John Read, Location Manager

John Read

Where did you grow up and go to school?

I’m an Air Force brat. My dad was in the Air Force, and I was born in Texas. But I’ve lived in Alaska. Dover, Delaware. Japan. Those are the three places that I lived before daddy got out of the Air Force.

And then we came to Mississippi, where my parents grew up. From the late ‘60s on, Mississippi has been home.

I lived all my teenage years in Meridian and went to Meridian High School. I went to community college for two years, and then I went to The University of Southern Mississippi. When I found out that they had a film program, I got really excited because I said, “Wow, that’s what I want to do.” I got my degree in the film production program with a minor in art and English.

When did you first develop an interest in working in film?

What honestly sealed the deal for me was a movie came to Hattiesburg. A TV movie of the week about Satchel Page, the ballplayer. And it was called “Don’t Look Back.” So, a week and a half after graduating from Southern, here I am working on a movie as a production assistant.

Then I came back home to Meridian and found out there was a movie called “The Jaws of Satan” shooting in Eutaw, Alabama, which is 50 miles from Meridian. I went over there and interviewed for that. And one of the things that I’ve found out over the years, they don’t so much care what your background is. Nobody once ever asked me if I went to film school. They just want to know what your experience was, and if you’ve done something recently, all the better. So I got a job on that film. Literally in the same year that I graduated from Southern, I had two jobs back-to-back.

Then I came home and I was home for about a month, and there was going to be a movie shooting in Jackson. That was “The Beast Within.” So here I was within, what, six, eight months of graduating from Southern, and I was on my third movie and I thought I was the luckiest guy on the planet.

Have you had any formal training, other than your education at USM?

Because of the job that I’d done on “The Beast Within,” they invited me out to Hollywood to be part of the Directors Guild training program. It basically puts you in kind of an intern position to where you work and get credits and hours, and then you can become an assistant director and work your way up. Well, the problem is I had gone out to Hollywood. I had a place to stay, friends and all that kind of stuff. But there was a writers’ strike.

This was 1981. The industry shut down, which meant the Directors Guild training program shut down. And so I came back home, got married, and I took a “real job” and was out of the industry for a while. I was basically managing movie theaters, and then the video rental business started up. I said, wow, that looks like something I could really get into, right? I got into the video business and for many years, we had as many as 13 video stores. We had them in Meridian, in Bogalusa, in Quitman, in Hattiesburg, we had them all over.

But ultimately, I still missed working on movies and thought that’s what I wanted to do. And so I worked on the “In the Heat of the Night” TV series, which was filming in Hammond, as a production assistant and eventually worked my way up on the show to become an assistant director. And I got into the Directors Guild that way.

How did you transition into location management, and when did you realize you could do it from Mississippi?

I was living in North Carolina trying to find film work. And I got a call from Ward Emling], former director of the Mississippi Film Office, who asked if I wanted to come back and be his assistant. And I said, well, my wife certainly wants to come back to Mississippi because she’s a Mississippi girl through and through, so we moved back. So, from about ’90-’92 I worked for the Mississippi Film Office.

But we went through a really bad period, in my mind, of not getting any movies. I was reading these scripts, and then I would go out to do some scouting and take a lot of pictures and all that kind of thing. And then the movies would go somewhere else. And it was just so frustrating. And this was long before the film incentive or any of that kind of thing. So I left the Film Office. I loved scouting and I loved finding locations, but in the end, it just wasn’t happening.

But not too soon afterwards, The Coen brothers came to Mississippi to film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” A $35 million movie, still one of the largest productions the state has seen that used more locations than any other single production. We were in at least, that I can remember, 10 different counties for locations. All over the place.

I ended up being bumped up to assistant locations manager and that was it for me. My career path was chosen. I said, well, I really like doing this. And it was more fun than being stuck on a set every day for every minute of shooting. And I just liked what the job offered me. And so basically since “O Brother, where Art Thou?” I’ve mostly done locations work.

What are your current and recent projects?

I’ve been working so much, I mean, since the pandemic started, I’ve done eight things. I mean, I’ve never worked that many shows in my life and maybe half of those aren’t even out yet.

“The Card Counter” is out, but I did that over two years ago. I’m incredibly proud of that movie, because you never would know that the whole thing was done literally in just Biloxi and Gulfport. I mean, I hope you don’t know that, because there are scenes where they’re driving to the different casinos. Some of it helps with digital effects because we changed the names and stuff like that. we only shot in three casinos, mostly in the IP Casino. And what was a lot of fun for me, was you see all these different hotel rooms while he’s traveling. Well, no. We were in one hotel. It was the Econo Lodge right on Beach Boulevard. And what they did was, I talked the owner into letting us rent eight different rooms, and we just painted them different colors and did different things in them.

I’ve been doing everything from less than million dollar movies to the big budget stuff. I scouted for a pilot for an HBO TV series. It was going to be shot in Natchez and called “Red Bird Lane,” but it wasn’t picked up for series.

I also did “Vanquish,” with Morgan Freeman. That’s out now, too. It was actually the first feature movie he did in his home state. It was shot on the Gulf Coast.

I also did a movie called “Adam the First,” which has not been released yet. We shot in a lot of different places and I’m extremely proud of it. I can’t wait to see the movie. And we filmed one of our final scenes in the movie at Brent’s Drugs in Jackson. It’s one of my go-to locations if you want a certain kind of atmosphere. Movie people love it.

Then I got offered a job on a movie called “Paradise Highway,” and I was very excited by it because the script was great. It was all Mississippi. Really the whole movie takes place from like the Tennessee line all the way through Mississippi and then into Arkansas.  I was excited by the idea of the locations and what I could find for them. I was with them from April until August, a long time, and it was a great experience. We had Morgan Freeman in it and I got a speaking part in it. And we had Juliette Binoche, who has won an Academy Award.

Then there was a project called “My Stolen Life” filming in Vicksburg and they needed a production partner, so I was hired as a producer, which I’ve done on a handful of projects. Then “Muti” came to shoot in Jackson, another one with Morgan Freeman. It was done by some of the same people who did “Vanquish” on the coast.

Then I did some work out of state in Birmingham on two not-yet-released Bruce Willis movies, “The Wrong Place” and “Wire Room.”

Since returning to Mississippi, I’ve worked on four here: “From Black,” which shot in Natchez; “The Minute You Wake Up Dead,” yet another project starring Morgan Freeman; “Broken Ties,” a Lifetime movie we did in Canton; and “A Suitable Flesh,” in pre-production now in the Jackson metro area. Next up for me is “Joe Baby,” a crime thriller that’ll be shot on the Gulf Coast.

What has been the most surprising thing about working in the film industry?

I think for me, the most pleasantly surprising thing has been how surprised people from other parts of the country are when they come to Mississippi. And they meet the people and they see the landscapes and they think, this is not what we thought Mississippi would be. More and more, we’re getting filmmakers who come in and they’re very pleasantly surprised by the depth of locations and the depth of the people here.

Who has been a big influence on your career and why?

Certainly Ward Emling, who used to run the film office. Meeting him and then ultimately being offered a job by him is what got me interested in doing locations work in the first place.

I’d also say a guy named Mike Riley from Atlanta, who is a locations manager, he has been on “The Walking Dead” now since its beginning. Mike was the locations manager for “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and that was my first movie to actually do locations on. Working with Mike, I learned some of the other stuff that you do as a locations person: doing the contracts, having meetings with people, to talk to them about what you want to do.

And I’d also say my wife. She’s a speech pathologist and she’s always had a job and always had health insurance for us. That’s why, because of her and her steady work, I was able to keep working in movies. I was able to take work when it just sprang up because my wife had a full-time job. But it’s been in the last two years really that I haven’t had to worry about that at all. And as a matter of fact, now we’re just depending on my income from working on movies because I’m able to get so much work.

What’s a favorite moment on set or with a project?

That would be “Paradise Highway” because I did get to do a scene with Juliette Binoche, and it was a great scene. It was a fun scene. And it’s going to be in the movie because the director has assured me it’s not going to be cut because they need the scene in the movie, she says. And the reason they need it is because it’s a break from some of the other bad stuff that’s happening in the movie.

So that was probably my most recent. I mean, I’ve had a lot of great moments in movies, whether I was in them or not, but of course acting is always a big deal. But for me a lot of times the best thing you see in the finished product, locations wise, is when Mississippi comes out looking good. Then I know I’ve done my job right. I can see a movie like “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and take pride in knowing that half of those locations are ones that I found for them.

If you could create a scene built around one location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?

Gosh, there’s so many of them. One of the locations that I have shown at least three different movies, starting with “O Brother,” is a bridge in Sartartia, which is between Yazoo City and Vicksburg.

It’s this tiny little town, cute little town. And it’s got this great old bridge. And you get on this bridge and you’re suddenly in the Delta. It is the coolest thing because you’re in this little area and you’re not really sure you’re in the Delta. But as soon as you get on that bridge and you get halfway over that bridge, you’re looking into a different world now.

The second other one that I’ve shown more than once, it still has not been used, is Mont Helena. It’s a house that’s sitting on a mound near Rolling Fork. Then there’s Red Bluff, which is like a mini-Grand Canyon right here in Mississippi. Everyone has loved it, but it’s too far away to go for just one shot.

What would you say to convince somebody to bring a project here?

It’s all about the locations for me, obviously. The big draws for films, aside from an incentive, are the locations. Do you have the locations that the script calls for? And that’s it. If I read a script, I immediately start thinking, because of what I do for a living, whether or not it’s viable for them to film their project here. And where in what part of the state is the best place for them? I mean, typically they do have some sense of what’s in Mississippi, even if they’ve never been here. And so you’re not going to get a lot of scripts that just don’t work here. And some don’t.

I mean, I’ve read a couple that I thought, this does not need to be shot in Mississippi unless they’re going to change the script. And we’ve certainly had movies that have come here that I’ve read scripts for that have rewritten the locations to fit the state. That’s where the incentive comes in, because it’s a $3 million movie and they can get 25 to 35 percent of their money back if they do it here.

“Paradise Highway” was originally set in New Mexico. I mean, you can read the script and see this was a New Mexico movie and they changed the whole thing to work for Mississippi because they wanted to be in Mississippi.

What are your hopes for the future of the industry in the state?

The major thing that holds Mississippi back is our crew infrastructure. But the thing is, it’s a catch-22. If you don’t have enough stuff coming, how do you build the crew base? But we’ve got the work coming in now, look at how busy I have been. And more and more people are graduating from our schools that hopefully will stay here because there’s enough work here to do.

I’ve been very fortunate because I have a wife with a full-time job and health insurance, and because there were other things that I was involved in that made money. You know, I owned video stores for a while and things like that.

But a lot of people, this may be all they have. If they want to be like a cameraman or even an actor or something like that, it can be harder to make a living in Mississippi. But that’s okay because there’s other places nearby. And if you get a good enough reputation like I have, you’ll be called to go to those places, you know, because now I’ve worked in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, so all the southeastern states.

But I’m of that age now that I want to work as much as I can right here. I mean, I love it when I can work in Jackson. I loved doing “Muti.” “Paradise Highway” was here for part of the time where I was in my own bed every night.

For us to get a hit TV show that’s just constant production, that’s my dream. Because then I’ve got real, steady work and then for two or three months of the year I’m off. It’s like a teacher job, but it pays a lot better, and I would love to do it.

What do you do when you’re not working on movies?

Well, I’m a movie fan. I mean, I own every movie I’ve ever worked on. And hundreds, hundreds more. I love movies and always have. I love going to the movie theater. And even though I’ve got a huge screen now and new 4K and all that kind of stuff, I still love going.

My world outside of movies, that I sometimes make money in, is cartooning. I’m a member of the National Cartoonists Society and member of the International Society of Caricature Artists. I’ve been to the Middle East twice. I’ve been to Texas twice, to the to the Byrne Hospital over there, drawing for the troops. I’ve gotten to do some incredible stuff outside of movies because I draw funny pictures too.

But because the movies have just gone crazy over the last couple of years, I haven’t done a lot of that. I’ve literally been able to make a living just off movies and frankly, it’s because of the incentive, more than anything, because that’s what got producers interested in Mississippi again. I’m about to work on my third project with a producer that’s done three other things here, because the film incentive in Mississippi is so attractive to them. Think about it. You spend $1 million on a movie and if you can prove it and have all the receipts and everything’s bona fide, you can get $250,000 back from the state. That’s money for your music. That’s money for post-production.

How can people reach you?

My email address is