Ward Emling, Actor and Former Film Office Director

Where did you grow up and go to school?

Well, I was born in New Orleans, but I moved to Jackson when I was 10. I went to, as I like to say, all the schools on Riverside Drive: Power, Bailey, Murrah and Millsaps. I spent two years at school in London after Millsaps and then seven years in L.A. in the ‘80s. And the rest of the time, I have been here.

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

Well, while I was at Murrah, I did a play, The Wizard of Oz.  Then when I got to Millsaps, they had a terrific, terrific theater department in those days. I was doing a play, at the Little Theater of Jackson, which is the building where New Stage Theatre is now. The play was called Jimmy Shine, and it was the winter of 1973. That was 50 years ago, the exact time the Mississippi Film Commission was founded.

It’s funny how all of this intertwines. There I was 50 years ago at Little Theater, and I got to meet Robert Altman and that gang when they were in town to do Thieves Like Us. And then that summer, all the actors at Millsaps auditioned for a movie that was going to be filmed in Natchez called The Musical Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was the second film of the film commission. I got a job as an extra. Of course, I lied and said I could ride a horse. And of course, I got cast in a part where I had to ride a horse. So, I had to learn in a hurry.

But then they needed a wardrobe assistant, and I got the job. So that was my summer job in 1973. I was the wardrobe assistant on Huckleberry Finn for pretty much the whole summer. And that was my 101 course. That was where I learned everything about making movies. Well, not everything, but a lot. That was how that all started. And I kept doing plays at Millsaps.

And then I also got another job on this other film called The Premonition, which was called Turtle Heaven when they were filming it. That was in ’75, and I worked as the office production assistant on that, and they actually filmed in my parents’ house. So that was my first time to be around a location negotiation.

And so, Charlie Allen, who started the film commission, and Walterine Odom, who was the film commissioner in those days, they remembered me from that show. I worked on that for about a month and then went back to school at Millsaps. I stayed in touch with them because I wanted acting work. Then I went to school in London and when I came back, Walterine was going on maternity leave and they needed a person to take over for the summer. This was in ’81. So, I took over and she actually never came back.

So, my three-month job as a maternity leave replacement became a three-and-a-half-year job as the director of the Film Office the first time. I left in ‘83 to location manage a series for CBS called The Mississippi for Warner Brothers. I then moved to L.A.

So, what led you back to Mississippi after your time in L.A.?

I went out to L.A. to be an actor. I had done the Film Office job and then the location manager job, and the idea was that I’d saved some money up and I had made some contacts in L.A. I was getting a little work here and there, but then I got a call from a friend, Jennifer Ogden, who strangely enough, was at Millsaps with me and we worked on Huck Finn together.

She had gone to New York and fallen into production. She was working on a film in Orlando called D.A.R.Y.L. and she was having challenges on that. So, I said, well, I will come down and help you out. I worked as the location coordinator for that in Orlando and then went back to L.A. and auditioned some more.

Then people would call me up to location manage. So, I go off and do that, mostly in the south, and then go back to L.A. and audition. That went on for seven years, and it just got to the point where I had to make the decision of what I wanted to do with my life.

Then the Film Office job came back. I knew that they were having challenges with the disastrous production of Stone Cold, so much so that I was location managing a thing in Charleston, South Carolina, and reading about this mess in Mississippi in USA Today.

So, John Horhn, who was then the head of tourism, contacted me and we started having conversations about the job, and I was thinking, “Do I really want to do this?”

So, this was November of 1990, and I said I would come back and run the Film Office for seven months to see if they were serious about the program. 27 years later I retired. (laughs)

Other than learning while working on productions, did you have any formal training?

Well, I was an English major, with a theater minor at Millsaps and then I worked on those films. Huck Finn was really the education. I was working 80-90 hours a week in the wardrobe department. I was seeing everything that happens. It was an extraordinary education.

Then when I was running the Film Office in the ‘80s, I was always very hands-on working with productions, so I’d spend time on the sets. In those days no one knew what film commissions did or what they could do. But even before that, when I was in college, I went to the movies all the time. I think I saw every movie filmed in the ‘70s. We didn’t have DVD extras and all that, but we had movie magazines and interviews, so essentially you knew what filmmakers were thinking and what they were doing. It was a great, great, great, great, great decade. (Current Film Office Director) Nina (Parikh) always got tired of hearing me talk about the ’70s, but it was a great decade for filmmakers. So, I learned a lot about the film industry just by watching movies. And I was a theater person at Millsaps and I studied in London for two years at the Guild Hall School of Music and Drama.

That’s one of the things that I’ve always said about the Film Office and the way that we were able to run things. A movie came to town when I was 19 years old and gave me an opportunity to be a part of something that I never imagined that I could ever be a part of. The same thing happened to Nina. She was studying film and a movie came to town and gave her the opportunity to get involved in making a movie.

Now, what I used to always say about why it was so easy for me to do the job for so long, is that I knew that every time a movie came to town that it could change someone’s life. Because it did that to me. It did that to Nina. We were in a position every day to do something for someone that they never imagined possible.

I understood films, and how films are made, and the impact and the challenges and all of that, and the demands on a community. If I had a talent, it was helping people understand what it took to support the industry. I learned as a location manager that you always have to look out for something that could go wrong. You never have the perfect day. You know, maybe an airplane will fly over the scene, something will happen!

So as the Film Office’s director, I was constantly looking for how to minimize the barriers and the challenges to filming in Mississippi. I think one way we were highly successful over the years was not being focused on the celebrity of film. We were about the work of film. I did everything I could to make it unglamorous to people in our communities and their understanding of it. That it was a job, that it was something that these people were doing and that we had a responsibility to support them soberly, honestly, very carefully. Sure, these were celebrities. These were people that are on the morning talk shows. But they had a job to do that was not easy. Like I say, I wasn’t a filmmaker, but I helped people make films.

Are you working on any current or recent projects?

It’s been my joy in the years since I’ve been retired, that I’ve been able to return to the stage, which I could never do when I was working. When I was running the Film Office, I couldn’t devote six weeks to a play. So, now I’ve been able to do a couple of plays a year at New Stage, which has been a thrill. Most people don’t know me as an actor. They know me as the film commissioner. Because, well, I was never an actor, I just didn’t do it for 27 years. I did two short films as favors to people. I told several of my friends from the old days, “Well, I’ve retired to doing what we set out to do 50 years ago.”

I also did the two films for Travis Mills’ 12 Westerns in 12 Months project, which were a lot of fun and very interesting. I’d never done anything like that. I’d done an arc, like two or three episodes on series or something like that. But I’d never done anything like Bastard’s Crossing or Texas Red, as a character that had multiple scenes over the course of the story.

Certainly nothing like Bastard’s Crossing, where I like to say that I’m in it until I’m not. I’m in every scene. That was a thrill to do, but I’ve not really auditioned for any other films. I’m actually kind of happy doing the plays. I also know that I’m not going to get another Bastard’s Crossing. And I hope the opportunity does come along to work on more films here. But I’m not actually pursuing that. I like being at New Stage. I like doing that. That’s fun to me. And that’s always a challenge to me.

Who has been an influence on your career and why?

The two greatest influences on my career are Chris Morgan and Jim Brubaker.

Chris was the producer on Beulah Land, which filmed in Mississippi in the early ‘80s. He’s a really, really, really great producer who really, really knows how films are made and how things work. When Beulah Land came out, WLBT refused to show it. They had issue with some statements said in the series. Well, we had dozens and dozens and dozens of local actors in that show. It was a six-hour miniseries. It had so many Mississippi actors in it that Walterine and I worked with Chris to screen it over two nights in Jackson so people could see themselves and their work. I first worked with Chris on that. Then Chris was the producer on The Mississippi. We did the pilot in Vicksburg. And then when it got picked up, I went off on the series as their location manager.

And then Jim Brubaker, who’s another terrific producer of a completely different sort than Chris Morgan. For somebody to have these two people as mentors is a total schizophrenic reality, I think. But Jim also knew films from the ground up. He had a completely different style, though. And I learned a lot about making movies working with him. He was the production manager on K-9 and I did Problem Child with him as location manager. I learned a lot about how to work with people with Jim. How to get things done in a completely different way than I had previously learned.

Chris and I became and remain great friends and the same with Jim, but not to the extent that I am friends with Chris. But those two guys, as you realize I said without any hesitation, those are my mentors.

Has being from Mississippi helped you stand out in the industry?

If you think I’ve gone on and on about other questions that you asked, I could go on forever on this!

You know, from an actor standpoint, from a location manager standpoint, from a film commission standpoint, Mississippi has been an important part of everything.

You know what I learned at Millsaps? I learned how to work with people. How to be part of a group and work toward common goals. Which is what I would always try to bring to any work that I did, whether I was working as an actor or a location manager or the film commissioner. All of them, at the core, are about human relations.

I do believe that my experiences in Mississippi, from day one in 1964 when I moved here to today, I’ve learned something every day working with people from all over the place. Sometimes it’s maddening and sometimes it’s kismet. Sometimes it makes you crazy and sometimes it’s just the sweetest thing in the world.

The breadth of people and talent and history and legacy in Mississippi that, if you pay attention to it—which we had to do in the Film Office all the time—informs you to a great depth in how you live your life. We’re surrounded by people of talent and passion and compassion here in Mississippi.

And part of what comes with being a Mississippian, I think, is just being as comfortable as you possibly can be with yourself. That’s what makes situations comfortable. It’s one of the things that I think somebody said to us at Millsaps, you know, get on the stage, get comfortable. And then I used to say that to filmmakers, actors, crew members, get comfortable, get on a set in any way that you can as a stand-in, as an extra, whatever, get comfortable in that world. Because that’s what it’s all about.

If you could make a movie or a scene built around a specific location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?

Well, I love Longwood in Natchez. And I tried forever to get people to use that as a location. It’s so unique, so quirky, so crazy, so weird. It’s since been used in a project. I just saw it in the Christmas movie that was filmed in Natchez and they shot inside and out, which was crazy great. And they used it in in True Blood as an exterior and we used it as an exterior in one episode of The Mississippi. But you know, that’s a location that I truly love because it is unique and has a great story.

But to be honest there are way too many locations in my brain to really answer this question. (laughs) We were pretty lucky over the years to find great things in Mississippi and get them in the movies. We filmed all over the place, in almost all 82 counties. I don’t know if there’s anything out there that I scouted that I would be like, oh, hell, we never shot that! (laughs)

Do you have a favorite moment from your career?

I had My Dog Skip and Cookie’s Fortune, which may be my two favorite films that we made, they were filming at the same time. I’d go from one set to the other and I was like, “This is crazy.”

The great thing about both of those films is that they are such loving portraits of Mississippi. They make people say, “I want to live there.” “I want to grow up there.” Both of those movies do that.

I think My Dog Skip played for like six months in theaters in New York. And I like to think that at least one person in every one of those screenings had never heard of Willie Morris and that maybe they went out and bought that book. Maybe then they bought another book by another Mississippi writer. When I think of the impact of what it is that I did with the Film Office, it’s that impact. It’s changing people’s ideas about Mississippi.

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

I would still say you are not going to have more support than you get from Mississippi communities. They love to have a film in their town. They are happy you are there. They want to do everything they can to help. You are going to have a community that supports your projects.

And if it’s a producer wanting to film a Mississippi story, well there’s just something about the native soil. You will have something intangible that you cannot create somewhere else. You can go shoot your film outside of Atlanta. Sure. Fine. But you are going to miss out on something if you’re not in Mississippi, where the story happened or was inspired.

Back in the day before incentives, there was a big shift from location to crew base. And people were going to where the crew was. I said that what we have to do in Mississippi is to be better at being Mississippi than anywhere else, which is a weird statement to make. But the reality is they were making movies that are set all over the place in Atlanta. So, we just focused on being the best we could be. That’s what we would tell producers, is that you’re going to get a commitment from the people and the inspiration of the place.

What are your hopes for the film industry in Mississippi?

I hope that people will continue to believe in the industry. There will be more need for filmed entertainment tomorrow than there is today. And there is more need today than there was yesterday. It is an exponential growth.

In Mississippi we tend to focus on industries that make products and create jobs. Well, the film industry does that. We are a factory that is building a product. That is what every movie is. But it is a factory that is not going to suddenly be out of business. Because we all have multiple screens in our lives, and every day we expect something different. We need more content.

And the technology to make movies does not diminish the employment capability of it. Look at the VFX credits of the latest Marvel movie. Technology is creating more jobs. It is not diminishing jobs as it is in almost every other industry. There is 30 to 45 percent more scripted product every year and it has been that way for the last 10 years. And by proxy, it is creating more service support needs and more production support needs and equipment and supplies, you name it, so it can also help to grow other business in the state.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the film industry?

If you talked to anybody that is in the film industry today from Mississippi that came by my office when they were starting out, they will tell you that I said don’t get into the industry. (laughs)

But I don’t believe that now, because I believe that the opportunity in film is extraordinary today. When I was a young person, you only had three networks and six studios. Now you have dozens of streaming avenues. If you want to make a film and have it seen, you can do that so much easier today. I think that if you want to be in the film industry, then do it. If you want to make movies, then start working on movies and start making your own movies. And at some point, it will either pay for your decision or it won’t pay to have made that decision. (laughs)

I don’t think that I would discourage anybody who wants to make movies, who wants to be in the film industry from doing it. Get on a movie set, get comfortable, make contacts. Be like (producer) Daniel Lewis. He knows exactly what he is doing and what it takes to do it. And he keeps turning out quality work. Travis Mills is much the same way. Travis makes movies that he wants to make. Both of those guys are terrific examples of “Here’s how you can do it.” You have got Travis doing the small, independent, I’m going to do it all by myself way, and it works out. And his movies are everywhere. You can buy them at Wal-Mart. They can be seen everywhere. And you have got Daniel, who makes movies because people trust him and believe in him. And he just keeps making movies for companies like Hallmark and Lifetime because he turns in quality product. There are so many ways forward for a filmmaker today that weren’t there 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago.

How can people find/reach you?

You can reach me at wardemling@gmail.com.