The Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau recently recognized six established and emerging filmmakers for their achievements in film.
The honors were presented at the opening reception for the Mississippi Film Office’s 2023 Film Summit held on Aug. 24 at Sterling Hall, an event venue on Canton’s historic town square.
“Along with the Mississippi Film Office, this year we are celebrating over 50 years of filmmaking in Canton, the movie capital of Mississippi,” said Canton CVB Director Jo Ann Gordon. “Canton has been at the center of film in the state dating back to Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us in 1973, through major productions like A Time to Kill, My Dog Skip and O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the mid-to-late ‘90s, to recent productions like The Minute You Wake Up Dead and the upcoming Finding Faith. What better time to recognize some of the talents who launched their careers here as well as the next generation of filmmakers?”
Honorees included Christie Herring, a documentary filmmaker and Canton native; Matthew Morgan, a casting director and Canton native; Colton Comans, a set dresser and Madison native; as well as emerging filmmakers writer-director SK Pollard of Jackson, cinematographer Ceili Hale of Jackson and documentary filmmaker William Lindsey of Canton.
Comans, Pollard, Hale and Lindsey are all alums of the Canton Young Filmmakers Workshop.
“These honorees are all a testament to the outstanding curriculum and instruction that has been designed and implemented to ensure their success in the industry,” Gordon said.
The program teaches hands-on filmmaking by having participants aged 8-18 produce a short film from script to screen. The workshop is made possible by a partnership between the Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Mississippi Film Office and the Madison County Library System.
“The workshop has been held for 20 years now, and it’s been my great pleasure to witness talented young people like our honorees be inspired by filmmaking and find success in the industry,” said Film Office Director Nina Parikh. “For instance, William has been involved with the workshop for 10 of those years, first as a camper and now as an instructor the past two years. He’s also been working professionally in broadcasting while a student at Mississippi State University.”
Lindsey says he learned things he still uses today through the workshop.
“Film camp has made such a big impact on my life,” he said. “Not only has it made so many connections for me, but also lasting friendships. It taught me valuable skills. I couldn’t be happier with what film camp has given me, and I hope to keep giving back.”
Lindsey first started working on sports broadcasts for Gluckstadt High School football games before he came to MSU, where he’s directed 17 game broadcasts for ESPN to date including soccer, softball and more. He’s also filled a variety of roles on other documentary projects and even got his first director of photography credit on a Broadcast Education Award-winning short film, The Squealing.
Pollard and Hale were honored jointly, recognizing their achievement for completing a feature film, the forthcoming The Jacksons, which was filmed in Mississippi.Both took part in the workshop for several years.
“Film camp means the world to me and to my friends because we all met there, and now we are all part of the arts and still filmmakers in our own way,” Pollard said.
Pollard was the film’s writer-director and Hale cinematographer and editor, a collaboration that was first formed in Canton.
“She and I met at the workshop,” Hale said. “We’ve been best friends since then.”
Today, Hale works full-time designing playground equipment. But she jumped at the chance to collaborate with Pollard again.
“Her job is really cool, and it’s creative in a lot of ways,” Pollard said. “But she said she really missed being a part of filmmaking.”
They both say that the workshop has impacted their everyday lives beyond filmmaking.
“Having that foundation from the workshop of doing every single piece of making a film, has really helped with knowing how to collaborate with people,” Hale said. “You’re able to really adapt to whatever is needed. And that was very helpful to learn that at a young age.”
That focus on collaboration has helped Comans advance in his career working in the art department for films and TV shows, primarily as a set dresser. After his experiences at film camp, Comans studied film at the University of Southern Mississippi in Long Beach and got his first film job as a production intern for 2015’s Shark Lake, which was shot on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“The workshop gives you a great understanding of what making a film really is,” Comans said. “It’s a great place to start for someone interested in film. It gets your feet wet and you can learn on a smaller scale how things are done.”
Comans has since worked on major productions like the forthcoming Disney+ TV series Agatha and the Coven of Chaos, the hit Netflix show Stranger Things, and blockbuster films like 2023’s Blue Beetle and Creed III.
The other honorees, Herring and Morgan, are Canton natives with successful careers in the industry.
“The other participants that were honored were introduced to the industry through the major productions filmed in Canton and Mississippi which sparked their desire to make this their career path choice,” Gordon said. “Canton looks forward to producing many more industry professionals for generations to come.”
Herring, who was recognized for her prolific career as a documentary filmmaker for over 20 years, said it was a complete surprise to receive such an honor from her hometown.
“First of all, I had no idea that was happening,” she said. “I definitely got teary-eyed several times. And to be presented that award by Jo Ann Gordon, who I’ve known my whole life and who has done so much for so many in Mississippi and so much for the people of Canton, it meant a great, great deal.”
Herring’s journey as a filmmaker is tied in many ways to Canton. When A Time to Kill was filmed in 1995, Herring came back home from college at Duke University to co-direct Waking in Mississippi, a documentary about the impact the production was having on the community.
“This thing was happening in my hometown that I thought needed to be documented,” she said. “It was something that everybody in town experienced in some way. To be able to pick up a camera and try to better understand my home was everything to me. It absolutely set me on the direction of filmmaking in my life and has been kind of a lodestar ever since.”
Herring has since worked on major documentary projects for Amazon, PBS and Hulu, like her latest production, 2020’s The Big Scary ‘S’ Word. And she’s recently been back home working on a new project.
“I’m in development on a film back in Mississippi, and I’m going to be picking back up on some of that footage from Canton, so that’s exciting,” Herring said. “It’s been a fun, full circle thing. The film is called Mississippi in Three Parts.”
Morgan was honored for his contributions to the local film industry through his company Morgan Casting, which to date has assisted over 20 productions in Mississippi.
“The first movie I ever did as a casting director was in Canton: James Franco’s As I Lay Dying,” Morgan said. “To receive a lovely award for outstanding contributions to the state and my hometown was really special. It’s as good as it gets in terms of fulfillment.”
Morgan too got his initial inspiration to pursue working in film growing up in Canton.
“I worked on A Time to Kill,” he said. “I started off as a stand in, an extra, and I started sort of working on set. And that was the moment where I thought, wow, I’d love to do this. Being in Canton really gave me the opportunity to fall in love with the art of filmmaking.”