Maximus Wright is a Jackson filmmaker known for the 2017 feature film Soul Damage, which he directed, wrote and produced. He is also the founder of the Jxn Film Festival, which will be held July 23-28, primarily at the Capri Theatre in Jackson.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in Yazoo City. I’m very proud of that. I went to Yazoo City High School. I graduated from Tougaloo College with a humanities degree in philosophy and religion with an emphasis in English.
At what moment did you discover an interest in working in Film/ TV?
I always loved television when I was growing up. My grandmother and I, we pretty much spent our afternoons when I got out of school or on the weekends watching television. Seeing how it made her happy made me happy. We would sit there and watch Sanford and Son, The Beverly Hillbillies, Andy Griffith, Little House on the Prairie. Television was always a staple.
Getting into making movies just kind of happened as I got older. I didn’t think I would ever be in in the field until my daughter came along. And my daughter wanted to be on Disney. I just thought I was going to be one of those dads that supports their daughter in her dream.
But one day she told me she was going to have to leave Mississippi to make that happen. And I’m like, well, why? So, as we started going to these auditions, I tried to show her that she could start making little short films and do other things in a ploy to keep her here. Well, now almost 15 years later, I’m making films, and she’s living in New York.
So, it’s kind of happenstance that, in the effort to keep her home, I found a calling. And so now I hope with what I’m doing I can keep someone else’s little girl here so they don’t feel that they have to leave the state to pursue their dream.
At what point did you realize you could take steps to pursue your dream from Mississippi?
Well, it actually happened before I realized it. I thought making my first feature film was just some type of mandate that I just had to do. The success of it was overwhelming. And everyone around me was like, yo, this is what you were called to do. But I didn’t feel that way because I was not formally trained. I didn’t feel that I was as gifted as others. And it was also the question of how was I going to do it here in Mississippi? I thought you couldn’t make a living being a filmmaker in Mississippi. I just couldn’t see it, but it was happening and it was like maybe four or five years into the whole process of getting the film finished and edited from beginning to end. Then I was like, wow, this is all I’ve been doing for five years. And slowly it started to register like, yo, you can do this. But to everyone else, I was doing it already. It just took a while before I could accept.
What type of training have you had and where?
Well, I did go to a class in New Orleans that was like one of those crash courses. (laughs) It was with Vincent Laforet, who is famous for directing a Nike commercial with Kobe Bryant. It was a masterclass on directing motion, and everything he was talking about, I had no clue what he was saying. I’m trying to make sense of it, but back then I didn’t even know that DP meant director of photography or what a grip is. (laughs) He was teaching a lot of stuff that was really for someone that was advanced and already doing it for a living. Fortunately, they gave us a download of all the videos of the whole course. It’s something that I’ve been able to refer back and forth to over the years. But that was about the only formal training I’ve had. Everything else was trial by fire.
I remember having my first crew here, and they were literally laughing at me because I didn’t know the calls. And it was so intimidating that I didn’t even want to show back up on set. Because I was used to doing small stuff with my folks where I’d just say like, “And go!” “OK, stop!” I just did what felt right.
But somewhere there, I stopped being intimidated and I realized I was signing everybody’s checks. (laughs) And I was like, whether I’m calling the right calls or not, it’s your job to figure out what I’m saying, and give me what I’m looking for. And if you don’t understand, tell me. I’ll keep talking and keep talking until it works. And that’s when I had an epiphany, that the greatest part of being a filmmaker was leadership. And that was something that I was not a novice in. And once I made that transition, everything started taking off.
What was your first film/TV job?
I just started out writing a crazy script and it was just me and what I was doing. It was my feature film Soul Damage.
Are you working on any current/recent projects?
The biggest thing that I’m working out is trying to create these 100 filmmakers in the next seven years. We’ve been doing a lot of producing of their projects, teaching them, like I learned, trial by fire.
I have just been hired to write a script for a TV series, and I’ve just finished the first couple of episodes. Between that, the Jxn Film Festival and the 100 in 7 project, that’s what I’ve got going on.
What can you tell me about this year’s Jxn Film Festival?
It runs from July 23-28. It opens that Sunday at the convention center with a free screening of The Wiz. We’re commemorating the 45th anniversary this year. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we have free screenings at the Capri Theater of the films entered in the festival.
Tuesday we have a master class on writing and on Thursday we have a master class on acting with Tonea Stewart. And on Wednesday, we’re very excited about this, we’re having what we call a Draft Day. We’ve partnered with this company that focuses primarily on sports films. They look to get athletes, people who have played some form of football or basketball, etc., and they train them as background extras, and they are cast for shows such as Bel-Air, Swagger and All American. We’re also bringing Ashley McFarlin back for the BEE Pitch Camp Tuesday through Thursday teaching people how to pitch their shows. We did an evaluation of last year to see what we can tighten up to make it even better. This year, she will be joined by Robyn Lattaker-Johnson, former head of unscripted programming for the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). And then, of course, Friday we have the Black Tie Awards Gala.
What has been the most surprising thing about working in the film industry?
How hard it is. (laughs) I think the most surprising thing is when you first get involved, you don’t realize how much actually goes into it. When I first started, it was hard to fathom that you can shoot a 12-hour day, and it was a good day if you got 3 minutes of your film from it. I think it kind of overwhelms people when they first see what all it takes to make you see and feel what we’re trying to get you to see and feel. But I think no one, unless you’re doing it, they don’t realize the effort it takes you to have, say, the art in the background that you may or may not pay any attention to, but it was all there to help create the feel. And how many people it takes to make that happen. I think that’s the thing that was most surprising to me.
Who has been an influence on your career and why?
I see a little influence from everybody. I love Martin Scorsese. What he did in Casino, just visually. Steven Spielberg, his ability to tell a story, you know, to show and not tell. Antoine Fuqua, just his commitment to a project, his ability to get you involved emotionally. So, a lot of filmmakers have influenced me in some way. But those three first just off the top of my head.
How does being a Mississippian help you stand out in our industry?
At first, it’s like people will laugh and be like are you serious? Mississippi? And then once you come in and you hold your own, they’ll be like, wow, like you’re some kind of unicorn. Because people have these negative thoughts about Mississippi. And that’s what drives me to keep doing what I’m trying to do because I brag about Mississippi a lot. I am unashamedly telling people to their face that we have the greatest talent in the world. You can’t say entertainment without saying Mississippi. So, it’s ludicrous for you to think that we can’t do well in film too. So, I think it’s an attention getter to say, hey, this filmmaker is a Mississippian and he’s getting folks to come here to work with him. That’s the stance I’m taking now. If you want to work with me, you have to come here. And once they get here, they see that, you know, I’m not just talking. So, I think it helps because people have such a low initial expectation that it allows us to overdeliver and makes us look great.
If you could create a scene built around one location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?
At first thought, I would say Tougaloo College because it means so much to me. It has so many great stories, not just its place in civil rights history, but just some of the amazing people that have come out of those gates. I would say more needs to be done there.
Favorite moment on set or with a project?
I can tell you a moment where I think I got it, where it all finally made sense. I was stuck on a scene. I didn’t know how to do it. And the actress that was playing one of the lead roles, she was just visiting the set, she wasn’t scheduled to be there. And when I saw her, my mind just clicked on how we can fix it. So we created a scene where the main character was having a flashback in this club and he thought he was seeing things and we used her. It kind of bridged the gap for the place where I was stuck. And what I got that day was something Quincy Jones said: “You’ve got to leave space for God to come into the room.” What clicked for me was that your script is a guide. But you’ve really got to keep the door open to allow things to happen that you didn’t plan. You’ve got to allow the story to tell itself and be open to whatever may come from where it may come. It ended up being one of the best scenes we had and one of the most powerful scenes that I shot.
What would you say to convince/encourage a producer to bring their project to Mississippi?
I would simply say, budget your film for wherever else you want to go and come back and budget for here in Mississippi and make your own decision. I think there’s no question we’re more affordable. And our state is so film friendly. Take a look at IMDB and see all the films that have been made here recently. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just do a little research and the answer is clear.
What do you do when you’re not working on a film set (other jobs, hobbies, etc.)?
Aw man, I don’t do anything for fun, this is it. I’m either watching a movie or writing one. (laughs) I mean, I am kind of a fitness guy, I exercise a lot. I love boxing and combat sports. So usually me and my boys are either watching something or talking about fights.
What are your hopes for the future of the film industry in Mississippi?
My biggest hope for the future is for us to accomplish our goal, to make 100 filmmakers in the next seven years. Because if you create a force like that, you’re totally changing the trajectory of how films are made here and the perception of our industry, because now you got a hundred storytellers. We’re going to tell stories from our perspective. And maybe not all of them will rise to the level of say, Antoine Fuqua, but you never know, right? I’m banking on the future, man. I’m banking on us telling our own stories and being prepared to produce content that competes and excels anywhere in the world.
What’s your advice for someone looking to break into the film business?
Just go make a film. And that sounds cliche, but it’s the truth, the best way to learn how to make a film is making one. You can’t just read a book about swimming and know how to swim, right? You’ve still got to jump in the water. Sometimes we can be so afraid of failing that we don’t try. Failure is part of the process. And I think if I could just convince people that failure is part of the process, I think we could make more projects and we could be more successful with it. So, my thing is to tell them to just go make it, don’t have any inhibitions, and applaud your failures along the way because they can teach you way more than studying or hearing somebody else talk about it.
How can people reach you?
I’m Maximus Wright on all the social media platforms. And you can email me at email@example.com.