Robb Rokk, née Robb Smith, is the founder and Executive Director of the Desoto Arts Institute, a nonprofit media arts training organization in Southaven. He is the owner of Rockwell Visual, a production company also located in Southaven. In 2019, he founded the Desoto Film Festival to celebrate filmmaking in northwest Mississippi. He has also directed and produced over a dozen short films.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I was born in Memphis and lived there until I was 15. Then I moved up to Hagerstown, Maryland. My dad was an aircraft engineer, so we moved around New England quite a bit. Around 1990, I moved back to this area and settled into Desoto County, and that’s where I am now, my address is in Walls.
How did you develop an interest in working on film?
I spent a number of years in the surveying and civil engineering field and got into computers, programming and CAD management when I was younger. Over time I worked my way into IT management and really kind of hated that because the technology was just constantly changing.
And then I got into web and graphic design. I’ve always done graphic design, it’s a big part of CAD. But I got into the web design aspect, and I loved the creativity. And a friend of mine told me, “I’m going to do a music video with this guy in Nashville. Everybody says you’re creative. Do you want to come give me a hand?” And I said, “Sure.”
And I just fell in love with it. I absolutely loved directing, and the creative side of it and working with people. I did a number of music videos and that was in about 2009. And I’ve always been a bit of a writer, so there’s a convergence that was happening. With my love of directing, my writing skills and my understanding of computers, I was slowly becoming a filmmaker and didn’t even really realize it.
So I wrote a silly little short film, shot it with a few of my friends one weekend, and before I knew it we were doing another one and it got to be bigger. And that one made the first Memphis Film Prize competition and made the top ten. And then the next few films that we submitted made the top ten as well. So we made the top ten at Memphis Film Prize four years in a row. And one of our favorites that we have done is called “Outside Arcadia.”
And that one is on YouTube, and about a year ago it suddenly started getting hits and it’s at like 42,000 views or something like that. And then we started getting lots of comments on it from people about how they grew up in home situations like the film portrays and how the film helped them deal with some issues. I started realizing that what we’re doing is kind of making a difference.
In 2016, I started getting some people together at my church and we just called it Film Club. We were just getting together and learning how to make films together, how to shoot stuff, just anything that we could do. And Film Club turned into our nonprofit, which is DeSoto Arts Institute. So now we’ve got a 5000-sq. ft. studio space in Southhaven, and we teach weekly filmmaking and acting classes and we shoot short films, and it’s given everybody an opportunity to make things and be hands on. I’m also teaching cinematography and editing and VFX work and just different things like that.
When did you realize you could pursue filmmaking while living in Mississippi?
Our studio is in Southaven and I can literally chuck a rock into Tennessee. So, it was natural for me, having grown up in Memphis, to get plugged into the Memphis film community. But, at the same time, it felt like if I’m doing that, I’m not supporting my home state. That’s important to me. I love the whole shop local, eat local movement.
I was determined to develop something here in northwest Mississippi. Sometimes people forget the county isn’t part of Tennessee because we’re so close to so many film resources, but we had little to nothing of our own. So we started the DeSoto Film Festival. Which we did until COVID hit, and we hope to do it again this October. It’s my goal to help our local community, our neighborhoods and our county understand the opportunities that are available in the film industry.
I think a lot of times, a young person might say, “I’ll never be able to make a movie.” Well, even Steven Spielberg started somewhere, everybody does. We’re trying to put cameras in kids’ hands and give kids the experience to let them get a feel for it. And if you keep at it, then maybe you’ll be a Spielberg one day.
What are your current and recent projects?
Other than teaching and getting things in order here and trying to continue what we’re doing, we are developing two feature films. One is active with a goal of maybe by 2024 having that produced and filmed in the can and ready to go.
We’re doing it ourselves, so we’re going to try to raise a little bit of money, but we’re not trying to do million-dollar productions or anything. We really think because we own all the grip gear, lighting, audio gear, and we have studio space and we own the cameras and things like that, that we can do it pretty low budget, but with the same high quality that we have in “Outside Arcadia” and some of our short films we’ve done.
What has been surprising about working in the film industry for you?
I think the community and relationships that are created are amazing. I couldn’t seem to put my finger on it, but my wife has a degree and she understands some psychology and things like that. I was explaining to her, I don’t know how I can go and work on a film for like three or four days and make lifelong friendships. And she’s been on some of our film sets, so she said, “Here’s what it is: It’s shared traumatic experience.”
You’re in the trenches. You’re racing the clock, you’re chasing your dollars. You got to get it done. And you’re working together. And you’re supporting one another. You build a bond that’s greater than just, “Hey, I’m Robb. Hey, I’m John.”
Has there been anyone who has been a major influence on your career and why?
My wife’s support is amazing because she lets me dream crazy dreams and take steps towards realizing them, so she’s always fantastic in that regard. And then there’s our student base. We did “Truth Lies Upstream,” and we had 30-plus students from 12 years old to 65 years old that were here for one or two nights a week pre-producing the film. And then they were out on set with us, and the energy they brought to it has a huge impact. So, I have to say, a lot of times it’s the people that are around me week in, week out, that are encouraging and challenging and just giving of their time and their talent and their input and their feedback, you know?
If you could make a film or a scene built around a location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?
There’s a ghost town in Mississippi called Rodney. We’ve got a film in mind that that location would be perfect for. It’s kind of a post-apocalyptic thing. And that just fits it.
Do you have a favorite onset moment or moment with a project?
I’m 56 years old and I’ve only been doing this for about 12 years. We have students that weren’t born when I started doing this, you know? I remember many times being on set and looking over, maybe wondering how the sound department is doing. And it’s a 14-year-old kid named Oliver, and he’s giving me a thumbs up, and I think about if I could have been 14 and doing this, there’s no telling where I’d be now. I have a dozen or so memories like that.
What would your pitch be to tell somebody to bring their movie to Mississippi?
The incentive is highly competitive with anywhere else. And the more I do this, the more I realize—you might think you need these huge warehouses and infrastructure and these giant studios and stuff like in Georgia or Hollywood. But right now, I’m standing in our building. And it’s the old Lollipop skating rink in Southhaven. And they’re going to turn it into a community center. And if we needed this for a few days to be a backup studio or something, I’ve got this huge echoing space that I’m standing in here. There are countless warehouses and distro centers that could easily be turned into film studios in the blink of an eye. No matter what you need, whether it’s open fields or tiny airports or riverboats or giant indoor spaces, it’s all here. There’s no reason to go anywhere else.
What do you think can be done to get more Mississippians trained to work in the industry?
For me, that’s an easy one. It’s for sponsors to reach out to places like the Desoto Arts Institute, where we’re actively doing this, where we’re teaching crew positions and we’re bringing in experts. We have on our board John Heller, who is a VFX supervisor in Hollywood. He’s got credits on “Titanic,” he’s highly sought after. So, we have experts that are going to be helping us teach, but we also need the money to get it done right. We’re reaching out to others to come here to teach specialized film skills, so that we can start creating our own experts and skilled crew here. We need people working and living in our communities.
One of the things that we are trying to do at DAI is create a bit of a film school so that students can go to high school here and then on their weekends and weeknights and come here and hang out, be making films, and then figure out where they’re going to go to film school.
The crazy thing about it is when our students leave here and go to film school, we usually hear back from them. Some tell us they learned so much more at DAI than they have at film school. That’s because we’re actively teaching practical techniques, while they’re studying 100 years of film history. Which is cool, but that’s not going to make you a filmmaker real quick.
We are a501c3 nonprofit, and we get grants here and there that keep the lights on, but we’re really looking for some serious sponsors that can help us boost our programs so that it’s not relying on me and a handful of other people to do it all, so we can bring in some instructors and have some very serious classes. The cool thing is, I think we could be drawing people from Memphis and other areas that would absolutely love what’s going on in Mississippi.
What are your hopes for the film industry in Mississippi?
I hope that I, along with my students, can write and produce a feature film and then make a little bit of money so that we can make another one. I would love to see that happening. To keep these projects going and at the same time sneak in some learning, because it’s all hands-on, on-the-job training. I’m really hoping that we can, I want to say make a mark, but it’s not about becoming famous or wealthy or anything, but it’s about making art that we can be happy with and drag other people along with us—if that makes sense. So next thing we know, the people we worked with are making their own films, and then people who worked with them do their own thing, and it keeps blossoming that way.
What would your advice be for someone who wants to get into film?
Well, if they’re in the Desoto County area, come to the DeSoto Arts Institute, check out our website, go look at our work. But in general, I would say just start doing it.
Because I teach all the time that filmmakers are problem solvers, because no matter what level of shooting you’re doing, there are problems that need to be solved or things arise that you just didn’t think would happen. And now you have to solve it.
I would say just start doing it and start writing. Start writing. Start filming. Don’t let anything stop you.
What do you do when you’re not working on film?
I have a for profit called Rockwell Visual. We do a lot of corporate video production and TV commercial production and things like that. And if I’m not doing that, I’m playing guitar or painting, watercolor. I just got my ham radio license. So that’s kind of new and exciting and technical. So fulfills another side of my brain, I guess.
Just curious: your given name is Smith. Where does “Rokk” come from?
I jokingly tell people I’ve always been Robb Rokk. Robb Smith is my alter ego.
I’ve gone by it for about 20 years, so I thought. But I ran across a short story I wrote in high school when I was 16 years old, and my character name in that was Robb Rokk, and it came flooding back to me. It was back when Motley Crue came out. Nikki Sixx has two Ks and two Xs. So I was like, I’m going to have two B’s and two K’s. It just kind of stuck, but now when people look for Robb Rokk on IMDB, they find me. Robb Smith? Good luck with that.