when he heard of the tragedy.
As a feature-length film, “Find A Way” was also shown in local theaters. A variety of venues from churches to recreation centers hosted the film.
Becoming a filmmaker and shooting his movies locally has given Muller a chance to stay connected with the Elon community, an affiliation he cherishes. Muller has employed students to serve on the production teams and serve as extras in his films.
“The film set was very egoless,” said Peyton Lea, director of photography and editor for “Find A Way.” “[Muller] does a great job of assembling a team of people that really want to work hard and make good art.”
Aside from working with the university’s students, Muller has filmed parts of both films on campus. Rhodes Stadium served as the backdrop for a scene in “Find A Way,” for which Muller asked students to come out as extras for a football scene.
“My favorite thing about working with Cornelius was his ability to galvanize those around him,” said Nneka Enurah ’10, who served as a producer on “Brother’s Keeper.” “It was clear throughout production that he had an incredible vision for the project and he wanted everyone to feel apart of that.”
Going forward, Muller has plans to ramp up his productions. He is currently working on three new films simultaneously and has plans to enter the upcoming movies in some festivals. His next movie, “Sacred Kind of Love,” is currently in post-production.
Despite the differences between sports and film, Muller has found some parallels between the two: the encouragement that he gives to those he trains carries over to his endeavors in film.
“You can push people or encourage people, but if they don’t see you actually doing it in your personal life, they say, ‘How can you tell me and you’re not even trying to pursue something on your own?’” he said. “I’m invested in my dream, just like I’m telling you.”