When “Mysterious Circumstance: The Death of Meriwether Lewis” has its Mississippi premiere in Jackson Sept. 9, it will be a homecoming for the film after award-winning screenings at festivals the past year.
It will also be a celebration of a film made in Mississippi by Mississippians.
“Knowing that most of the people that worked on the film in some capacity live here in Mississippi, it’s great to be able to come together as one to watch it,” said Amye Gousset, manager of Baldwyn-based Six Shooter Studios and the film’s lead actress.
“As a producer, I focus exclusively on films made in Mississippi,” Fisher said. “But that might mean working with somebody who’s coming here from another state. So, it’s even more rewarding to have worked on a project like this, with a Mississippi-based writer and director and a majority of the crew being Mississippians.”
Writer-director-producer Clark Richey is a native of Baldwyn. Gousset and cinematographer Michael Williams are from Tupelo. Cast members like Marcus Dupree and Cotton Yancey are from Philadelphia and Pelahatchie, respectively. Second assistant director and producer Morgan Cutturini lives in Oxford as does sound designer Jeffrey Reed. The list goes on.
“It’s absolutely essential to our mission of growing the film industry in the state to have projects made by Mississippians, and this film is a shining example,” said Mississippi Film Office director Nina Parikh. “Our rebate program is designed in part to facilitate production by homegrown filmmakers, which in turn provides on-the-job training and steady work to grow and sustain our crew base. By building a robust, skilled local crew base, our state becomes even more attractive to out-of-state producers and larger productions.”
The Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program, which offers up to a 35 percent cash rebate on eligible expenditures and payroll, played a “huge role” in making the film, according to Fisher.
“Obviously it’s a great incentive,” she said. “I have past experience with the program, so when Amye, Clark and I had our initial discussions on making it, the program was a big component because it not only allows you to make your dollars go further, it also drives dollars being spent in our communities. When I get calls from other people interested in making films here, the incentive is always part of the conversation.”
The film, as the title suggests, tells the story of Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame, whose untimely death at a roadside inn on the Natchez Trace in 1809 has been shrouded in mystery for over two centuries. The film was born from Richey’s love of history, as well as some prolific downtime during the pandemic when he wrote it and three other screenplays.
“There’s a time period in the early 1800s in Mississippi and western Tennessee when we were the wild, wild West,” Richey said. “That period of history has been largely lost and it’s not really a focal point of any modern storytelling or filmmaking. And many authors and historians will say Lewis’ death is one of the greatest mysteries of the Natchez Trace.”
Though some historians believe Lewis’ death to be a suicide, the film portrays several plausible theories through a series of vignettes, “Rashomon”-style—which refers to the 1950 Akira Kurosawa classic that pioneered the storytelling technique.
“One of my actors used that term, and I said, ‘what are you talking about?’” Richey said. “I didn’t go to film school or anything, I’ve just been writing and studying history all my life. And in writing the script, I landed on a filmmaking technique that made it possible to tell this story in an economical way, and it really made it possible for us to accomplish the project.”
Six Shooter Studios, which Richey owns, was looking to make its first feature in 2021. Out of the scripts Richey had written, “Mysterious Circumstance” was a perfect fit due to its limited locations and cast.
“Oh, man, that was critical,” Richey said. “It’s basically a one-day timeframe in one location out in the wilderness. That really made it possible for a small film company like ours to tell a big story.”
The film was shot mainly at a cabin in Tishomingo County, which also made it possible for the studio to operate out of its home base in Baldwyn.
“I was able to go home every day right after shooting, so that was nice,” Gousset said. “But just being able to shoot it here in Mississippi, aside from the fact it’s my home, having the Mississippi landscape to shoot in and of course, the hospitality of the South, made it a fabulous environment for everybody involved. The actors and crew that did come here from other places were saying that there’s nothing like working here in Mississippi. Honestly, it was a completely different experience for them, and they all walked away saying, ‘What is your next project? We’re ready to do it again!’”
While the film made the festival rounds over the past year, it garnered numerous awards and accolades. It was named Best Feature at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival in Dubuque, Iowa, the Los Angeles Film Awards, the RED Movie Awards in Reims, France, and the Oniros Film Awards in New York, and won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, Fla. Richey received four nods for both Best Director and Best First Time Director from various festivals, and Gousett received two Best Actress awards, one from the Los Angeles Film Awards.
“I did not expect that,” she said. “When I got the email saying I was in the running, I thought, ‘That’s fabulous.’ Then to actually win from such a prestigious institution, I’m just ecstatic about that.”
Williams also received two awards for Best Cinematography, one from the Montreal Independent Film Festival.
“That’s great recognition for the whole team,” Williams said. “It’s also a testament to Clark and the producers for giving our team the resources, time and people that we needed. I can only be as good as my lighting team. It was a very positive working experience just being on set and the way we were treated.”
As an example, Williams related the story of how Chet Barber, who served as the film’s best boy grip, became involved with the project.
“We were a couple of days out and we were in a pretty remote location,” Williams said. “We were struggling with manpower and knew we needed one more person to make our day. Then I saw this tall guy who worked for Clark walking by with several C-stands on his shoulder, which is an amazing feat. So I asked Robbie if he could be one of our grips. That was one of the things where we told them we needed something, and then they made it happen. Getting Chet really improved our team dynamic, and I understand it might be leading to a nice career for him, hopefully.”
Barber has since worked in the grip department for three more films, including “Mississippi Scholar,” which was shot in north Mississippi earlier this year.
“Those are the kind of opportunities I think we have in Mississippi, where you can be on set and people see your value and potential and then you can quickly become part of something,” Williams said. “That’s how I became a camera assistant. I was a production assistant on my first feature and was moved up to first assistant camera. That’s how I learned to pull focus, which lead to me being a director of photography.”
Fisher, who recently relocated her company to Water Valley after being based in Jackson for over a decade, is also grateful for the opportunities projects like the film bring to north Mississippi.
“When I moved here, I was very interested in learning more about who our crew base was up here, and what the exciting projects and ideas were,” she said. “When I connected with Clark, it turned out to be a great experience. I’ve gotten to tap into and get to know the production crew that are based in places like Oxford, Tupelo and even small towns, and discovered there were a lot more resources and people here than I even imagined.”
Richey says the film’s continued success will hopefully allow Six Shooter Studios to bring more projects to the area.
“As a first-time filmmaker, it’s been an exhilarating experience and continues to be,” he said. “I hope we’re successful not just for myself and for the studio, but also for everyone who participated in the movie—all of our filmmakers and cast and crew. I’d love to continue to help develop the filmmaking process here in north Mississippi.”
The film was picked up for theatrical distribution in the U.S. by Vision Films, Inc. in May, while Equinoxe Films will distribute it in Canada. Goussett says she looks forward to sharing the film with more film lovers after seeing the response it’s received from festival audiences.
“I think people want to see something at this point that is a little bit different from what’s in the multiplexes, to get to go back to a more traditional feature narrative,” she said. “We’re not wearing capes, but we’ve got horses! It’s got history, it’s got mystery. But mostly it’s really entertaining.”
The Mississippi premiere of “Mysterious Circumstance: The Death of Meriwether Lewis” will be held at the Capri Theatre in Jackson at 7 p.m. Sept. 9, and the film will be shown at the theatre through Sept. 15. It will also be shown at the Cine Theatre in New Albany and the Coliseum Theatre in Corinth Sept. 9-15. The film will also be screened at the Temple Theatre in Meridian Sept. 17 and 18 at 2 p.m. each day.