Michael Williams, Director

Michael Williams

Where did you grow up and go to school?

I grew up in West Point, MS and attended Oak Hill Academy. I graduated high school in 2005 and graduated from The University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelors in film.

At what moment did you discover an interest in working in Film/ TV?

I was originally going to be an archeologist. My imagination would run wild over ancient history and the mysteries surrounding it. Fueled by my overactive imagination, I began making silly videos and short films with my friends and classmates in high school. I didn’t take this seriously until 2005 when I found out about the Tupelo Film Festival. I decided to make a more serious attempt at making a film for the festival’s deadline. To my surprise, I received a call from Pat Rasberry, the director of the festival and a persistent supporter of film in North Mississippi, informing me of my acceptance. I skipped out on some of my pre-graduation duties to attend the festival. It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I found out that Pat was one of the few people who wanted to accept my film. The rest of the screening committee rightfully felt the quality wasn’t good enough for acceptance. However, Pat saw potential and took a chance on me by allowing my film to screen at the festival.

At what point did you realize you could take steps to pursue your dream from Mississippi?

That 2005 Tupelo Film Festival was where I realized this could be my dream and ultimately my career. I had no idea that MS had such a rich history in film, was home to more than one film festival, and that USM had a film program. One of the judges at the 2005 film festival was Dr. Phillip Gentile. He encouraged me to attend USM and major in film. I was enrolled at MSU for the fall semester with an undecided degree plan. After the experience at the Tupelo Film Festival and thanks to the advice from Dr. Gentile, I decided to transfer to USM a year later to pursue a degree in film.

What type of training have you had and where?

I began making films in 2004 with my main source of education being the special features and behind the scenes documentaries on DVDs. I began attending the USM film program in 2006. While in college, a vast amount of my training came from whatever productions I could work on during school breaks or even during the school year. I would often skip school to work on films and attend festivals throughout the state. While you can learn a lot of valuable information in an academic setting, the best source of training came from making my own films and working whatever crew positions I could find. This type of training has been immensely valuable to my work today as a writer, director, and cinematographer.

What was your first Film/TV job?

Thanks again to the Tupelo Film Festival and Pat Rasberry, I met Kat Phillips and Austin Haley. I can’t recall if I met them initially at the 2005 Tupelo Film Festival or one of the following years, but Kat Phillips directed Chasing the White Dragon in Tupelo the summer of 2007. I was initially hired to be a PA on the feature. During prep, I was quickly thrown into being the 1st AC. With no experience and only a week or so of prep, I was given a crash course in assistant camera and focus pulling by the director of photography Chris Freilich. Up until this job, I didn’t know what path I wanted to take in the industry. Thanks to Pat, Kat, Austin, and the Tupelo Film Festival, I became a 1st AC and worked for years throughout the region until I worked my way up to being a director of photography.

Are you working on any current/recent projects?

With the release of my previous two features, OzLand (2015) and The Atoning (2017), behind me, I am focusing my attention on developing a few new feature film projects. I’m quite excited about a psychological thriller that I am currently writing. If all goes well, I hope to move into production with that film within the next year. In the meantime, I will be serving as the director of photography on several feature films shooting in 2018 and directing more music videos.

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

The most surprising thing would have to be the drive to make movies and continue to work within the industry. As anyone who works in film knows, it isn’t easy. The work, hours, conditions, and pay are not always ideal or comfortable. It is even miserable at times. However, there is something about it that always brings us back and makes our passion and desire for the work stronger each time. That stems from the reward you receive from seeing the finished product and looking back on the experiences and relationships you made. After my first job, I thought that I had made a huge mistake by wanting to work in film. I said, “I can’t do this again.” However, after a few weeks of rest, I was dying to get back on set. I live for the experience of creating something new, the friendships you build on set, and the ability to work in such a fascinating industry.

Who has been an influence on your career and why?

There are so many people who have had a direct influence on my career. Like I mentioned before, The Tupelo Film Festival, specifically Pat Rasberry, had one of the most profound influences. Because she saw potential in me and took a chance by accepting my film to the 2005 festival, my life changed direction. She was always such an encourager for me and countless other emerging filmmakers in North Mississippi. The opportunity given by Pat led to me meeting so many people who have guided my career over the years. I am extremely fortunate to have worked with a wide variety people within the industry both here in Mississippi and beyond. Many of those people took chances on me and gave me opportunities I didn’t know I needed. When I look back on my career thus far, I am overwhelmed by the number of people who’ve guided my career. In a way, Mississippi and its collective spirit for filmmaking has been a major influence on my career. I never felt like being a filmmaker from Mississippi was a hindrance. Instead, I’ve felt consistently encouraged and inspired by the filmmakers, actors, crew members, festivals, and film enthusiasts that I encountered over the years. We have dreamers, believers, and achievers statewide. I am just happy to be one of them and hope that more people can have the experiences and encouragements that I’ve been lucky enough to receive.

How does being a Mississippian help you stand out in our industry?

Mississippian’s have a unique voice. We have an innate desire and ability to tell stories and do so creatively. I’ve always said that Mississippi is a rich source of storytelling through music, art, literature, and more recently, film. I’m constantly been amazed at the number of filmmakers in Mississippi and how unique their voices are. Plus, Mississippians have an attitude that we can do anything we set our mind to. The independent filmmaking spirit comes naturally to Mississippians.

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

My grandmother’s house in Houston, MS. It is such a rich fixture from my childhood, and it is the source of so many great moments that define what it felt like for me to grow up in Mississippi in the 1990’s. I’ve actually had an idea for a coming-of-age film brewing for about year that would be set in this location. It will draw from those experiences and the feelings I get when I think back on my adventurous trips to Mawmaw’s house.

Favorite moment on set or with a project?

Collectively, I’d have to say that the making of OzLand was one of my favorite experiences. I had a great team by my side that really believed in the project. It was my first feature film, and it was quite ambitious. Luckily, I was too naive and optimistic to realize how difficult the making of that film truly was. It was a project with so many moments that felt magical both behind the scenes and on the screen. The cast and crew are like family to me and the project itself means a lot to me. The themes we explored and the characters we brought to life were extremely personal to me. The journey these characters endured mirrored our own journey in making the film. We believed in what we were doing, and we worked hard to make it happen. Sharing that experience with the cast and crew throughout the entire process was a luxury that you don’t always have while working on a film.

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

Mississippi is a great place to make movies. Why? Well, we have great locations that really are diverse, and the food is pretty amazing. In a way, Mississippi can be quite exotic to filmmakers who aren’t from here. Although, I’d have to say the most important reason to come to Mississippi to make a film is to meet, work alongside, and be inspired by the people of Mississippi.

What do you do when you’re not working on a film set (other jobs, hobbies, etc.)?

Since film has yet to become my full-time job, I own a small video and photography business in West Point, MS. Luckily, that helps support my career as a filmmaker until I am able to devote myself fully to film. As for hobbies, I love to garden. I’m a becoming more and more obsessed with flowers, vegetables and fruit gardens, and most importantly herbs. Gardening is the perfect escape from the stresses of filmmaking. My favorite hour of radio is the Gestalt Gardener on MPB. Oh, I also really love cats. Are they considered hobbies?

What are your hopes for the film industry in MS?

Ultimately, I want to see Mississippi having a self-sustaining film industry. An industry that welcomes outside productions but isn’t fully reliant on them. I want there to be enough filmmakers succeeding within the state that they’re consistently creating content and employing local cast and crew, creating economic impact throughout the state, and bringing Mississippian’s films to the mainstream. I want to see more educational opportunities at the high school and college level on a statewide scope that discovers, encourages, and prepares emerging filmmakers and actors for working within the industry.

What’s your advice for someone looking to break into the film business?

Just from my own experience and what seemed to work from me, I’d say these are the key things to breaking into the film business:

  1. Attend film festivals. Even if you don’t have a film screening at the festival, attend as much as you can. Nearly every festival that I’ve attended has led to something. You’re always going to meet and network with someone. Many of those people will be your future colleagues, bosses, and collaborators. Plus, it is a great way to see what other people are making both locally and worldwide.
  2. Don’t always wait on opportunities. Make your own films or find ways to collaborate with other creators. Opportunities will come along, but you want to be active and eager especially in your early years.
  3. Don’t be picky. Early in your career, you should take as many jobs as you can. If you want to be a director and have been directing your own shorts, don’t think a PA or Grip job is below you. When you’re starting out, you should take pride in taking a wide range of jobs. You will learn a great deal about how sets work and that will make you better at whatever position you’re desiring to pursue. Also, you will greatly increase your network with and respect for everyone working on a film.
  4. Don’t burn bridges. The industry isn’t just about who you know. More accurately, it is about who knows you and who likes you. I will always hire or choose to work with someone I like rather than someone who may be more experienced but less likable. Working in film is difficult, and you have to enjoy the process. If you’re working with people you love, the process is much more rewarding. So, be the person that people love to work with. Do this by being grateful, eager, hardworking, and just plain likable

How can people find/reach you?

My website is www.shendopen.com and my social media links are below. I’m on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. If you don’t mind excessive pictures of my garden in the spring and summer and a healthy dose of cat photos year round, feel free to follow me!

Twitter/Instagram: @shendopen