Orian Williams, Producer

Orian Williams

Orian Williams is a Jackson native that has produced a wide variety of projects since garnering international acclaim as associate producer of 2000’s Oscar-nominated Shadow of the Vampire. Other highlights of his career include 2007’s BAFTA Award-winning Control, the film about British band Joy Division, and more recent projects like the 2022 Dustin Hoffman-Sissy Spacek dramedy Sam & Kate and the 2023 rock documentary Have You Got It Yet?: The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd.

Where did you grow up and where did you go to school?

I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, at the Old Baptist Hospital. Then my mother and I moved down to the McComb/Summit area for what was about three years, and then we moved to Houston, Texas, when I was three years old. That is where I grew up.  But I returned to Mississippi my entire life, specifically the McComb, Brookhaven and Summit area, for Christmas, for every holiday, for summers. Most of my cousins and extended family live in that area.  I went to college at Baylor University and then moved to Los Angeles. And now I’m back in Mississippi with my mom. She relocated to Jackson probably 25 years ago to move her company here, and she still runs this company. For me it was a little bit of a homecoming. Mississippi has always been a part of my life and it’s the place that I call home, where my roots are.

How did you get into working in film?

I think I fell into film by its proximity to all of the things that I loved in my life. And that was music and photography. I also love telling stories and I loved reading stories back when I was a kid. College and certainly high school didn’t prepare me for the film business. At Baylor, I did have some film classes, and that introduced me to the idea that there were jobs in different sectors of the film business, whether it be the business side, the technical side, acting, writing, directing, producing. But it wasn’t ever really a direction for me that felt like “This is going to be my job.” It was going to be a hobby, an interest, because I didn’t think you could actually get paid at it. And for the most part, you don’t. (laughs) Producing is such a weird animal.

The beginning for me as a producer happened when I worked at this commercial production company in Los Angeles. It was the mid-‘90s, and the Coen brothers were repped at this firm and they were making commercials. And I would always talk to those guys. And Ridley and Tony Scott’s company was also connected to the same building. I was in close proximity to these A-list filmmakers making huge movies that I loved, but I was making commercials, and I thought, this is not really what I want to be doing.

It felt like I was so close and yet so far from really what my passions were aligned with. But I asked questions and I listened to a lot of people and I got a lot of advice, specifically from the Coens. Their advice was to find a young filmmaker that you believe in. Like a director who has started out, another producer, a writer who wants to direct or has a script, or option a book. And I thought, wow, okay, this is pretty cool. They’re kind of giving me a secret. But who’s that person that I would align with?

By coincidence, that evening a friend of mine invited me to a screening in West Hollywood to see this very avant-garde movie called Begotten. Really different, pretty dark, not anything on my radar at all. It was a midnight screening. And because of the recent conversation with the Coen brothers, I thought, well, maybe this is the guy? I went up and talked to him after. His name was E. Elias Merhige. Elias had made this film that was truly unhinged and quite different than anything I’d seen. So I knew maybe this is the guy because no one else is after him. We had lunch the next day. One thing led to the next, and we started working together.

I found out that Nicolas Cage was a fan of Begotten, and I thought, Well, that’s cool. An actor like Nic already had a lot of entry with the arts and different types of filmmakers, but I didn’t know him. But I reached out. I went on a path to find Nicolas Cage, and through a series of many long stories, I basically just called his production company, and that led me to getting in touch with someone who was with the company. And we met. He brought Nic and we talked about film and cinema. I brought the director who was like, “Why are we meeting this actor?” I said, “Elias, this guy makes $20 million a picture, you make nothing. This guy loves your film. Let’s talk to him. Maybe he has an idea.” And sure enough, he had a script called Shadow of the Vampire. And that film was the one that put me on the map. And I thought, well, great. So that’s the formula. You find someone you believe in. And it wasn’t that easy. That doesn’t happen all the time.

I have another story—and I could go into in more detail—but I had a wonderful early run-in with Robert Evans, the producer for The Godfather and Chinatown and many other great films. And he gave me advice: “Own the material. If you don’t love it, don’t do it. Be weird and take risks because that’s what producers need to do. Change the industry. Find yourself in the industry, don’t try to put the industry in you.” It was a really interesting concept that I had not heard. Don’t wait for someone to knock on the door, go knock on their door. You be the creator. And then later when someone knocks on your door, that means that, well, now you’re a real producer. They’re coming to you to activate a project that they have. So, all these things were swirling around at the same time. And that film put me on the map for me to pursue my passions.

You did a Q&A with fellow Jackson native filmmaker Al Warren at our Film Summit last August about his feature film Dogleg. It’s funny, although you’ve never worked with Al, did you realize there’s one degree of separation between you two thanks to Nicolas Cage, as Al is in his latest film Dream Scenario?

Right! I love that, by the way. It’s funny, with Nicolas Cage, he was the first actor I saw in person in Hollywood. I was driving on Beverly, and I just looked over and saw him.  I always kept a camera with me. I took this photo and you can just see like his hair and his hand.

Who would have thought within ten years I’d be sitting there with him and a film that we produced together that is at the Oscars. I would just never have imagined that. But yeah, six degrees turn into one degree pretty quickly when you’re in L.A. You realize it’s a small town and once you’re welcomed into the club, so to speak, of having made your first film, good or bad, you’re in a network.

When did you realize you could come back to Mississippi to produce?

I always envisioned that at some point I would come back here to retire. And, you know, producers don’t really retire. (laughs) They just slow down to making one or two films every five years.

But I think the pandemic is what made me realize I could move back. My mother’s getting to be of an age where I want to be able to spend more time with her. I’m an only child. Plus, films are not shooting in L.A. They’re shooting everywhere else. Also, once you’ve built a network of connections and collaborators, that makes the process of getting a film made, I wouldn’t say easier, but slightly more accessible. You have access to agents who represent talent. You already know a lot of actors. That’s a big reason why people live in L.A., to meet people.

So, during the pandemic I sat there and thought, do I really need to be here? Today, a lot of the films I make are in England. I’m not going to live in England right now but I go there all the time. But I’ve been all over. Sam and Kate, one of my recent films with Dustin Hoffman, that shot in Thomasville, Georgia. Yes, a lot of the financing comes from L.A. Yes, a lot of the distribution, the sales, different people like that are based there. Sometimes you cross their paths or you’re in the same room. But it’s no longer necessary to be there to connect and do business. It’s a different landscape now. And people know that.

Just this morning, I’ve had Zoom meetings with people that were in Ireland, L.A., France, Manchester, London and Paris. And then later I have one in Japan after they wake up over there. COVID accelerated the acceptance of a new kind of communication with things like Zoom that was eventually going to happen. So all of those reasons, as well as being single with no kids, I thought, you know what, I’m not going to overthink it. I’m going to go back to Mississippi. I’m going to see what I can do here. I’ve seen Tate Taylor and those guys do big time things from here. Well, I’m who I am. I make independent films. They’re in Natchez doing their thing. And that’s great. And that’s good for Natchez and it’s good for Mississippi. I thought, well, maybe I can bring a little something back to Mississippi too and shoot a film here. I’ve got some in the pipeline that I want to get going.

Once you have a little bit of credibility, once you have a film that people go, “Ah! I know that film,” it’s not about meeting the person or having a coffee. It’s about, “Is the material good?” I think all of that made the move much more accessible and truly a path that I wanted to be on. It’s definitely different here. The network is small, but I still love everyone that I know that’s here and my family’s here and that’s important. With producing, it’s about the network that I’ve built and the respect that I have for those people and vice versa. Now I just send a script, I send a project, it’s an email, it’s a phone call, it’s an attachment. It’s not a lunch meeting. So much happens via text messages now that it’s hard to believe how I’ve cast movies just asking by text. (laughs)

Have you had any formal training other than film classes at Baylor?

I always say for producing to just do it. Just make your first movie so you can make your first movie. And that can be a short, it can be a full-length feature. No one can see it on the planet, or it can be seen by a million people. It can go to festivals and win. But the thing that’s so amazing is just making that film and learning the process. You learn by doing, that was what I was always told. Just make one. Just go make a film. It could be a short made on your iPhone. But you learn the process of submitting to a festival, post-production, sound, color—all of that.

I didn’t have any proper schooling (for filmmaking). Baylor was the place that taught me to network with people. My mom taught me to pursue my dreams. My mom truly is a big inspiration for me. She came from a family in Mississippi that didn’t have a lot and then has now done very well without a college education. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a Master’s in film degree. It’s not necessary to have all film classes. I took business classes in case I needed to know a little bit more about what happens behind the scenes, not necessarily for film, but just in general. That has helped. The whole film business is a business first. Sure, the creative element is essential. But so many people that I know in the film world, they all have a little bit of a knowledge of how things work on the back side.

But it’s like I said earlier, you’re in the club when you make your first movie. Submit it to festivals. You may get an award. Go meet people while you’re there. I’ve met more people at festivals than I’ve met anywhere. Not everyone is in L.A.

What was your first on-set job?

I was told when I moved to L.A. in 1990 to get a job in the industry you want to be with, don’t work in retail if you can help it. Try to just be on set, be around people. If you want to be a cameraman or work at a studio, work at a camera shop. Or work at Paramount sweeping the floor just to get your foot in the door. I had all that advice. So yeah, my first on-set experience in L.A. was as an extra on a film with Drew Barrymore, Martin Landau, Kris Kristofferson and OJ Simpson. And it was this weird film called No Place to Hide.

But I also got a job as an assistant to an agent at a boutique agency. The biggest client there was an actor named David Morse. Karen Black was also repped there. I learned a little bit about the back side of how things work while being on set as an extra and working for the agent. And then I worked as a PA for a couple of music videos too.

But my very first real on set experience was in Waco, Texas, when I was at Baylor University. There was a film that came through and shot in Waco, and I, by miracle, found myself on set and meeting the director and being hired as his assistant. And that kind of first put the idea in my head that, wow, okay, these guys are all from Hollywood. Maybe I should move to Hollywood. So, in a way, that first on set experience led me to where I am now.

What are you some of your current and recent projects?

It’s interesting, COVID brought about a lot of documentaries for me. I have a big connection to the world of music. I don’t play any music, but through Control, the Joy Division film, I was able to meet a lot of musicians who all loved that film. So that kind of turned me on to a group of people that were all looking to have a film made about themselves or their band.

Have You Got It Yet?: The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd is set to release online soon. It’s been in theaters for the past several months. The film has been reviewed wonderfully, which has been great for us. I’m also working on a Billy Idol documentary, it’s been in the works for a few years. But we’re in post now and we’re hoping that it comes together pretty quickly and releases this year. There’s Eno, a documentary that I was a small part of about Brian Eno that’s played at Sundance. And there is another documentary about a band called Mogwai, a Scottish shoegaze band. I also have a Jeff Buckley film in the works.

One I’m super excited about is a film about a photographer from Japan. Now this is something where my career has taken an interesting path. I’m making this film about a photographer in Japan and almost fully Japanese. There’s about 10% of it that’s in English. It’s called Ravens.

And it’s about this guy named Masahisa Fukase. It’s directed by an Englishman. It’s produced by a Frenchman and myself. And we shot it all in Japan. I’m telling you, it’s the coolest film. I mean, I’m just blown away by it and excited. This is a movie where we had very little money. We had a window of opportunity to shoot it, so we went and made it. That was it. We weren’t going to stand around and wait for the right money or more money.

You know, there’s so many films that don’t happen because people think, well, this is the budget! You’ve got to make up for that or else that’s it. And we just took what we got, which was mostly from the Japanese government, and just made it. And thank God we did, because I tell you, this film is, for me, one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

And then, you know, I have even more things on the slate, which is longer than most and probably too long, to be honest with you. (laughs) But there’s so many cool things that it’s hard to say no.

I also have a book of my photography on the way titled ­B-Sides. It’s an honor to have something that was initially a hobby get recognized. Hat and Beard, my publisher, reached out and wanted to put together a book on my photography of musicians, actors, behind the scenes on film sets. I take a lot of stills on film sets and that’s been a lot of fun. I’m just a fly on the wall, really. But producers sometimes have that access others may not since they’re there the entire time. Mine are more black and white and not really publicity shots. They’re more atmospheric shots. So that’s been very different than producing a film.

And then funnily enough, there is a movie that my mother turned me on to through a friend of hers here in Jackson. There’s an unpublished manuscript that our friend Barbara Hamilton wrote called Mahogany. It’s a true story about a Mississippian, a lawyer here in Jackson, who has to go to Honduras to retrieve this girl who is being held there because of her visa, and he unravels this incredible history of secrets in Honduras. It’s an interesting story. I’m set to direct it. Financing is the next step. It kind of came from nowhere. It was unexpected. At first, I was like, yeah, mom, whatever. (laughs) And then I was like, wait, hold on a second. This is actually pretty good. So that’s another project that I want to do in Mississippi.

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

It’s not like a regular job. You don’t get paid that often. At least in independent films, which sounds slightly depressing. (laughs)

I’m surprised that it takes so long to make a movie. I always thought it was like, here’s the script, here’s the director, and let’s get the actors tomorrow. Obviously, that’s not the case. The process is not formulaic in any way, even though people say it is.

The other thing that I’m surprised about is me doing what I do. I never really thought, as an only child, kind of a shy kid, growing up in Houston and Mississippi, I could ever have a connection to this industry. That I could power through the Hollywood tough guys and the jerks, whatever you want to call it, to be a PRODUCER! with a cigar in my hand and yelling at people. (laughs) I’m not that guy. It’s an industry that sort of has that stereotypical persona. It’s not really me. For me to sustain and continue and make these films in an industry where some think attitude is the only way to get ahead, to eat your way and fight your way to the top, is a pleasant surprise. I’ve just been trying to be a nice guy and be someone who just does things for the love of it. I get super excited when someone pitches me a story that connects with me personally.

It’s like seeing all your thoughts and your dreams come true. Like growing up in Houston, going to a club, listening to New Order and Joy Division and thinking, wow, I wonder who made that video? And then having that guy that made that video direct the film about that band that I produced, it’s like, how did that happen? It’s all surprising. I don’t ever want to become complacent in this. I like to feel that it’s a miracle every time. It takes a miracle to even make a bad movie. To make a good one is ten miracles.

You mentioned the Coen brothers and Robert Evans giving you advice. Is there anybody else that’s been a particular influence on your career?

My mom, as I mentioned earlier, she’s been a real big inspiration for me, not because she understands the film business, but she understands life and she understands me.

Fred Roos is an inspiration. Fred is the producer of The Godfather and The Conversation, he’s been (Francis Ford) Coppola’s guy since day one. He’s been a mentor to me. Also, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who is a wonderful director that worked on the Peter Jackson Beatles documentary Get Back. He inspires me all the time. He’s just this amazing guy.

Another person that inspired me was my stepfather. It’s talked about in my photo book. He took photos on the weekend just as a hobby and had a darkroom. And I was always like, what’s going on in that darkroom?

Blade Runner, my favorite film, has always been a big inspiration. I ended up meeting Ridley Scott and he was a massive fan of Control. I was blown away by that. I didn’t even tell him I love Blade Runner. I just happened to meet him. And he was like, “Man, I love your film! I was just talking about it.” Those are the kind of things that are pretty amazing.

And Walton Goggins, the actor, he’s a very close friend. I just saw him a few weeks ago. That guy, I mean, you sit in front of him and you just feel his personality, his presence, his ambition, his drive to just be real and do things that he loves. He’s a great family man, a great father. And that inspires me. He left me a message when I moved to Mississippi that pretty much substantiated my conviction to come back here, to continue moving forward with what I’m doing. He’s like, “Let’s be long haulers, man. Let’s just do it. We both went to L.A. and made it better.” I love that, you know?

Does being from Mississippi help you stand out in any way?

Without question. People are like, wait, where are you from? I’ll usually say I was raised in Texas, but I was born in Mississippi and I live there now. And people like, wait, hold on a second. You made the Joy Division film and you live in Mississippi? They’re kind of just blown away by that.

If you could make a movie at any location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?

It would be a treat to make something in Summit or McComb or Brookhaven. I’ve scouted those locations for other films and didn’t end up shooting here. But that’s my turf, we have a country home on about 600 acres down south. That’s where my mom grew up and where my grandmother raised her four kids. It’s beautiful. Just anything in Mississippi would be a dream, you know? And also to work with Mississippians, people that are from here that are striving to make movies, that want to make content that resonates here and abroad. I have so many friends and musicians and people that live in England that have never been here. But they’re like, That’s my favorite place ever! They’re all intrigued with Mississippi. It’s mysterious. I’m always wanting to do movies that bring together a community of filmmakers, good people that are from here. And I’d like to bring some great actors here that haven’t been here. So many have. Willem Dafoe, who was in Shadow of the Vampire, loves it here. My dream would be to just continue making films all over the world, but also bring people back here.

Do you have an all-time favorite moment on set or with a project?

I’ll tell you one. Henry Thomas, who was in E.T., Gangs of New York, Legends of the Fall—he’s my best pal. A great, dear friend. He invited me to the set of Gangs of New York in Italy. And Henry was like, do you want to meet Bill the Butcher? And I’m like, “No!” That of course was Daniel Day-Lewis. I was intimidated! He’s in character. He introduced me to him and I couldn’t have felt more separated from this human being with a handshake than anyone on the planet. I mean, he looked at me as if Henry had brought the scum of the earth to set. Henry was kind of winking a bit, like, don’t worry, he’s just doing his thing. But Henry respected him a lot, and he respected me and wanted us to meet. It was a handshake, a hello, and that was it. So, I thought, well, that was my one time to meet Daniel Day-Lewis, and I really screwed it up and I’ll never see him again.

Cut to many years later. I’m at the BAFTAs in London, and I brought my mom. We’ve been nominated for five awards, including Best Picture. It’s a pretty big honor. There’s a bunch of actors and actresses there. And my mom says, I only want to meet one celebrity: Daniel Day-Lewis! Agh! (laughs)

We end up at the after party. We’re standing there, and he was standing there with his wife, almost as if inviting someone to come and say hi, but no one would say hello. I go, come on mom, this is the chance. I walk over and I go, “Daniel, I would love for you to meet my mother. She’s a big fan, and her name is Martha.” And he looks at her and goes, “Martha, I’m going to do something before I talk to you. I want to congratulate your son on a wonderful film. Orian, I loved Control.” And I went, “Wow! Okay, this is big.” And he said, “It’s a beautiful film and congratulations! Martha, lovely to meet you. Your son’s very nice and I’m glad he brought you over.” Neither of us expected him to even know the film or have seen it, right? And he loved it. And it made me feel like, hey mom, look at me! It was great.

What would you say to convince a producer to bring a project to Mississippi?

Well, it’s not even really about me being here. I don’t have to sell them if the money makes sense, if there’s an aesthetic that fits the script and the tone, and there’s accessibility to crew and resources. It’s a no brainer. I mean, yes, the incentive is certainly important. But the real test is that you can shoot anything here. I mean, you really can. There are so many movies made here that are set in other places. The other thing that draws them in is the fact that they’ve never been here. It’s a mystery to them. They know New Orleans and Louisiana and we’re seeing it hundreds of times in movies now. You’ve seen Mississippi a hundred times in movies, but you probably don’t know it. think that’s just part of the new frontier of getting people to come here is to show what can be done, and to also build infrastructure, whether it’s stages being built, those kinds of things. Clearly, you’ve already got people coming here all the time. But for me, you know, I’m a patron of Mississippi. When I go to L.A. or New York or London, they’re like, wait, hold on a second! You do what you do living where you do? They can’t believe it. So, I talk fondly of the atmosphere, the landscape, the uniqueness of it, and how people here are really kind. So come down and make a movie here and see what you think! I’m championing Mississippi all the time.

What are your hopes for the future of the film industry in Mississippi?

I would love to see more people move here and live here. I’d love to see them incentivized to move here to work in film. And I’ve met a few people that I really respect in the world, both from here and not, who have also left L.A. I think more and more people like me are coming back to Mississippi. They come back because they love the state and they’re good people and they want to bring back a little bit of what they’ve learned along the way. (At the Film Office’s Misssissippi Film Summit last August), I was blown away by the talent and the interest in film in that room. I was like, wow, this is really, really cool. I want to see more of that. I saw the sort of unity that needs to come together a little bit more, so that that brings some interesting filmmakers to town, not just to make movies, but to speak to and talk to the people working in the industry.