Local filmmaker panel showcases Gadsden’s potential for silver screen, feature film begins shooting in Gadsden in upcoming months

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Local filmmakers Candace Krissie and Jerry Ramsey (far left) host a panel of talented individuals in the film industry for Projex at The Gadsden Museum of Art. From left to right, Candace Krissie, Jerry Ramsey, Daniel Taylor, Daniel Bamberg, Tabitha Boyd Collins, Alex Gibson, Valerie Hicks Hale, Bill Schweikert and Logan Freeman. Not pictured: Drew Madison.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

Local filmmakers Jerry Ramsey and Candace Krissie are striving to launch Gadsden onto the silver screen. Through a series of networking events and future film festivals, Etowah County residents Ramsey and Krissie welcome the film industry to discover the incredible potential of the City of Champions.

Organized as quarterly meetings entitled “Projex,” Ramsey and Krissie kicked off the series Friday, March 26 at the Gadsden Museum of Art. The pair comprised a diverse panel of individuals currently working in the film industry to discuss their experiences, generate interest and boost opportunities for the area. Krissie noted that considering several industry professionals had not worked since the COVID-19 pandemic, she hoped the meeting would create a safe sense of normalcy for fellow filmmakers as they return to their projects.

Ramsey and Krissie, who debuted the trailer for their upcoming suspense thriller A Dark Corner at the end of the meeting, understand the endless possibilities available at filmmakers’ fingertips in Etowah County. While a large film presence abounds in both Birmingham and Huntsville, with nearby Atlanta, Georgia surging as a hub of productions, the movement dwindles near Gadsden – something the pair want to change.

“Small downtown areas like Gadsden, these things are becoming far and few between to film,” said Krissie. “I think there’s great potential here. We’ve got so much to offer as far as the city goes.”

Natural resources abound in Etowah County. Forests, rivers and lakes couple with downtown Gadsden’s charm and popular tourist attraction Noccalula Falls to provide filmmakers with a playground of locations to explore. Though the interest in film exists in the area, exemplified by the enthusiastic audience at the first Projex meeting, the issue resides in awareness. While recent features like Antonio Campos’ The Devil All The Time, based on Donald Ray Polluck’s 2011 novel, filmed in neighboring Anniston and Jacksonville, Gadsden is often overlooked.

“A lot of films will set up fake sets in surrounding areas, when they could easily come and film historic downtown Gadsden,” said Ramsey. “But if people don’t have a database to look at, the really won’t know what’s here.”

Alabama is beginning to experience an overflow of films from Georgia. While the Alabama Film Office in Montgomery works with filmmakers on larger productions, most filming incentives settle in areas like Fairhope, Spanish Fort and Mobile. Ramsey and Krissie discussed the importance of partnerships with local community leaders to showcase Etowah County’s worth, noting that the film industry’s presence in Gadsden could serve as a positive outpouring of economic growth.

Gadsden witnessed a taste of that growth Friday following the meeting, with a number of speakers and audience members visiting downtown for dinner. When a production’s cast and crew films in an area for an extended period of time (or even a few days) that means added support and a boost in business for hotels, restaurants and local shops.

“We wouldn’t be anywhere without the locals who helped us,” said Ramsey, reflecting on the support they received for their film. “We want their businesses to grow, too. That’s what we’ve seen everywhere except here, is growth. That’s why we’re doing this project.”

Birmingham-based prosecutor Valerie Hicks Hale spoke first at the meeting, describing herself as a frustrated film maker. As an attorney in practice since 1997 and an advocate for civil rights and social justice, Hale is the state of Alabama’s first African American appointed as Chief Deputy District Attorney. With an innate love of storytelling that transcends beyond the courtroom, Hale learned the art of film via her own self-study program, resulting in the depiction of positive stories that influence her community. Her first 48-hour micro short project placed second in the Kindomwood film festival and she recently finished her first short.

A board member of the Alabama chapter of Women in Film & Television, she introduced a topic that would emerge as a prominent theme of the evening – the importance of networking and developing a successful team in the film industry.

“It was very difficult in Birmingham, Alabama, to say, ‘Okay, I want to do a film,’ and not know anybody else who had the skills I needed,” said Hale. “I’m a writer, I’m a director and I’ve got the money to produce it, but I couldn’t do all of those other things. If we don’t have networks to do that, it doesn’t matter how wonderful our skills are. We as individuals aren’t going to be strong enough – I don’t care how wonderful it is. I wanted to encourage you to do what you’re doing in terms of meeting and networking, and also hope that I can be part of your network as well. I really would like to hear about some of the projects that come out of these meetings [in the future].”

Co-owner of CinePros, an Alabama production company, Alex M. Gibson traveled from Huntsville to offer words of reassurance to fellow passionate filmmakers. As chair of the Alabama Film Co-op (one of the longest-running film groups in Alabama since the 1970s), Gibson strives to provide free seminars and workshops for those interested in learning more about filmmaking.

The Co-op hosts Huntsville’s annual Rocket City Short Film Festival each October, which encourages filmmakers to share their work with audiences. As a director and producer, Gibson frequently oversees a plethora of film productions from music videos and documentaries to commercials and narrative films. He noted not one role is greater than the other when it comes to making a film – all individuals work together to create something worthwhile.

“You can tell a story no matter what you do,” said Gibson. “We have a lot of people [in Huntsville’s film circles] who do so many different things. It’s important to come together to collaborate, to work and mix and match your skills and creative influence. Just having an outlet in a place like this [like the Projex meetings] where you can get together and show films and meet [helps]. How other people work together is what is so beautiful about filmmaking. It’s about teamwork.”

Gadsden native and Emma Sansom High School graduate Logan J. Freeman currently serves as a film instructor at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and University of Montevallo. While producing the feature film Devotion, shooting in Spring 2022, he is also developing his directorial debut film. Freeman earned a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts from the University of Alabama in Birmingham before furthering his education at Emerson College in Boston, where he graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Film Directing. His works include student academy award nominated short My Indian RhapsodyBrian and Fated To Repeat, shown during the Projex meeting. He reached out to local film makers who want to further their careers, stating that inspiration can occur anywhere.

“I used to be so angry that I was stuck in a small town,” said Freeman. “Now, that’s all I dream about – being back in a small town and living in it, because of all the life it gave me.”

A musician who toured with different bands for several years, Freeman discussed channeling past experiences into personal films that emphasize individual voices. Fated To Repeat emerges as a culmination of Freeman’s past experiences, a collection of events that were significant and poignant. Freeman urged audience members to understand why they love certain films, recognizing the elements that arise to create a powerful and memorable story. Rather than try and fail, he encouraged filmmakers to analyze methods and recreate them, taking what they learn and translating that knowledge into their own films.

“You need to know what it takes to engage people,” said Freeman. “If it’s personal, it’ll mean something to somebody, even if it only means something to you. Everybody wants to see a personal film that might talk to one person in a theater, that might talk to 100 over a city, which might talk to 1,000 over a county.”

The University of Alabama graduate Drew Madison shared his short Doodle at the meeting, which he wrote, produced and directed. Madison detailed the process of developing Doodle, noting that not one shot came without challenges. He emphasized a simple way he acquired most of the assistance to create his film – he just asked.

Madison extended his own interest to others, reaching out to individuals to develop partnerships. Through Facebook messages, kindness and his own evident passion for his project, he received an abundance of grace and support in return, garnering help from a collection of people. A Denmark composer scored the film free of charge because Madison (a fan of his work) told him about Doodle. Crew members doubled as actors alongside Madison’s own family, while shots filmed in a hospital and home occurred because he simply took the initiative to ask.

“I think it goes to show you just how much putting yourself out there and letting people know you’re willing to work and showing that you’re passionate about it [pays off],” said Madison. “People see that in you and they want to work with people that are passionate.”

Bill Schweikert brought a seasoned cinematographer’s perspective to the panel, leading camera and lighting crews as director of photography on 28 feature films. Schweikert worked with numerous actors throughout the years, including Ernest Borgnine, Mickey Rooney, Martin Sheen, Natasha Lyonne and Sally Kellerman.

Schweikert showed the trailer for Dave Patten’s Backfire, which he shot. He commended the crew’s efforts, noting that the director and producer performed an enormous amount of legwork prior to shooting (setting up locations, maintaining punctuality) to ensure the film progressed without hindrances.

Schweikert shared that managing expectations is vital in creating a film, advising aspiring film makers to follow Orson Wells’ approach – hire people who already know what they are doing. While an imaginative vision is crucial to any film’s creation, maintaining an anchored knowledge of how to create that film (with the resources and budget available) and a realistic sense of the most efficient way to move forward is necessary for all projects.

“It’s not obvious to a lot of folks when you get into the business that it’s what I call magical thinking versus logistics,” said Schweikert. “Film making is 90 percent logistics and 10 percent magical thinking. It’s my job to tell the story with pictures. The other part of my job is to tell the director what can and cannot be done.”

1980s cult classic The Return of Swamp Thing propelled panel speaker and actor-turned-director Daniel Emery Taylor into a lifelong relationship with filmmaking. He acted in The Return of Swamp Thing alongside Heather Locklear, Sarah Douglas and Dick Durock, earning guest appearances in popular television series such as In The Heat Of The Night and I’ll Fly Away and a role in the 2000 sophomoric comedy Road Trip.

Taylor co-founded the cult horror production company Deviant Pictures in 2012, producing three feature films before forming his own production company Debtor Entertainment in 2016. Taylor’s fourth feature film and first solo directorial effort It’s Just A Game received acclaim throughout the horror community. He brought a lighthearted outlook on film to the panel, reminding filmmakers to not lose the fun that accompanies the process.

“I got into film as a child because I just wanted to play with monsters and get paid money to make believe,” said Taylor. “I’ve always been a dreamer and I’ve always been the guy who would play in a box for hours [pretending] it’s my fort or castle. I started making my own films because I wanted to make stuff I wanted to watch. There’s something to be said for a deep emotional connection, that’s a huge part of it. But sometimes, you just want to make something cool that you want to watch. We get a lot of filmmakers in a room and we’re going to talk about how smart and great and wonderful our thoughts are (because they are) but sometimes you just want to watch a movie about a baked potato that eats people. You don’t know why – it’s just fun!”

Taylor discussed the importance of promotion in the film industry, prompting the audience to consider, “You can make the best film in the world, but if people don’t know about it, what have you done?”

Among writing, producing and directing, Taylor shared that casting is his favorite part of pre-production, where he witnesses characters come to life. He echoed Schweikert’s emphasis on hiring the right professionals to ensure the process develops smoothly and successfully, encouraging audience members to pursue their own passions and interests.

“Do what you like,” said Taylor. “Make something that speaks to you. Make something that is fun. It doesn’t have to be highbrow, deep and esoteric…sometimes you just want to get out with friends and make a movie. But make your movie. Regardless of what you want to make, if you really have a message you want to send or if you just want to get out there and make something that looks cool, do that. There is an audience for everything. Somebody somewhere is going to love your movie.”

Former award-winning news reporter, columnist and news photographer Daniel L. Bamberg’s love for film spans lifelong. From writer to producer to director, Bamberg shared he performed every job on set except hair and makeup. His first feature was a 2007 documentary entitled Undeniable, following a horror anthology, Paranormalice, which he wrote, co-produced and co-directed. With over 30 screenplays and 100 treatments written, alongside his directorial position Bamberg works as a ghost-writer and writer-for-hire in the film, news and commercial industries.

Bamberg noted that while a good script is essential, it is also everyone’s pitch. Filmmakers need more than a script to ensure their films reach the next level. He discussed developing budgeting plans in a business format that compares potential films to films previously created, explaining how films generate profit and the blend between entertainment and a deeper message.

“There are three versions of a film: the script, what you shoot and the edit,” said Bamberg. “You cannot make the perfect film. What you’re doing is making a close-to-perfect version of what is manageable and what is reasonable. There’s going to be sacrifices when each one of those things transfer, when you go from one to the other. Everybody that ever makes a film had made the greatest film in the world in their head. When you get on set, you start prioritizing.”

 Bamberg concluded the meeting with a major announcement – his current film, Survivor Girls, is scheduled to film in Gadsden in late April or May. The project, which Bamberg described as a ‘quirky little high-concept film,’ represents a partnership of several panel speakers, with cinematography by Schweikert, acting by Taylor and Tabitha Boyd Collins serving as executive producer. While Collins did not speak at the event, she attended as a part of the panel. A member of IASTE Union 708 and SFX, Collins began producing projects after a life in the film industry where she traveled as an actor, model and make-up artist.

“I always have a moment on set when my head isn’t collected, where I get to a point where the weeds are too tall,” said Bamberg. “The best thing you can do is lean in to the people around you. My biggest mistake was not the mistake I made, but not leaning into the people I put around me. A good director worth his weight is someone who is hiring people who can do his job for him. Filmmaking is a village. You have to rely on those people.”

Ramsey and Krissie plan to host the next Projex meetings in June and September, which will feature larger talent pools and a film festival. They hope to work alongside local business owners and government officials to voice Etowah County’s importance in the industry, garnering more projects shot locally to raise awareness. The pair hope the meetings will serve as a catalyst to spark further interest for Gadsden, earning the city a leading role in future film projects.

“I think sometimes a lot of people sit back and say, ‘I wish we had this,’” said Krissie. “But you have to get out there and do it. This is just what we have to offer, and I have it can be something great. I’m excited about it! The more people who hear about it, the more people will want to know more about it. Oftentimes, you feel like you have to get away to push your career – I think we’re lucky to work in film where you don’t have to do that. There are so many people who still believe in this area, and we just want to be a part of that.”

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