First Jewish Cinema Mississippi festival since 2019 brings four unique features to the Capri Theatre
The Jewish Cinema Mississippi film festival makes its return this week, after going on a COVID-induced hiatus after the last festival held in 2019.
It will also be the first time the festival will be held at the Capri Theater in Jackson.
“It’s worked out beautifully since the synagogue is in Jackson and the theater is centrally located for folks all over the metro area,” said Abram Orlansky, co-chair of Jewish Cinema Mississippi and President of Beth Israel Congregation, sponsor of the festival and the capital city’s only synagogue. “It’s a single screen theater, so that means everybody going in and coming out into the lobby will have seen the same films together. It’s a more communal experience.”
Capri owner-operator David Pharr says hosting the festival fits his vision of the Capri being a true community-oriented theatre.
“We are excited that Jewish Cinema Mississippi chose the Capri as the venue for this year’s festival,” he said. “In addition to first-run and classic movie exhibition, the Capri hosts local filmmakers and festivals whenever possible. It has become difficult for a single screen theatre to accommodate all of those uses but as a key part of the vision for restoring this iconic place, we’re committed to it.”
Established in 2002, the festival was founded to bring Jewish-themed and Israeli independent films to local audiences. This year’s selections continue that mission, offering the opportunity to see four diverse features that can currently only be seen on the festival circuit.
“I would hope that everybody can find at least one of these four films that piques their interest,” Orlansky said. “And it’s a rare opportunity to see foreign films in Jackson. Three of the four films are subtitled, which I think audiences have gotten better at enjoying in the era of Netflix.”
“The Jewish experience in the 20th century centers so heavily around the Holocaust and the founding of Israel that you can make the joke that you can’t have a Jewish film festival without at least one film that is in some way Holocaust-related,” Orlansky said. “It was such a traumatic, seminal before and after event for worldwide Jewry that it keeps being explored in film from different angles. Finding Hannah, for example, doesn’t take place in the ‘40s, but it’s about characters who survived the Holocaust and are elderly now trying to reconcile what happened to them as teenagers.”
The next film, Farewell Mr. Haffmann (March 20, 7 p.m.), deals with how lives were torn apart at the beginning of WWII. Set in Paris, 1941, the film concerns a jeweler who attempts to flee the city during the Nazi occupation who must rely on his assistant to protect his business and family. This French language feature is from the producers of the Best Picture Oscar-winning CODA.
Matchmaking(March 21, 7 p.m.), is an Israeli comedy that put an Orthodox spin on the Shakespeare classic Romeo & Juliet. It was directed by award-winning Israeli filmmaker Erez Tadmor and is in Hebrew with English subtitles.
Closing out the festival is Greener Pastures(March 22, 7 p.m.), an Israeli comedy about a 70-something widower in a nursing home who starts dealing cannabis he gets from his fellow tenants to buy back his home. In Hebrew with English subtitles, the film was nominated for 12 Israeli Film Academy Awards.
“The Israeli film industry is sort of surprisingly prolific for the size country that it is,” Orlansky said. “Many of the movies made there aren’t going to get a wide American release ever. The festival is a great opportunity to check out interesting films like Matchmaking and Greener Pastures that might not otherwise be available.”
‘Raiders’ takes over the Capri this weekend with special screening of fan film documentary and showings of the Spielberg classic
When 13-year-old Eric Zala, along with his friends Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb, set out to make a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark in Ocean Springs in the early ‘80s, he probably never imagined he’d still be talking about it 40 years later.
But such is the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, as their fan film is known. The project captured the essence of so many things: from the sincerity of childhood fandom, to the adventurousness of amateur filmmaking to the sheer creative ingenuity of a group of kids with too much free time on their hands.
The story of the three, collectively known as The Raiders Kids, is told in the 2016 documentary Raiders: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made. The documentary brought them back together to Mississippi to film the plane scene, the only scene they couldn’t make happen before they wrapped their original seven-year filmmaking odyssey in 1989.
This Saturday, March 18, at 4:15 p.m., the Capri Theatre in Jackson will present a special screening of the Raiders documentary, and Zala will be in attendance for a Q&A following. The event is presented in conjunction with the Mississippi Film Office as part of their 50th anniversary celebration and serves as a fundraiser for the Crossroads Film Society. Admission is a suggested donation of $10. The Capri Theatre is also screening Raiders of the Lost Arkthis weekend, with showtimes on Friday and Saturday. Visit caprimovies.com for details.
We chatted with Zala recently about the lasting appeal of Raiders and how being a kid from Mississippi with big dreams made it all possible.
With a fifth film coming out this year, it seems like Indiana Jones is as popular as ever. What do you think it is that captured your imaginations as kids and continues to do so for audiences today?
Indiana Jones is a great character. And Raiders of the Lost Ark, specifically, what a perfect film. It’s a masterpiece from the dual minds of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Kind of lightning in a bottle.
But part of what makes it great, I think, is the atmosphere that Spielberg created on set. The crew felt open enough to offer ideas. Here’s a bit of obscure trivia for you: in the classroom scene when the girl is flirting with him, flashing her eyelids with I love you written on it, that’s not in the script. That was from the first assistant director who shared the idea with Spielberg that morning. And it’s a million little details like that, I think, that combined in the film that we know and love.
Has anyone ever asked you if had they cast Tom Selleck as Indy as they originally planned, do you think your life would have turned out the same?
(laughs) No one has actually asked that one before! It’s up to question, right? It would have been a radically different character. Things work out for the best.
How have audiences responded to the documentary since it was released?
When the doc was first released, I did a 65-city tour around the country first showing the documentary and then our fan film. I got the opportunity to see so many audiences and their live reactions. It was just a thrill. Because when we were kids, I mean, just finishing the darn thing was the highest aspiration that we had. If someone would have told us Spielberg would have loved it, that there would be a documentary about it, we would have just laughed.
I made a point during that tour to always sneak into the theater to catch people’s reactions to the airplane scene. Because us reuniting the cast after 25 years in the documentary to finally do the airplane scene was a wonderful and surreal experience.
In some ways, the Adaptation could only have existed before the internet. But it’s also a lot of things that are a big part of internet culture now: fan films, amateur filmmaking, etc. And it was the internet that first shared your story with the world and helped fund the plane scene in the documentary via Kickstarter. What has the internet meant to the Raiders Guys?
When we finished in ’89, as you may know from our strange but true story, the film kind of sat on our bookshelf for like 14 years until it was accidentally discovered and we were invited to have a proper world premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse Theater in Austin, Texas. This was back in 2003. There was a famous internet critic, Harry Knowles, who wrote the first ever review and I remember the following morning reading all the comments posted, people who had been there the night before, people who hadn’t. Some thought it was so cool, some thought it was nonsense. At one point we were accused of being a hoax. (laughs)
That was our first experience with the internet discovering our film. But what a wonderful thing. Then from that we started getting these invites. People would track us down and invite us to this film festival or that. And so began a period in which we traveled for over 13 years around the world screening this little film we shot my mom’s basement and our backyards here in Mississippi. We screened it everywhere from Sitka, Alaska, to Sydney, Australia.
So yeah, the internet, it’s been huge. I think probably the biggest thing is when we were kids, as far as we knew, we were the only ones in the world that were doing anything like it. And while our experience was unique, hearing from all the fans and the folks that I spoke with over the years of screenings, it turns out a lot of kids were inspired by Indiana Jones and played in their backyard and rolled under the closing garage door just in the nick of time like we did (laughs). The Internet made us realize that we were not alone at all.
You now run Zala Detours and continue to share your story. What can you tell me about that?
Zala Detours is kind of a catch-all for what I do these days. Sometimes I travel and do screenings such as the one this week at the Capri. Sometimes I do workshops on filmmaking for the beginner, usually for young kids. I also have a website where the storyboards that I wrote over an entire summer from memory for the Adaptation are published, along with a book that came out about us and more. The website also makes our film and the documentary available to folks. After the documentary, a lot of folks were wondering where they could see the fan film itself. The website is theraiderskids.com.
I’ve gotten asked, how did you stick with it for all those years? How did you overcome these obstacles? Where did you find a location for the Sahara Desert in Mississippi? How did you remake a Hollywood blockbuster on your allowance? I seek to answer those questions and hopefully pass on some of what I learned from the experience of growing up a Raiders kid that I’m very grateful for.
You mention finding a location for a desert. The Mississippi Gulf Coast has such a variety of locations, like in your hometown of Ocean Springs. Was that something that occurred to you when you were originally making the fan film?
Right. As varied a climate and landscape as we are fortunate to have here in Mississippi, we didn’t have a desert, but we did compromise. And after weeks and weeks of searching we finally found this dirt farm with the elusive dunes that we were looking for—even though there were trees in the distance, kind of a very non-desert like look (laughs).
Which, incidentally, when we later did the airplane scene, it might have made more sense for me to film where I was at the time, Las Vegas, literally in the desert. But we wanted to be consistent, so we came back to Mississippi to shoot and found a place with matching red clay. And with the magic of CGI these days, we could have easily erased the trees from the background of our newly found airplane scene. But I said, no, leave the trees in! It may not really look like a desert, but it just seemed right to stay consistent.
So indeed, there was only one scene not shot in the state of Mississippi. And that was the submarine scene just over the state line in Mobile Bay at the U.S.S. Alabama and the U.S.S. Drum Tourist Park.
What else do you think it was about growing up in Mississippi that led you to undertake such a seemingly impossible project?
As a kid in Mississippi you kind of had to find your own fun. And it was a conducive environment, being left to your own devices. It kind of creates a blank canvas. I also think growing up here, specifically where nature is not so cowed into submission, had a lot to do with it. I know if we grew up in Brooklyn, for instance, we might have been less inspired to imagine swinging from tree to tree if there were no trees around. For myself anyway. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become aware that nature and the beauty that we have here, it sparks the imagination, certainly in the young.
Casey Heflin, Hair and Makeup Artist and Actress
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in Pelahatchie, Mississippi, where I still live. I’m actually still in the house I’ve been in since I was three. I went to East Rankin Academy for High School and I teach part time there now. Then I went to Mississippi State for undergrad.
How did you discover your interest in working in film?
From the time I was probably a toddler, I just I loved movies and loved storytelling. I started as a child in theater. And that was kind of my background. And then went to college for theater too. And I mean, I’ve just always wanted to work in the film industry. I wanted to act initially, but then it just sort of evolved into a career in makeup.
At what point did you realize you could pursue your dream from Mississippi?
It’s so funny because it just sort of happened that way after I graduated from Mississippi State. A friend and I were thinking about moving to either California or New Mexico to pursue acting. And then things just kept happening to keep me home for the longest time. Like she decided not to go. She went into another career, has a family now and ended up staying here. And then later on, my dad’s health was poor. So I stayed here.
Any time I’ve thought about moving, something would keep me in Mississippi and then I just started getting jobs in film little by little. I went to college with some guys who wanted to be filmmakers and who are now. Right after I graduated, they were making zombie movies in their backyard and I started doing make up for those. One of them (Johnson Thomasson) got into USC’s film program. So to get in, he made this short film and I did the makeup for that. He ended up in that program, and now he does visual effects for The Mandalorian and all kinds of different stuff. So he’s pretty amazing.
So I just started with this group of 20 something year old guys and then from word of mouth, Michael Williams got me a few of my first jobs doing makeup, and it kept going from there. I feel really blessed because it kind of happened to me more than anything. The longer I stayed home, the more film came to the state. Two years ago we did The System here and you know, I live in Pelahatchie, so I was driving 10 minutes to the Rankin County Jail to work on that. It was just so bizarre to be driving 10 minutes from my home to work on that film with an Academy Award nominee like Terrence Howard in it.
What kind of formal training have you had and where?
Initially when I went to Mississippi State, my goal was to go into medicine. But I just loved acting. We didn’t have a film program at State then, the closest thing we had to film was theater. I double majored in theater and pre-med for a while until I finally decided it was going to be all theater for me. I got my degree in communications with an emphasis on theater. While I was there I did study abroad in London for theater at King’s College. I also did a six week summer course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama for acting. But as far as my hair and makeup training, I took a course at Mississippi State with Melanie Harris for makeup and costuming. That’s it. Everything else I’ve learned from being on set, working under better makeup artists or just learning from doing and there’s so much on YouTube and Tik Tok, now you can learn anything you want to know from the internet.
What was your first film job?
My first feature film was The Dynamiter that filmed around Glen Allan and Greenville in 2009. I was really kind of a P.A., as a swing between hair and makeup and wardrobe. I actually totaled my car on the last day of shooting, flipped my car. So that was not the most pleasant experience, but I think people liked the movie and I actually had a small part in it and got to learn under a makeup artist. So that was a good one.
What are some of your current and recent projects?
The System was released late last year. One that I’m really proud of that has been released in the past year isMysterious Circumstance: The Death of Meriwether Lewis. We shot that all around Tishomingo County in Mississippi in early spring. It’s been lexactly two years now since we filmed it. It was a great experience. Everybody on it was wonderful. The story we had to tell was a really interesting one, too. And we recently wrapped on Sunday Kinda Love in Canton, I was the only hair and makeup person on it, except for a few times when I had an assistant. It was great. I think it’s got a great story to tell as well.
What has been the most surprising thing about working in the film industry?
So many things. I have been doing it on and off for 13 years now. So many people who don’t work in the film industry view it as a glamorous, fun industry. And I’m not trying to say it’s not, and it is fun in a lot of ways, but the days are hard. When you’re working 12 or more hours a day, sometimes night shoots, sometimes driving a lot. Like on Sunday Kinda Love, we worked for 12 hours every day. But I drove some days an hour each way to get to set. It’s grueling, it’s rewarding, but the three or four weeks or more, you’re sort of living to work. You’re working, eating, sleeping, and repeat, you know? A lot of work goes into it and everybody has to be really focused and know what they’re supposed to be doing each day. But the bond you create with the people you work with, that’s the most rewarding part. It’s all about becoming that sort of dysfunctional family unit that I really love and that’s what’s hard to say goodbye to once you finish.
Who has been an influence on your career and why?
There are so many people, especially as far as acting goes, so many people I look up to. But I think one of the greatest influences on my career has been Michael Williams. We met 13 years ago, and his career has taken off and he’s so talented, but to be sort of by his side and get to work with him and be friends with him, and he’s always used me as a part of his crew whenever he does anything. I just feel very secure in knowing that we’ll always have a good working relationship.
How does being from Mississippi help you stand out in the industry?
I feel pretty blessed because the timing was right for me with our film industry growing from the time I graduated from college, for me to become somehow one of the premier makeup artists in the state. I feel like a big fish in a little pond sometimes. You know, the Mississippi film community is pretty small, really. We have a lot of great people and a lot of other talented makeup artists, but it is such a small community. I feel like I do get called repeatedly based on just the relationships I have built with people over the years. And I’m not having to compete with thousands of other actors or makeup artists in California or New York or somewhere like that.
When I studied acting in London, I was in a class that was pretty diverse. We had Italians and people from Spain and Denmark and all over. But for some reason my Southern accent was the one everybody was obsessed with and liked to copy and they thought it was hilarious.
I got to work on a feature in Utah in the fall, and it was because of a relationship I had formed years ago with someone who came to Mississippi to produce a film who is not from here. When they had the chance and they were filming somewhere else, they called me to work on it. And I think that’s great too, because we have productions come in from other places and work with our local crew. And that leads to some of our local crew getting to branch out and work in other places. Just because we’re from Mississippi doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re skilled and pleasant to work with. So it was great to have that opportunity.
If you could create a scene built around a location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?
But this is a strange one, though. Did you know that Bessie Smith got in a car accident in Clarksdale, Mississippi? And she was so badly injured, but the closest hospital to her was a white hospital. At the time, things were segregated so they took her to the black hospital instead that was farther away and she died. There’s that question of could she have lived if they had just taken her straight to whatever the nearest hospital was and gotten her medical attention? I don’t know. But that’s a really interesting story to me.
What about your hometown of Pelahatchie for a location?
Yeah. It’s a funny little town. We have a quaint, quintessential looking little Main Street area and have one flashing four-way stoplight, so there’s not a whole lot going on. But I would love that. I mean, to get to actually stay in town and work would be great.
Do you have a favorite moment on set or with a project?
The one that comes to mind is, I got to work on a Copper Fit commercial a few years ago with Jerry Rice. Who is arguably the greatest football player of all time. They had him do a little segment where he was dancing to Justin Timberlake. And he came over and danced with me for a little while, so I got to dance with Jerry Rice. So that one was fun.
What would you say to convince or encourage a producer to bring their project to Mississippi?
You’re going to find great crew, great people, usually great food. Our rebate program is good. I just think we make it easier to shoot here, not the weather, necessarily, that can be difficult, but I think we make it a lot easier to shoot a movie than in some of the bigger cities. We were shooting on the square in Canton for Sunday Kinda Love, and someone was talking about all the permits and red tape they’d have to get through just to shoot that little bit on a city street in Los Angeles or anywhere else. And how it was pretty easy for us to shut it down and get those shots. It makes sense. Productions filmed here save time on things, save on bureaucracy and paperwork. And we have a pretty diverse landscape, too, from our coast to the Pine Belt, to the hills of the north. We have a lot to offer right here.
What are you hopes be for the future of the film industry in the state?
I hope it continues to grow. Our colleges and universities have a lot more true film programs now, even Mississippi State does now, which I wish I’d been a part of. It’s great to see us grow in that way. I would love to see our infrastructure grow. For us to be able to utilize more studio spaces and to have more places for equipment rental, truck rental and from my perspective, my department, places where I can get hair and beauty supplies without having to go online or go out of state to buy some of the things I need. I just wish we had more supply for the resources that you need to shoot a film instead of always having to rent out of Atlanta and New Orleans and places like that. I wish we had more of it at our disposal here.
What’s your advice to someone who wants to get into the film industry?
I mean, of course, if you want to get a college degree, which I think is still a good thing but not always necessary (especially for this industry), look into one of our programsand go to school for it. At least Hinds, you know, because that’s such a practical program, they’re really learning what they’re going to be doing on set. And there’s so many Facebook groups now that even people just making short films or one or two day shoots will post about it, so I’d also say connecting with the people online who are making films in the state and working as a background actor a time or two or a P.A. just to see what the machine of a film set runs like. Start learning the terminology and some of the etiquette on set and just how things go. I’d say you need to spend a good few days on a 12 hour shoot to decide if it’s something you’re even interested in. It is not for everybody but if you have that disposition and you’re into it, I think then you can continue to grow. It’s about the people you meet and the skills you gain along the way. And I think being willing to fail and learn from that and not quit. I worked on a couple of things early on in my career where I was in a little over my head and thought about quitting then, but I’m glad I didn’t, because I did get better at it.
What do you like to do when you’re not working on film?
Everything. I love animals. I’m trying to be a gardener, I built a greenhouse a while back and I’m growing some plants, but I’ll learn through failing over and over in that too. I love to travel more than anything. So next week I’m going to Niagara Falls. I’m excited about that. I love to watch movies a lot, still, always will, and I love to read. And I think some of the best movies come from literature. And there’s so many great stories that haven’t been told yet. And I like to paint. So, you know, just everything fun. And I love the outdoors too, because Mississippi is such a great place for it.
“20 years ago, all our films were on VHS tapes,” said festival director Matt Wymer. “The first festival was held at the Ford Center with just a VCR and projector. We’ve come from those humble beginnings to become one of the biggest film festivals in the southeast. We’re celebrating that history this year with an overall theme of past, present and future.”
The festival will feature 143 films and media projects, including 32 features (15 narrative and 18 documentary), 93 short films (narrative, documentary, LGBTQIA+, animation and experimental, student and Mississippi-based productions), 18 music videos, and one multi-media project.
And of course, there are the ever-popular nightly theme parties the festival is known for.
“We have a saying in Oxford that we never lose a party,” Wymer said. “We’re celebrating the audiences that allowed the Oxford Film Festival to inspire and entertain our community for the past two decades. To show our appreciation, we are providing more free screenings, more panels and bigger parties than ever before. We start off strong on Wednesday with our birthday party, a kid-friendly street party free and open to the public.”
Another highlight from Wednesday is Fire Bones,an interactive multimedia experience that includes podcasts, short films, music videos, poems and still images. The night closes out with Butterfly in the Sky, a feature documentary about the classic educational TV show Reading Rainbow.
Thursday’s opening night selection is Little Richard: I Am Everything,a feature documentary about the rock ‘n’ roll legend that was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. That evening is the Music Video Block Party, when artists featured in music videos screening at the festival on Friday will perform live at clubs around Oxford.
Then on Friday, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the Mississippi Film Office along with the Selig Polyscope Company is sponsoring a special screening of the 1916 silent film The Crisis, which was filmed in Vicksburg and is the oldest surviving feature film made in Mississippi.
“We’re turning 50, but we’re still young in the grand scheme of things—movies have been made in Mississippi for well over 100 years,” said Mississippi Film Office Director Nina Parikh. “What better way to celebrate that rich history than with one of the films that started it all.”
The Crisis was produced by William N. Selig, who in 1896 founded the Selig Polyscope Company, one of the first film companies in the U.S. The company was reestablished in Dallas in 2008, and today provides digital cinema package (DCP) services to filmmakers and film festivals including the Oxford Film Festival.
In addition to The Crisis, the Selig Polyscope Co. produced what is believed to be the first film ever made in Mississippi.
“We are proud to be the first major studio to film in the state back in 1903 with the documentary short Mississippi River,” said Dev Shapiro, president of the Selig Polyscope Co. “The reason our company came to Mississippi in the early 1900s to make several films is authenticity. William Selig wanted his films to allow audiences to see new places and things they may never get to see in their lifetime.
“With The Crisis, Selig wanted to film where the Battle of Vicksburg actually took place. He hired locals for in front of the camera and behind the camera. He even convinced the governor at the time to deploy the entire National Guard to play troops on both sides of the war.”
A new musical score by Oxford composer Damein Wash performed by a live ensemble will accompany the film.
“The score will be period-appropriate, to recreate the theater experience of the silent era,” Wymer said.
Also Friday, Faulkner: The Past is Never Dead, a feature documentary about the famed Oxford author’s life and works by Jackson native filmmaker Michael Modak-Truran, will premiere at the festival. The film features dramatic sequences starring Biloxi-born Oscar-nominated actor Eric Roberts as Faulkner. Modak-Truran explained this was partly out of necessity.
“Firstly, Faulkner was a very private person,” he said. “There’s not a lot of archival material or recorded interviews, particularly from his earlier life. He also famously never wrote an autobiography, although his fiction has many moments that feel like they really draw from his life. We had all his great words, so the idea was to create visuals to give his words life. I’m really proud of the fact that we did a lot of research using archival photos to ensure historical accuracy in the production design. And we were able to film a lot of it in places where these scenes presumably happened, like Rowan Oak and his childhood home.”
The screening is followed by a Faulkner-themed party at the historic Cedar Oaks antebellum home. But that’s not all Friday: in addition to the aforementioned music video blocks, several Mississippi-made films will be presented in blocks of narrative shorts and documentary shorts, as well as the feature documentary Educational Divide: The Story of East Side High, about the consolidation of two racially divided high schools in Cleveland, Miss. There’s also a “mini student film fest” of works by University of Mississippi film production program students in the afternoon.
Friday is also stacked with feature-length documentaries including Oklahoma Breakdown,a music documentary about obscure one-man-band musician Mike Hosty, who found somewhat unwelcome fame when his titular song was made into a no. 1 hit by Stoney Larue in 2007 and later recorded by Okie country superstar Toby Keith.
“He’s quite honestly the most talented musician and performer I’ve ever seen in my life,” said filmmaker Christopher Fitzpatrick, adding that he was driven to make the film to share Hosty’s talent with the world.
“This is my first time going through the festival process, I’ve never really even done a short film and submitted to a festival before,” he said. “Getting selected is a big deal. You look at some of the biggest festivals in the South and you kind of put Nashville and New Orleans and Oxford in the same breath. Those are those are big festivals that everybody knows about.”
“So far I’ve been to some really incredible film festivals,” Hale said. “We’re doing a bit of a tour right now. I was in Miami last week, and we just had our New York premiere. I’ve never been to Mississippi and I’ve never been to Oxford, obviously. I’ve heard amazing things about the festival. All of us involved in this film are so invested in it on a such a personal level that I really hope that it connects with the audience as much as it has connected to us.”
Some other Saturday highlights include Belief: The Season, Ole Miss Baseball, a feature documentary about the team’s historic 2022 championship run; Dogleg, a comedy by Jackson native writer-director-star Al Warren that was partially shot in north Mississippi; and the festival’s closing night selection, The Banality, a feature film shot in the Delta co-written and directed by Strack Azar (son of Greenville native country star Steve Azar) and Canadian filmmaker Michael Stevantoni. The evening’s party will be a nostalgia-fest: the BlOXbuster Video Party at the Powerhouse that celebrates the video store heyday of the ‘90s.
Things close out Sunday afternoon with four more features, including Bolan’s Shoes, the feature directing debut of BAFTA Award-nominated screenwriter and actor Ian Puleston-Davies, along with blocks of documentary shorts, including some Mississippi-made sports documentaries.
Wymer says that supporting filmmaking in Mississippi has always been a big part of the Oxford Film Festival’s mission, and one that he would like to focus on in the future.
“This year we’re giving away a $10,000 camera package to one of our Mississippi filmmakers to make their next film in Mississippi,” Wymer said. “We’re changing the focus of our prizes to help support our filmmakers’ next artistic endeavors so that they hopefully make them in Mississippi. And that’s my goal for the future, to provide the support for filmmakers to come back to Mississippi to maybe make a feature version of their award-winning short or something along those lines.”
A free workshop, an industry panel discussion and a variety of screenings featured at two of Mississippi’s longest running film events this week
This week features two long-running film-related events in Starkville and Natchez.
The 26th Annual Magnolia Independent Film Festival in Starkville Feb. 23-25 brings an array of indie films along with a workshop and panel discussion sponsored by the Mississippi Film Office. And the 34th Annual Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration will be held at the city’s convention center Feb. 23-24 and features screenings of two documentaries along with numerous literary readings and presentations.
The Magnolia International Film Festival
Last year the MAG, as the film festival is affectionately known, celebrated the milestone of 25 years. It is the longest-running film festival in the state. The MAG is the brainchild of late filmmaker Ron Tibbett who started the fest in his native West Point before moving it to Starkville in 2000.
“The MAG was a very cozy experience in the beginning, held in a an auditorium with no heating,” said MAG president Michael Williams. “But it’s remained an intimate experience as it has grown and changed locations. You get to hang out with filmmakers and get to know them, and they get to interact with their audience in a very special way.”
As this year is something of the beginning of a new era, festival director Chris Misun says they have refined the festival in meaningful ways to help it continue to serve the filmmaking community for the future.
“We listened to what filmmakers have said in the past,” Misun said. “We saw the opportunity to make changes this year and see how it works. But we’re not going to reinvent the wheel regarding the hospitality and intimacy our fest offers that keeps people coming back.”
To build on those strengths, the fest’s usual Saturday matinee block of films was cut to allow more time for the filmmaking workshop and the panel discussion.
“The way it works at some festivals is there’s a lot of running around from screening to screening and there’s no way to see everything,” Misun said. “We don’t have multiple screens going at one time. That allows visiting filmmakers to see each other’s work, and through our social events they can build relationships and network, and really talk about the craft of filmmaking together.”
The festival’s free panel discussion at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, titled “Making a Living in the Film Industry,” is made up entirely of Mississippians who work in film. They include producer Rick Moore of Ridgeland’s Eyevox, Pelahatchie makeup artist and actress Casey Heflin, Delta native filmmaker Ben Powell and Oxford filmmaker Antonio Tarrell. The panel is sponsored by the Mississippi Film Alliance along with the Mississippi Film Office as part of its year-long celebration for its 50th anniversary.
“We’re proud to say that as we turn 50 the film industry in Mississippi is stronger than ever,” said Film Office Director Nina Parikh. “It continues to provide more and more opportunity to Mississippians like the talented filmmakers and crew members on our panel. And we’re happy to support them sharing their experiences to convey the message that yes, you can be a part of this industry right here at home.”
The panel will be moderated by Williams, a West Point native and talented filmmaker in his own right who has written and directed two feature films made in Mississippi.
“All of the people on our panel have found different ways of making it work in Mississippi,” Williams said. “I want to talk about what’s been easy, what’s been hard and what are the keys to success? And to show that there’s many paths to take.”
Before the panel discussion at 1 p.m. is the free workshop entitled “The Production Value of Collaborative Screenwriting” with Jeremy Burgess, a Birmingham Ala.-based writer-producer Williams worked with as cinematographer on the feature film Don’t Die,which is currently in post-production.
“How do you write a script knowing you’re actually going to have it made it one day?” Williams said. “The workshop focuses on writing by anticipating collaborating with other department heads during the production process.”
The films in competition at the MAG this year run the gamut from comedies to dramas to documentaries to animated shorts.
“The films that we have selected have a really good range,” Misun said, adding that the changes made to Saturday’s lineup “makes it a little more competitive because that cut out about six films from our typical schedule.”
In all, the festival will feature 19 shorts (including three animated shorts), three documentaries, five music videos and three features, each closing out a night of the festival. Thursday’s feature is Miss Viborg, a comedy-drama and the feature debut of Danish filmmaker Marianne Blicher. Friday’s offering is Unpacking,a female-driven comedy-drama from the writing-directing team of Alexandra Clayton and Michal Sinnott that was filmed in Bali, Indonesia. And the festival closes out with D.O.A.,a black-and-white neo-noir starring actor and punk rocker John Doe of the seminal L.A. band X. It’s directed by Florida filmmaker Kurt St. Thomas, who won Best Feature at the MAG for Captive Audienceback in 2000.
“We’ve got everything from people right out of college making films to seasoned filmmakers from as far away as Australia and Denmark,” Williams said. “And we’ve got filmmakers like Kurt who have a long relationship with us and always want to come back.”
Another highlight of the festival is a chance to see the winning films from the MAG’s first-ever 48-Hour Film Competition that was held in November.
“The top three submitted to that are playing on Saturday,” Misun said. “We’re also highlighting other Mississippi-made films that day.”
They include XIII, a documentary about two Mississippi State University graduates who were part of the team that helped save the Apollo 13 astronauts. It was produced and directed by James Parker, creative supervisor of MSU Films, a filmmaking initiative of the university’s Television Center.
“My involvement has helped to build a stronger connection between the MAG and MSU,” said Misun, who is also a broadcast instructor at the university. “Some members of our board and volunteers also work at the university as well as at the W in Columbus. We want to make sure we’re reaching all the educational facilities and letting students know the festival is a great opportunity for them to network and get good information if they’re interested in film.”
Filmmaker Timothy Givens, a Natchez native now living in New Orleans, will screen his short documentary The Saloonat 5:30 p.m. Friday to close out the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration.
The film is a “day-in-the-life” portrait of Natchez’s Under the Hill Saloon, housed in a space that has served as a watering hole for the historic city for over 200 years. Givens directed, shot and edited the film by himself.
“I interviewed people visiting the bar from France, Spain and The Netherlands, and that was all over the course of one day of filming,” Givens said. “I want people to watch the film and say, ‘OK, this is what would happen if I went to this bar for a whole day.’ It’s an ode to Natchez in a way, and all the walks of life that have come through the saloon’s doors.”
“I’m honored to have been able to make two films about my hometown because I think everybody should know what a great place it is,” Givens said. “I love telling the untold stories, and Natchez is full of them, as well as mysteries, ghost stories and other tales.”
Also screening at the celebration on Thursday evening is Rhythms of the Land,a documentary by cultural anthropologist Dr. Gail Myers that tells the story of black farmers across 10 southern states, Mississippi included.
Ward Emling, Actor and Former Film Office Director
Where did you grow up and go to school?
Well, I was born in New Orleans, but I moved to Jackson when I was 10. I went to, as I like to say, all the schools on Riverside Drive: Power, Bailey, Murrah and Millsaps. I spent two years at school in London after Millsaps and then seven years in L.A. in the ‘80s. And the rest of the time, I have been here.
At what moment did you discover an interest in working in Film/ TV?
Well, while I was at Murrah, I did a play, The Wizard of Oz. Then when I got to Millsaps, they had a terrific, terrific theater department in those days. I was doing a play, at the Little Theater of Jackson, which is the building where New Stage Theatre is now. The play was called Jimmy Shine, and it was the winter of 1973. That was 50 years ago, the exact time the Mississippi Film Commission was founded.
It’s funny how all of this intertwines. There I was 50 years ago at Little Theater, and I got to meet Robert Altman and that gang when they were in town to do Thieves Like Us. And then that summer, all the actors at Millsaps auditioned for a movie that was going to be filmed in Natchez called The Musical Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,which was the second film of the film commission. I got a job as an extra. Of course, I lied and said I could ride a horse. And of course, I got cast in a part where I had to ride a horse. So, I had to learn in a hurry.
But then they needed a wardrobe assistant, and I got the job. So that was my summer job in 1973. I was the wardrobe assistant on Huckleberry Finn for pretty much the whole summer. And that was my 101 course. That was where I learned everything about making movies. Well, not everything, but a lot. That was how that all started. And I kept doing plays at Millsaps.
And then I also got another job on this other film called The Premonition,which was called Turtle Heaven when they were filming it. That was in ’75, and I worked as the office production assistant on that, and they actually filmed in my parents’ house. So that was my first time to be around a location negotiation.
And so, Charlie Allen, who started the film commission, and Walterine Odom, who was the film commissioner in those days, they remembered me from that show. I worked on that for about a month and then went back to school at Millsaps. I stayed in touch with them because I wanted acting work. Then I went to school in London and when I came back, Walterine was going on maternity leave and they needed a person to take over for the summer. This was in ’81. So, I took over and she actually never came back.
So, my three-month job as a maternity leave replacement became a three-and-a-half-year job as the director of the Film Office the first time. I left in ‘83 to location manage a series for CBS called The Mississippifor Warner Brothers. I then moved to L.A.
So, what led you back to Mississippi after your time in L.A.?
I went out to L.A. to be an actor. I had done the Film Office job and then the location manager job, and the idea was that I’d saved some money up and I had made some contacts in L.A. I was getting a little work here and there, but then I got a call from a friend, Jennifer Ogden, who strangely enough, was at Millsaps with me and we worked on Huck Finn together.
She had gone to New York and fallen into production. She was working on a film in Orlando called D.A.R.Y.L.and she was having challenges on that. So, I said, well, I will come down and help you out. I worked as the location coordinator for that in Orlando and then went back to L.A. and auditioned some more.
Then people would call me up to location manage. So, I go off and do that, mostly in the south, and then go back to L.A. and audition. That went on for seven years, and it just got to the point where I had to make the decision of what I wanted to do with my life.
Then the Film Office job came back. I knew that they were having challenges with the disastrous production of Stone Cold, so much so that I was location managing a thing in Charleston, South Carolina, and reading about this mess in Mississippi in USA Today.
So, John Horhn, who was then the head of tourism, contacted me and we started having conversations about the job, and I was thinking, “Do I really want to do this?”
So, this was November of 1990, and I said I would come back and run the Film Office for seven months to see if they were serious about the program. 27 years later I retired. (laughs)
Other than learning while working on productions, did you have any formal training?
Well, I was an English major, with a theater minor at Millsaps and then I worked on those films. Huck Finn was really the education. I was working 80-90 hours a week in the wardrobe department. I was seeing everything that happens. It was an extraordinary education.
Then when I was running the Film Office in the ‘80s, I was always very hands-on working with productions, so I’d spend time on the sets. In those days no one knew what film commissions did or what they could do. But even before that, when I was in college, I went to the movies all the time. I think I saw every movie filmed in the ‘70s. We didn’t have DVD extras and all that, but we had movie magazines and interviews, so essentially you knew what filmmakers were thinking and what they were doing. It was a great, great, great, great, great decade. (Current Film Office Director) Nina (Parikh) always got tired of hearing me talk about the ’70s, but it was a great decade for filmmakers. So, I learned a lot about the film industry just by watching movies. And I was a theater person at Millsaps and I studied in London for two years at the Guild Hall School of Music and Drama.
That’s one of the things that I’ve always said about the Film Office and the way that we were able to run things. A movie came to town when I was 19 years old and gave me an opportunity to be a part of something that I never imagined that I could ever be a part of. The same thing happened to Nina. She was studying film and a movie came to town and gave her the opportunity to get involved in making a movie.
Now, what I used to always say about why it was so easy for me to do the job for so long, is that I knew that every time a movie came to town that it could change someone’s life. Because it did that to me. It did that to Nina. We were in a position every day to do something for someone that they never imagined possible.
I understood films, and how films are made, and the impact and the challenges and all of that, and the demands on a community. If I had a talent, it was helping people understand what it took to support the industry. I learned as a location manager that you always have to look out for something that could go wrong. You never have the perfect day. You know, maybe an airplane will fly over the scene, something will happen!
So as the Film Office’s director, I was constantly looking for how to minimize the barriers and the challenges to filming in Mississippi. I think one way we were highly successful over the years was not being focused on the celebrity of film. We were about the work of film. I did everything I could to make it unglamorous to people in our communities and their understanding of it. That it was a job, that it was something that these people were doing and that we had a responsibility to support them soberly, honestly, very carefully. Sure, these were celebrities. These were people that are on the morning talk shows. But they had a job to do that was not easy. Like I say, I wasn’t a filmmaker, but I helped people make films.
Are you working on any current or recent projects?
It’s been my joy in the years since I’ve been retired, that I’ve been able to return to the stage, which I could never do when I was working. When I was running the Film Office, I couldn’t devote six weeks to a play. So, now I’ve been able to do a couple of plays a year at New Stage, which has been a thrill. Most people don’t know me as an actor. They know me as the film commissioner. Because, well, I was never an actor, I just didn’t do it for 27 years. I did two short films as favors to people. I told several of my friends from the old days, “Well, I’ve retired to doing what we set out to do 50 years ago.”
I also did the two films for Travis Mills’ 12 Westerns in 12 Months project, which were a lot of fun and very interesting. I’d never done anything like that. I’d done an arc, like two or three episodes on series or something like that. But I’d never done anything like Bastard’s Crossing or Texas Red, as a character that had multiple scenes over the course of the story.
Certainly nothing like Bastard’s Crossing, where I like to say that I’m in it until I’m not. I’m in every scene. That was a thrill to do, but I’ve not really auditioned for any other films. I’m actually kind of happy doing the plays. I also know that I’m not going to get another Bastard’s Crossing. And I hope the opportunity does come along to work on more films here. But I’m not actually pursuing that. I like being at New Stage. I like doing that. That’s fun to me. And that’s always a challenge to me.
Chris was the producer on Beulah Land, which filmed in Mississippi in the early ‘80s. He’s a really, really, really great producer who really, really knows how films are made and how things work. When Beulah Land came out, WLBT refused to show it. They had issue with some statements said in the series. Well, we had dozens and dozens and dozens of local actors in that show. It was a six-hour miniseries. It had so many Mississippi actors in it that Walterine and I worked with Chris to screen it over two nights in Jackson so people could see themselves and their work. I first worked with Chris on that. Then Chris was the producer on The Mississippi. We did the pilot in Vicksburg. And then when it got picked up, I went off on the series as their location manager.
And then Jim Brubaker, who’s another terrific producer of a completely different sort than Chris Morgan. For somebody to have these two people as mentors is a total schizophrenic reality, I think. But Jim also knew films from the ground up. He had a completely different style, though. And I learned a lot about making movies working with him. He was the production manager on K-9 and I did Problem Child with him as location manager. I learned a lot about how to work with people with Jim. How to get things done in a completely different way than I had previously learned.
Chris and I became and remain great friends and the same with Jim, but not to the extent that I am friends with Chris. But those two guys, as you realize I said without any hesitation, those are my mentors.
Has being from Mississippi helped you stand out in the industry?
If you think I’ve gone on and on about other questions that you asked, I could go on forever on this!
You know, from an actor standpoint, from a location manager standpoint, from a film commission standpoint, Mississippi has been an important part of everything.
You know what I learned at Millsaps? I learned how to work with people. How to be part of a group and work toward common goals. Which is what I would always try to bring to any work that I did, whether I was working as an actor or a location manager or the film commissioner. All of them, at the core, are about human relations.
I do believe that my experiences in Mississippi, from day one in 1964 when I moved here to today, I’ve learned something every day working with people from all over the place. Sometimes it’s maddening and sometimes it’s kismet. Sometimes it makes you crazy and sometimes it’s just the sweetest thing in the world.
The breadth of people and talent and history and legacy in Mississippi that, if you pay attention to it—which we had to do in the Film Office all the time—informs you to a great depth in how you live your life. We’re surrounded by people of talent and passion and compassion here in Mississippi.
And part of what comes with being a Mississippian, I think, is just being as comfortable as you possibly can be with yourself. That’s what makes situations comfortable. It’s one of the things that I think somebody said to us at Millsaps, you know, get on the stage, get comfortable. And then I used to say that to filmmakers, actors, crew members, get comfortable, get on a set in any way that you can as a stand-in, as an extra, whatever, get comfortable in that world. Because that’s what it’s all about.
If you could make a movie or a scene built around a specific location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?
Well, I love Longwood in Natchez. And I tried forever to get people to use that as a location. It’s so unique, so quirky, so crazy, so weird. It’s since been used in a project. I just saw it in the Christmas movie that was filmed in Natchez and they shot inside and out, which was crazy great. And they used it in in True Blood as an exterior and we used it as an exterior in one episode of The Mississippi. But you know, that’s a location that I truly love because it is unique and has a great story.
But to be honest there are way too many locations in my brain to really answer this question. (laughs) We were pretty lucky over the years to find great things in Mississippi and get them in the movies. We filmed all over the place, in almost all 82 counties. I don’t know if there’s anything out there that I scouted that I would be like, oh, hell, we never shot that! (laughs)
Do you have a favorite moment from your career?
I had My Dog Skip and Cookie’s Fortune, which may be my two favorite films that we made, they were filming at the same time. I’d go from one set to the other and I was like, “This is crazy.”
The great thing about both of those films is that they are such loving portraits of Mississippi. They make people say, “I want to live there.” “I want to grow up there.” Both of those movies do that.
I think My Dog Skip played for like six months in theaters in New York. And I like to think that at least one person in every one of those screenings had never heard of Willie Morris and that maybe they went out and bought that book. Maybe then they bought another book by another Mississippi writer. When I think of the impact of what it is that I did with the Film Office, it’s that impact. It’s changing people’s ideas about Mississippi.
What would you say to convince a producer to bring their project to Mississippi?
I would still say you are not going to have more support than you get from Mississippi communities. They love to have a film in their town. They are happy you are there. They want to do everything they can to help. You are going to have a community that supports your projects.
And if it’s a producer wanting to film a Mississippi story, well there’s just something about the native soil. You will have something intangible that you cannot create somewhere else. You can go shoot your film outside of Atlanta. Sure. Fine. But you are going to miss out on something if you’re not in Mississippi, where the story happened or was inspired.
Back in the day before incentives, there was a big shift from location to crew base. And people were going to where the crew was. I said that what we have to do in Mississippi is to be better at being Mississippi than anywhere else, which is a weird statement to make. But the reality is they were making movies that are set all over the place in Atlanta. So, we just focused on being the best we could be. That’s what we would tell producers, is that you’re going to get a commitment from the people and the inspiration of the place.
What are your hopes for the film industry in Mississippi?
I hope that people will continue to believe in the industry. There will be more need for filmed entertainment tomorrow than there is today. And there is more need today than there was yesterday. It is an exponential growth.
In Mississippi we tend to focus on industries that make products and create jobs. Well, the film industry does that. We are a factory that is building a product. That is what every movie is. But it is a factory that is not going to suddenly be out of business. Because we all have multiple screens in our lives, and every day we expect something different. We need more content.
And the technology to make movies does not diminish the employment capability of it. Look at the VFX credits of the latest Marvel movie. Technology is creating more jobs. It is not diminishing jobs as it is in almost every other industry. There is 30 to 45 percent more scripted product every year and it has been that way for the last 10 years. And by proxy, it is creating more service support needs and more production support needs and equipment and supplies, you name it, so it can also help to grow other business in the state.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the film industry?
If you talked to anybody that is in the film industry today from Mississippi that came by my office when they were starting out, they will tell you that I said don’t get into the industry. (laughs)
But I don’t believe that now, because I believe that the opportunity in film is extraordinary today. When I was a young person, you only had three networks and six studios. Now you have dozens of streaming avenues. If you want to make a film and have it seen, you can do that so much easier today. I think that if you want to be in the film industry, then do it. If you want to make movies, then start working on movies and start making your own movies. And at some point, it will either pay for your decision or it won’t pay to have made that decision. (laughs)
I don’t think that I would discourage anybody who wants to make movies, who wants to be in the film industry from doing it. Get on a movie set, get comfortable, make contacts. Be like (producer) Daniel Lewis. He knows exactly what he is doing and what it takes to do it. And he keeps turning out quality work. Travis Mills is much the same way. Travis makes movies that he wants to make. Both of those guys are terrific examples of “Here’s how you can do it.” You have got Travis doing the small, independent, I’m going to do it all by myself way, and it works out. And his movies are everywhere. You can buy them at Wal-Mart. They can be seen everywhere. And you have got Daniel, who makes movies because people trust him and believe in him. And he just keeps making movies for companies like Hallmark and Lifetime because he turns in quality product. There are so many ways forward for a filmmaker today that weren’t there 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago.
“It has personal significance for me,” said Roger Stolle, director of the festival. “I’m originally from Dayton, Ohio, and I saw it in a local theater in 1991. About five years later I came to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint to see for myself. The film really showed that the blues wasn’t just music that originated in Mississippi, it was music that was still vital and happening in the state and had a real cultural connection to the African-American community in the region.”
“The theme of the festival is that all of the films are either blues or roots music-oriented or Mississippi-connected, either made in Mississippi, or starring Mississippians,” Stolle said.
It was a perfect fit for the Film Office to partner with the festival to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
“The festival is always a great time and a celebration of Mississippi artists on film,” said Film Office Director Nina Parikh. “What better way to kick off our year-long celebration than to revisit Deep Blues, the impact it had on the community, and its contribution to making Mississippi a destination for blues lovers worldwide.”
And speaking of Freeman, the Film Office is also sponsoring the festival’s screening of 2022’s Paradise Highway(Saturday, 6:15 p.m.),a thriller starring Freeman,Juliette Binoche and Frank Grillo that was shot in and around Clarksdale. The film stars Binoche as a truck driver blackmailed into smuggling to keep her brother (Grillo) safe in prison who gets in way over her head when her latest “package” turns out to be a teenage girl.
“A big part of our 50th anniversary celebration is hosting screenings of Mississippi-made movies in the communities where they were filmed,” Parikh said. “We encourage anyone who worked as cast, crew, extras or vendors for the film to join us and share their stories.”
Other highlights of the festival include the documentary Bonnie Blue(Saturday, 1:15 p.m.), about the life of unsung blues artist and Tunica native James Cotton and his influence on the Chicago blues; Journey of a Bluesman (Saturday, 3 p.m.), a documentary about Chicago bluesman James Yancey Jones AKA Tail Dragger, who will be in attendance; the world premiere of the short documentary Harmonica Bean(Saturday, 4:40 p.m.), about Pontotoc native Terry “Harmonica” Bean, who will perform after the screening; and a screening of Helena, Ark.-based filmmaker Nolan Dean’s short films Nighthawks(Friday, 4:30 p.m.), which was shot in Clarksdale, and Our Cornerstone, a documentary about a prominent rural church in Helena.
“Nolan has been involved in a lot of filmmaking locally and I’ve known him for a while,” Stolle said. “He’ll be here to talk about his films, and he also worked as an editor on the ‘Harmonica’ Bean documentary.”
Then there’s the festival’s live music offerings, which kick off with an opening reception featuring the Anthony “Big A” Sherrod Duo at 5 p.m. Friday. The festival closes out on Sunday with live performances by Pascagoula native Libby Rae Watson, Sean “Bad” Apple (owner of Clarksdale’s Bad Apple Blues Club) and Flora native Australia Jones “Honeybee” Neal, the older sister of Fat Possum Records blues artist Paul “Wine” Jones, who died in 2005.
“She actually taught Paul how to play,” Stolle said. “She’s 80 years old, and she had moved away years ago to Indianapolis and had a career there but has moved back to Mississippi and we’re excited to have her.”
From a Dream to the Main Attraction: The Mississippi Film Office at 50
The Mississippi Film Office turned 50 on January 17.
It’s a milestone especially meaningful for former Film Office director Ward Emling.
“When I think back over my life and how tied it has been to the Mississippi Film Office, it’s just crazy to me,” said Emling, who served as director from 1980-1983 and 1990-2017. “I’ve been involved with the film industry in Mississippi for all 50 years. My career really speaks to what the film industry can be. It offers extraordinary opportunity for anyone. When film production comes to your backyard, it makes dreams achievable and graspable.”
Established as the Mississippi Film Commission in 1973, the office got off to an auspicious start by assisting the production of acclaimed director Robert Altman’sThieves Like Us, filmed primarily in Canton that year.
Emling, then a stage actor at Jackson’s Little Theater, was invited to the film’s Mississippi premiere at Jackson’s Capri Theatre. Soon after, he got a job as a wardrobe assistant on the next Mississippi film, 1973’s Huckleberry Finn, which was shot around Natchez. So began Emling’s film industry career, which included seven years working as a location manager and actor in Los Angeles in addition to his two stints as the Film Office’s director.
The 50th anniversary is also a special milestone for current Film Office Director Nina Parikh, who marks 25 years with the office this year. She began working for the Film Office as the deputy director in 1998 and became director after his retirement in 2017.
Parikh says that today more Mississippians’ dreams of working in the industry are being realized than ever before in the office’s history.
“When I started in the office, we were lucky to have one feature film per year,” Parikh said. “In 2022, we had 19 features. And that doesn’t include TV series, episodes, documentaries, commercials, music videos and short films. My time with this office the last 25 years hasn’t just been a job. I know I’ve spent my time well, helping to better my home state and be some small part of making someone’s dream of working in the movies come alive.”
1903-1972: BEFORE THE FILM OFFICE
The 19 films made in 2022 alone are more than had been made in Mississippi in the decades prior to the Film Office’s genesis in 1973.
Filmmaking in Mississippi dates as far back as 1903 when the Selig Polyscope Company produced a silent short film showcasing the majesty of The Mississippi River.The company also produced the oldest surviving Mississippi-made film, 1916’s The Crisis, which used the actual battlefield in Vicksburg for some ambitious battle scenes with assistance from the Mississippi National Guard.
1960’s Home from the Hill is a classic Southern Gothic drama bolstered by its stately Oxford locations. 1966’s This Property is Condemned, another Williams story, used sun-drenched Bay St. Louis locations to amplify its steamy romance between Robert Redford and Natalie Wood. (Many of the locations can still be visited on a walking tour). And 1969’s The Reiversbrought another Faulkner story to the screen as well as Hollywood icon Steve McQueen to the sleepy town of Carrollton where it was filmed.
“Movies had been made in Mississippi before, but they had struggled along without the assistance that the Film Commission was set up to provide,” Charles W. Allen, one of the Film Office’s founders, said in an October 1982 TheHollywood Reporterspecial section promoting filming in the state. “We were getting a lot of feedback that there was a definite trend developing toward on-location filming, and we felt that Mississippi was in a good position to capitalize on it.”
THE ‘70s: THE EARLY YEARS
Allen had film industry friends from his time teaching at UCLA, and he, along with Corinth native author and screenwriter Thomas Hal Phillips and actor James Best, then serving as Artist-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, formed the core of the board of the newly founded Mississippi Film Commission. Soon Walterine Odom, who had been working for the state developing its welcome centers, was tapped to serve as director and held the post until 1980.
“We were one of the first film commissions set up in the country,” Odom said. “Mississippi may not always be at the forefront, but we were in this instance.”
The founders had seen the seismic shift happening in Hollywood: the move away from the old studio system to the New Hollywood movement. Led by directors like Altman, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola and others, the movement was characterized by director-centric productions looking for the naturalism provided by on-location shooting. And it certainly helped that films like Friedkin’s The French Connection and Coppola’s The Godfather were cleaning up at the box office and awards shows.
“The first year we had $8 million in production,” Odom said. “Back then that was a lot of money. And when we first started, we really had almost no budget at all, so that was a pretty good return on the investment. We had very capable people in place, but we were just learning. Fortunately for me, the people that came to scout locations were very much into teaching what they needed.”
An early niche the Film Office found was TV movies and miniseries. “Movies of the week” were ratings giants for the networks, and the massive success of productions like 1977’s Roots started a flurry of period dramas that Mississippi’s locations were perfect for.
“I got to pick up him and his wife at the Jackson airport, and my husband and I drove him to Natchez,” Odom said. “He didn’t like to fly on small planes. We got to visit with him for about two hours. It was quite the experience, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.”
Odom’s tenure wasn’t without its share of challenges, however. She has stories of combating perceptions of Mississippi, of hotel managers refusing to put up film crews for months because it would scare off their “regulars,” of losing big productions like The Buddy Holly Story and Smokey and the Bandit for reasons out of her control and of navigating controversy over sexual content in 1976’s Ode to Billy Joe.
“Those early days had its ups and downs,” Odom said. “We had some real positives that we worked with, but we had the negatives of people just not knowing what the heck a film commission was or what we did.”
THE ‘80s: PROGRESS AND SETBACKS
Emling says that helping the public to understand the mission of the Film Office was an ongoing challenge during his tenure as well, and that it remains one even today.
“You never stop educating,” Emling said. “I think I talked to every Rotary Club and Kiwanis Club in the state, or anyone that called wanting to know more.”
When Emling took the reins of the Film Office in 1980, some of his goals were to get more projects that shined a light on the state, and to make sure Mississippi stories were filmed here.
“I said we have to be better at being Mississippi than anywhere else,” he said. “That may sound like a weird statement to make, but the reality is they make movies all the time where the setting isn’t the same as the actual location used. They made Sweet Home Alabama in Atlanta, for instance.”
Sen. John Horhn has been a state senator for District 26 since 1994. But in 1985, he took over as director of the Film Office and served until 1988 when he was appointed state tourism director when the Film Office became part of the tourism bureau.
“I would say that my crowning achievement was securing the filming of Mississippi Burning in Mississippi,” Horhn said. “I met with director Alan Parker, and I think he was reticent about whether Mississippi was ready to host a film as hard-hitting as he wanted to make. I told him you’ve got to shoot the film here. This is where it happened. And we want to demonstrate to you that we’ve made progress and we’re changing the state, and the best way for us to be able to do that is to host you here and let you see for yourself what changes have taken and are taking place.”
The film was critically acclaimed, winning the Oscar for Best Cinematography as well as garnering six more nominations, including one for Best Director for Parker.
Some other major projects Horhn worked with include the 1985 miniseries North and South,1986’s Crossroads, 1989’s Miss Firecracker and 1991’s Mississippi Masala. These were all projects that were either set in Mississippi or had a deep South setting, but Horhn envisioned the next evolution of the state’s film industry for it to be a place for any production.
“Filmmakers had been coming to Mississippi because of the antebellum homes or some other historical aspect of the state that made us attractive,” Horhn said. “But we had a hard time getting people to come here to shoot a film set just anywhere. It’s taken us a while to get to the point we are now when we can attract people to come here because we have a great cash rebate, and the folks are easy to work with and it’s easy to get things done. That’s really been a 30 to 40-year evolution.”
Horhn’s tenure also had its share of disappointments. In 1987, Everybody’s All-American wanted to film on the Ole Miss campus but was turned down and went to LSU instead. The film was a hit and the state and college missed out on a lot of positive publicity.
“It turned out to be one of the best sports movies ever made,” Horhn said. “A lot of the public were beating up the chancellor at Ole Miss for passing on it, so they immediately said yes to the next movie that came their way, which was Heart of Dixie.A fine movie but not nearly as memorable.”
In 1989, the action film Stone Cold was set to do much of its filming on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with the film’s final sequence to be shot at the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. But at zero-hour, permission was revoked due to concerns about damage to the historic building. The production packed up and went to Arkansas’ capitol building in Little Rock instead.
“We had that film in the bag,” Horhn said. “We convened the decision-makers at the capitol, and the filmmakers explained what they wanted to do and how they would leave the building in even better shape than they found it. And they didn’t see the benefits at all. They thought it was desecration of the state capitol for a B-movie.”
THE ‘90s: A TIME TO REBUILD
But damage was done regardless. Some film industry trade publications reported on the Stone Cold production woes, and the state’s reputation as being film-friendly took a hit. Perhaps as a result, the early ‘90s were a lean period for the industry in the state.
“We went through a really, really bad period of not getting any movies,” said John Read, a location manager who worked as an assistant for the Film Office from 1991-1992. “I would go out and scout and take a ton of pictures and then for whatever reason they would go somewhere else. It was just so frustrating. This was long before film incentives or any of that kind of thing.”
Emling, who had come back home to Mississippi in 1990 and took over again as director, attempted to right the ship.
But it was the 1994 production ofA Time to Kill in Canton that put the Mississippi film industry back on the map. It was a $40 million big studio production, the largest the state had yet seen, and it was based on a novel by Oxford resident John Grisham. Emling saw it as an opportunity to spotlight the ways film production benefited the city of Canton and the state at large, and how many lives it touched.
“I pitched an idea to The Clarion-Ledger,” Emling said. “I said what I want you guys to do is a 101 course on how movies get made on location. I lined up interviews with the below-the-line folks who dealt directly with the locals and impacted the community. The set designers and the prop people and the location managers—I said, let’s not focus on the actors and director and the glamour. And they produced some of the best coverage of a film production you will ever see.”
The state saw another flurry of big-ticket production in the late ‘90s. In 1995, The Chamber was another winning Grisham adaptation. The same year, The People vs. Larry Flynt shot a number of scenes in the state and Ghosts of Mississippitold a true story of the state’s racial turmoil and reconciliation.
1998 was a banner year—the Oscar-nominated Michael Mann drama The Insidershot scenes in the state, as did the thriller Double Jeopardy.And two of Emling’s all-time favorites, which both told uniquely Mississippi stories, were filming at the same time.
“We had My Dog Skip andCookie’s Fortune, and I would go from one set to the other and just think how crazy it was,” he said. “The great thing about both of those films is that they are such loving portraits of Mississippi. They make people think, ‘I want to live there.’ Or maybe someone saw ‘Skip’ who had never heard of Willie Morris and bought a book. When I think about the impact of what the Film Office can do, it’s that. Changing people’s ideas about Mississippi.”
“This was without the benefit of a film incentive or anything, right? A $35 million dollar movie,” said Read, who worked on the film as an assistant location manager and has since become a sought-after location manager with over 20 films to his credit. “To this day they used more locations than any movie shot in Mississippi ever. I nicknamed the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou This Week? We shot from Natchez to Greenwood to everything in between.”
THE ‘00s TO TODAY: THE MAIN ATTRACTION
Production remained steady at the dawn of the new millennium, but the industry was about to see another seismic shift in the landscape, and another that Mississippi would be at the forefront: film incentives.
Louisiana was the first state to have an incentive program go into effect in 2002. But Mississippi wasn’t far behind with its own Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program, which began in 2004. And unlike a lot of other states, Mississippi’s incentive is a cash rebate rather than a tax credit. And that is arguably more attractive to independent film producers.
“Today, the Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program offers an up to 35 percent cash rebate on eligible expenditures and payroll made in the state,” Parikh said. “And our $50,000 per project minimum investment is a low entry point compared to some other states’ incentive requirements. As a result, we have had several producers who have been repeat customers.”
To date, over 200 projects have utilized the rebate program, and the impact on Mississippi communities has been immeasurable.
“The biggest challenge we face is helping folks understand that filmmaking is economic development, and that significant money is spent with individuals and in communities,” Parikh said. “We don’t build factories and produce cars or widgets. However, a feature film will be here for two to six months, and they could pay local employees $15-$50 per hour depending on the position. If someone works 2-3 movies in a year, that’s a pretty nice salary, but that’s sometimes hard to convey to someone more accustomed to a traditional 9 to 5 job. HGTV’s Home Town is now in Season 7 and they are working nearly year-round. Once we have more series work around the state, it will be easier to showcase that economic impact.”
And the Film Office continues to help tell important and challenging stories from Mississippi’s past, such as the murder of Emmett Till and the strength of his mother Mamie Till-Mobley in the 2022 ABC miniseries Women of the Movement. It was filmed primarily around Greenwood and at several of the locations where the events occurred.
“It was important for that story to be told in this state, and the producers were initially looking elsewhere,” Parikh said. “For as long as I’ve worked in this office, there have been scripts circulating about that tragedy, but none had gone into production until recently. I’m glad I was here to finally help shepherd one to the screen.”
And not least of all is 2011’s The Help, which won Octavia Spencer a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role of maid Minny Jackson. The film, which received three other nominations including Best Picture, was based on Jackson native author Kathryn Stockett’s novel detailing the interaction between black maids and the white families they worked for in 1960s Jackson.
“The Help demonstrated in many ways the impact filmmaking can have on Mississippi communities, particularly a place like Greenwood that was still reeling from the 2008 recession,” Parikh said.
Parikh says Taylor’s career path is just the type of success story the film industry can make possible for Mississippians.
“I’ve seen crew members move from production assistant to heads of departments,” she said. “I’ve seen elementary students we’ve taught in our Canton Young Filmmakers workshops now directing their first feature film. I’ve seen the work this office has done over 50 years qualitatively and quantitatively grow with the industry.”
And it’s an industry that will only continue to see growth.
“It’s one of the few industries that is expanding rather than shrinking because of technology,” Emling said. “The credits of this year’s Marvel movie are even longer than last year’s Marvel movie. They just go on and on. And every name represents a different job. It’s endless opportunity that can be created anywhere. I mean, someone could open an effects studio in, say, Pelahatchie and work on one specific thing on the next Avatar. We know that because the work is in fact being done all over the world. Just watch the credits.”
Parikh believes that to capitalize on this growth, it will take more film industry companies putting down roots in the state.
“I envision production facilities in multiple parts of the state with episodic series work booked in them, support services around the state, and individuals employed throughout the year solely by production work,” she said. “There is an outrageous amount of content that will continue to be made far beyond the next 50 years even, for the tiny screen in our pockets to the big screens of theatres, from studios to streaming services and independent makers. There’s no reason that content can’t be made in Mississippi. I can see that future.”
CASTING CALL: Finding Faith
Morgan Casting is thrilled to be working on “Finding Faith”, a SAG-AFTRA feature film shooting in Canton! Production begins on or around Feb. 13, and the following roles are open for audition.
These roles have been released to agents and posted on Actors Access. If you wish to suggest yourself for a role and do NOT have representation or Actors Access, please follow the directions below for submitting via email.
Roles are paid at SAG-AFTRA scale, $379/day. Production would love to consider any local hires, and is open to actors who live within a 500 miles radius (modified local hires) of our shoot location. Deadline to suggest for a role is Thursday, Jan. 18.
FINDING FAITH is the story of VICTORIA, a successful writer who appears to have it all, but the death of her mother brings her home to Canton, and to a moment of reckoning in her struggles to reconnect in her marriage, her work, and in her relationship with God.
[HENRY] Male, any ethnicity, 30s. A friendly deputy sheriff, childhood friend of VICTORIA
[ARDELIA] Female, Black, 30s. VICTORIA’S supportive friend and publisher.
[YOUNG LILY] Female, white, 30s. The loving mother VICTORIA remembers from her childhood in flashback.
[LITTLE GIRL VICTORIA] Female, white, approx. age 8. Younger version of VICTORIA.
[NURSE] Female, open ethnicity, 20s to 50s. Attentive and hardworking.
[RHONA] Female, open ethnicity, 70s. Outspoken storyteller.
[SAMANTHA] Female, open ethnicity, 40s to 60s. Professional and imposing head of a media company.
[CINDY] Female, open ethnicity, 30s. Friendly, ex-wife of HENRY.
[LILY] Female, white, late 50s to 60s. VICTORIA’s gentle and humorous mother.
[MEDIATOR] Male or female, open ethnicity, 30s to 50s. Counsels VICTORIA and her husband during divorce proceedings.
[YOUNG JOHN] Male, white, 30s, younger version of VICTORIA’s father, seen in flashback.
To suggest yourself – or your child – for a role, please send two photos (one head & shoulders shot that clearly shows your face; and one full-length) and the following information to:
Please use the subject line: [Your name] for [ROLE name]
Your Name (or your child’s*)
Your Current Location (city & state)
Your Phone Number
Your SAG-AFTRA (union or non?)
*If suggesting your child, please provide the child’s age and the name of the responsible parent/guardian.
EXTRAS CASTING CALL: The Bounty Chase
Morgan Casting is on the run with “The Bounty Chase,” a SAG-AFTRA theatrical film shooting in and around Gulfport. This action-packed buddy film has lots of twists and turns as it navigates the gray area between “good guys” and “bad guys”!
If you are interested in being an EXTRA, please READ the following; casting now!
We’re casting background players for a scene featuring residents in an assisted living/nursing facility; ideally, everyone would appear to be age 70+. Male and female; any ethnicity; all body types.
Must be available to shoot during the day Saturday, Dec. 17 in Gulfport.
Pays $100 for up to 8 hours; paid by check on set at the end of the day.
You will need to present a valid photo ID + proof of a negative COVID antigen test (taken within 48 hours of coming to set).
To suggest yourself on this project, please send TWO photos (one head & shoulders, one full-length) and the following information:
City/State where you currently live
Please use ASSISTED LIVING as the subject line and send to: