Still Life with Filmmakers

A study of fashion and independent film

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

The alluring worlds of fashion and film have been linked since Victorian audiences clamored to the first nickelodeons. Filmmakers use wardrobe to express nuances of character and add tone and texture to their stories. Houses of fashion perpetually draw inspiration from film. Both are visual art forms that capture our imaginations.

It seemed natural, then, to gather some of Mississippi’s prolific moviemakers for this issue’s fall fashion segment.

Award-winning indie filmmakers Michael Williams of West Point and Glenn Payne of Blue Springs are accustomed to being behind the camera, giving directions. Catfish Alley dressed them up and put them in front of it, along with actress Casey Dillard of Tupelo, makeup artist/actress Casey Heflin of Pelahatchie and producer Josh Whites of Greenwood.

By day they may be photographers, teachers, book store associates or former pharmaceutical sales reps, but at every opportunity, their shared passion for filmmaking makes them vibrant players in the Magnolia State’s film community. They’ve worked closely together on numerous projects — the most recent, Williams’ and Payne’s first feature-length films, made possible in part by Mississippi Film and Video Alliance Emerging Filmmaker grants.

From the sci-fi realm of Payne’s psychological thriller “Earthrise,” now in final editing, to Williams’ post-apocalyptic America in “Ozland,” to be filmed this fall in West Point and Kansas, they have pooled their considerable talents, along with those of others.

Williams was director of photography for Payne’s film; Payne will portray a central character in Williams’ feature about faith, imagination and friendship. It’s a symbiotic relationship that serves them well.

“It’s good to have somebody to trust on the creative end, both in front of and behind the camera,” said Williams, describing their perspectives as similar, yet diverse enough to keep them sharp. “We can work together and create something even more interesting than if we were doing it on our own.”

STORYTELLING
For Payne, who wrote, directed and produced his story of an Earth that has been all but abandoned while Americans colonized Mars, film is the most powerful form of artistic expression, combining painting, music, dancing, performing and writing.

“Its epic ability to reach the masses gives the artist a means to influence millions upon millions of viewers; this is something no other form of expression can match.” An avid actor, Payne is also a collected fine artist and a founding member of the improvisational comedy troupe West of Shake Rag, based out of Tupelo.

He is often on screen with Casey Dillard. She recently wrote and co-directed (and acted in) her own first short film, “Genrevolt,” which held a premiere at The Ritz in West Point.

“I mainly work with writing and performing,” she said, “but when it comes time, I’ll dress sets, move lights and lug sandbags if need be.”

Like Dillard, Casey Heflin wears a variety of hats. The elementary math and science teacher is usually behind the scenes, coordinating cast makeup, hair and wardrobe, but audiences have seen her on screen as well. She’s recently been accepted to a two-year masters program at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles. Heflin believes in what Williams and Payne are doing in North Mississippi.

“It’s not just the things we’ve made together, but seeing the quality of what they make on the budgets they have,” she began. “They do so much more with the money they have than I think many do with bigger budgets. I believe in their vision; they have amazing stories to tell.”

Producer Josh Whites pays attention to “everything in front of and behind the camera,” helping ensure a fluid story that connects with audiences. Between fashion shots, he talked of two upcoming Hollywood studio films he’ll soon work on a co-producer — “Orleans,” which begins filming in September in New Orleans, and “Tank,” a prison film set to shoot soon after. He’s done some acting — usually as the bad guy or as a comedic character, he jokingly admitted — but finds producing most fulfilling.

“The only way you learn to produce is by doing it,” shared the father of one, who left a lucrative job to pursue a career in film work. “You know it’s time when you love your hobby more than your job.”

COURTING HOLLYWOOD
The Mississippi Film Office, the Mississippi Development Authority’s extended economic hand to Hollywood, is celebrating its 40th year. It markets the state to the film industry’s inner ranks. In the past two decades, critically-acclaimed movies like “A Time to Kill,” “Ghosts of Mississippi,” “My Dog Skip” and “O, Brother Where Art Thou” have been filmed in the state. The Best Picture-nominated film “The Help” was filmed in Greenwood and Jackson in 2011, and in September 2012 Oscar-nominated actor James Franco directed his as-yet unreleased adaptation of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” in Canton. Williams worked on the production crew.

Mississippi has something to offer the industry. And our five Catfish Alley filmmaking models are part of it. The more they work collaboratively, the stronger their professional respect and friendship grows — and that’s beneficial to the final cut.

“We’re all friends outside of work and inside work,” said Williams. “Movies are so personal and hard to make, you want to make them with people around you that you love.”

KK Norris of The Attic, who outfitted the fashion shoot, worked closely with the directors, producer and actors so at home with being “on set.” “It went smoothly, I think because they’re all friends,” she observed.

Payne did note one major difference between a film set and a fashion shoot, however. “Watching people rushing back and forth to get everything done was a strange place for us,” he said. “We’re used to being those people.”