Published Jul/Aug 2005

The South has been the setting for many major motion pictures, and now some states are hoping to become Hollywood’s new permanent Back lot.
By Ben Sandmel

Since the earliest days of commercial movies, Hollywood has shown a fascination with stories set in the American South. Filmmaking is a grand illusion, of course, so some famous depictions of Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi have been staged on studio lots in California. But many timeless classics achieved greatness by filming on location.

Consider the important role of authentic Louisiana scenes in “Panic In The Streets” (1950), “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” (1964) and “Easy Rider” (1969). A Southern Gothic feel of rural Mississippi galvanized “Baby Doll” (1956) and “Long Hot Summer” (1958). The small town culture of rural Arkansas–and the roles played by rural Arkansans–added grassroots credibility to the bittersweet tale of “Sling Blade.”

For decades, Hollywood-based crews would temporarily converge on Southern locations, work a grueling schedule of 18-hour days and then pack up and return to California. But recent years have seen the South embrace the full-time business infrastructure of making movies. Encouraged by government and the private sector alike, the Southern film industry is growing faster than kudzu.

Show business is big business

In Louisiana, this surge increased dramatically in 2002. With an eye towards attracting major films, the state legislature implemented a program of tax incentives. Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu are actively involved in such efforts. Mississippi and Arkansas have enacted similar programs, and all three states now have full-time state film commissions.

These agencies offer centralized sources of information, technical assistance, access to funds, help in finding locations, liaisons with other governmental agencies and the introduction of local filmmakers into national professional circles.

“In New Orleans, the goal of the Mayor’s Office of Film & Video is to encourage professional and economic growth in the New Orleans film and video industry,” said director Stephanie Dupuy. “Among other responsibilities, the office is in charge of the permitting process for film productions on location.”

As a result, the trucks, trailers and hubbub of making movies are becoming an increasingly familiar aspect of the Southern landscape. Rural Mississippi, for instance, hosted George Clooney, John Goodman and Holly Hunter for the filming of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” This acclaimed adaptation of Homer’s “The Odyssey,” directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, was a favorite film of the year 2000.

Beyond direct benefit to the local economy via jobs and services, the unlikely success of the “O Brother” soundtrack created new opportunities for musicians and filmmakers who work in a variety of traditional Southern styles. Concert footage of New Orleans rhythm and blues, for instance, has recently reached vast audiences via “Deacon John’s Jump Blues” (2003), produced by Vetter Communications Corporation of Baton Rouge.

Film crews also seem to be a continual presence in New Orleans. Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins recently were working on “All The King’s Men,” which is in the post-production stages. Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance for best actor in “Ray” was primarily filmed in New Orleans, reflecting director Taylor Hackford’s abiding interest in the city. Even “The Dukes of Hazzard,” starring Jessica Simpson and Burt Reynolds, was shot in the Crescent City, although the story is not set in New Orleans.

Not all Southerners are thrilled by this new industry. Film shoots can be massively disruptive, causing street closings and traffic nightmares. The tax breaks granted by local governments have been criticized by some as being overly generous. But many people feel that the film industry has helped the economy–and that close exposure to Hollywood has enhanced their own careers.

Tee Eva Perry, owner of a popular New Orleans praline shop, has worked as an extra in numerous major films including “JFK” (1991) and “Interview with a Vampire” (1994).

“It is delightful, and the people are really nice,” Perry said.

Upcoming film festivals

Celebrating its 17th run, the New Orleans Film Festival (www.neworleans filmfest.com) will be Oct. 6–13. Mississippi hosts the Oxford Film Festival, Sept. 6–11 (www.oxfordfilm fest.com). The Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute sponsors its film festival in Hot Springs, Ark., Oct. 21–30 (www.hsdfi.org).

By attending area film festivals, or visiting location sites (see sidebar), you can tell that art truly imitates Southern life.

Ben Sandmel is a new contributor from New Orleans, La.

Above: A crew filming a scene for the upcoming movie “Pool Hall” in New Orleans. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Mayor’s Office of Film & Video

Below: Downtown Canton, Miss., was transformed to look like the 1930s during the filming of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Canton Tourism photo

Movie magic has been made throughout Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Here are just a few of the sites for film buffs to visit.

The epic Civil War television miniseries from 1985, “North and South,” was filmed in five Southern states. The Arkansas segments were shot in and around Camden, using the McCollum-Chidester House, which survived the real war. The McCollum-Chidester House Museum (926 Washington St.) and several other antebellum structures are part of an historic driving tour of Camden.

The house served as Union headquarters during the Red River Campaign of 1864. It contains 1860s furnishings and is open for touring. For information, contact the Camden Area Chamber of Commerce, (870) 836-6426 or www.growingcamden.com.

The acclaimed “Deacon John’s Jump Blues” was recorded in high definition television at the historic Orpheum Theater in New Orleans in January 2002. Bandleader/guitarist/vocalist Deacon John Moore’s CD and live concert DVD were released in 2003.

Great music is nothing new at the Orpheum, located at 129 University Place in the city’s central business district. Built in 1921 and renovated in 1989, the Orpheum is home to the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and it also hosts countless touring acts.

In its early years, the theater was a venue for vaudeville and later became a premier movie house that welcomed actors such as John Wayne and Rock Hudson. For details about the theater, call (504) 524-3285 or visit www.orpheumneworleans.com.

To revisit the Mississippi site of the siren scene in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” take a leisurely paddle on the Strong River just south of Jackson. Or visit Canton, Miss., which has been the shooting location for several films–including “O Brother,” “A Time to Kill” and “My Dog Skip.” Known as the “Film Capital of Mississippi,” Canton also has hosted documentaries and PBS productions.

The Canton Movie Museums, 147 N. Union, have movie scenes frozen in time and set pieces from films. Also, guided tours show how Canton folk contributed to make these stories come to life on the big screen.

The city is in the final stages of developing the Mississippi Film Enterprise Zone, which will be a state-of-the-art film complex that will house a training center for film, sound stages for production and an educational component for independent film makers. To date, a project site and $1 million in funding have been secured.

For information, contact the Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-844-3369 or www.cantontourism.com.

–Compiled by AAA Southern Traveler staff

The mercantile from “My Dog Skip” is preserved in the Canton Movie Museums with other sets and props from films shot in the area. Canton Tourism photo

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