By Carey Miller
The City of Natchez did a spot-on impression of New Orleans for Evergreen Films’ latest Christmas movie.
“Natchez is nicknamed the ‘Little Easy’ for a reason,” said Scott Hanson, a native of Natchez and locations manager for the production. “We’re actually older than the city of New Orleans. We have very similar architecture and layout, and a comparable history. We were a French settlement as well.”
With a working title of “Christmas in the Quarter,” the film stars Keshia Knight Pulliam, Brad James, Tim Reid and R&B legend Patti LaBelle. LaBelle portrays the real-life Loretta Harrison, the first black woman to own and operate her own praline company: the beloved Loretta’s Authentic Pralines, with two locations in New Orleans. James plays her grandson, a headstrong architect who finds himself working with a former college crush and rival architect, played by Pulliam.
Earlier, Natchez welcomed Evergreen Films with open arms for “Every Time a Bell Rings,” which filmed on location in August and premiered on Hallmark Movies Now in late November.
Producer Misty Talley says it was an easy decision to come back.
“Natchez is a really cool place to shoot, first of all, because of the community,” she said. “It’s like every person is really excited for you to be here. And on top of that, they’ve been so accommodating.”
The city has seen a recent boom in film production, in addition to Evergreen Films’ movies. Tate Taylor, a native of Jackson and the director/producer of shot-in-Mississippi films “The Help,” “Get on Up,” “Ma” and “Breaking News in Yuba County,” has made it his home base with his partner, producer John Norris. They have established Crooked Letter Picture Company in the city and have also opened three restaurants. Recently, they supported the production of “Rumble Through the Dark,” based on the novel “The Fighter” by Mississippi author Michael Farris Smith.
“They have really done a fantastic job of creating a strong filming culture in Natchez and in Mississippi in general,” said Devin Heath, executive director of Visit Natchez. “They helped bring in folks like Evergreen Films, who fell in love with Natchez too. So, it just kind of mushrooms out and just continue to just grow.”
Because of this growth, Heath plans to undergo training with the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI) to establish an official film office in Natchez.
“We’re excited to be able to provide boots on the ground and support for productions, whether it be in scouting or ascertaining resources,” Heath said. “We’re dedicated and hopeful we can be a force for them making their production successful so that they want to continue to come back more and more.”
Heath will work closely with the Mississippi Film Office, part of the Mississippi Development Authority, the state agency that oversees tourism. Established in 1973, the Film Office is one of the oldest of its kind in the world. The office’s mission is to foster the growth of the film industry in Mississippi, connect filmmakers with necessary resources and to cultivate and promote filmmaking by, for and about Mississippians.
“When filmmakers come to Mississippi, we’re here to help any way we can,” said Nina Parikh, director of the Film Office. “We often find they have a great experience and can’t wait to come back, as was the case with Evergreen Films and owner/producer Daniel Lewis. This was Daniel’s seventh project in the state, with more to come. We’re lucky to have one of the best incentive rebate programs in the country, which is what gets them to consider us in the first place.”
The Film Office manages the Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program, which offers a 25 percent cash rebate for a production’s spending with local businesses, and 30 percent for the salaries of Mississippi residents.
“For movies with our budget, it becomes really hard to do without state incentives,” Talley said. “It’s the incentives that allow us to do our jobs and hire the crews that we love. All of our crews have been local. But everyone’s been so busy, this time we actually had to fly a few people in.”
According to the Film Office, it’s not just Natchez that has kept the local film production workforce busy. The Jackson metro area was home to several productions in 2021, including the Bruce Willis actioner “A Day to Die,” set to release in February, and “Muti” and “Paradise Highway,” both starring Morgan Freeman. And the Mississippi Gulf Coast has become incredibly popular with filmmakers, with a half dozen films set to begin production in the first quarter of 2022.
“Mississippi’s genuine sense of community and unwavering hospitality is also what keeps filmmakers coming back,” Parikh said. “It’s exciting to see the way locals embrace film production, particularly in Natchez.”
Since “Every Time a Bell Rings” is set in Natchez, it features many of the city’s real-life businesses. Because of this, Visit Natchez created a self-guided tour of the movie’s locations.
“They’ll be able to go to those places that they saw in the movie and be able to get the specific desserts that the actors had, and also be able to get the Christmas tree ornaments down at Silver Street Gifts that were shown prominently,” Heath said.
And if there’s one other thing Natchez is famous for, it’s throwing one heck of a party. The city hosted an outdoor premiere for the film in mid-November on the banks of the Mississippi River. Over 2,000 people came out to see it.
“Making a movie is like building the pyramids,” Talley said. “It feels like an impossible feat every time, no matter the size production, so to have people rally and celebrate it with you feels really nice. Having that support from the city of Natchez was amazing. I’ve never felt so welcome.”