Paragould is a small town in Northeast Arkansas with a population of about 27,000 people. Made up of used-car dealerships, rice fields, fast food chains, and high school sports rivalry, it’s not a place you’d be likely to consider when looking for somewhere to make an independent film, unless you happen to be Paragould native, Juli Jackson. After working in the filmmaking industry for several years in the usual hotspots, Jackson decided to come home and complete her first feature film in the Natural State, never expecting to find the wealth of resources and support that the Arkansas filmmaking community contains.
Since her decision to make a film in Arkansas, Jackson has been working on 45RPM, which she wrote, took through the grant process, directed, produced, animated, and has pretty much lived and breathed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the past five years. Full of actors, musicians, artwork, landmarks, and behind-the-scenes contributors from Arkansas and the surrounding areas, 45RPM is a darkly funny movie about a young artist’s road trip through the unfamiliar South while searching to find a lost recording of her dead father’s 1960’s garage band. The film’s debut screening took place in October to a sold-out crowd in Batesville, Arkansas, and now the lengthy process of festival submissions begins.
While working on 45RPM and through networking with the Ozark Foothills FilmFest, Jackson has become a bigger player in her home state’s film culture than she likely ever anticipated. With a completed feature film that highlights amazing Arkansas artists, an award-winning short from this year’s 4320 Film Challenge, and a resume´that now includes experience all over the country in both commercial and independent film work, and in a wide-spectrum of positions (and all by the age of 30), Jackson is making Arkansas proud and killing any notion that the South is lacking when it comes to the arts.
I asked Juli Jackson a few questions via e-mail about her career thus far, and her unconventional decision to make a movie in her small southern hometown.
HB: When did you decide to devote your career to filmmaking?
JJ: Technically I could blame high school sports for that. In high school I was really involved in our media arts department, which seemed to exist solely to document and broadcast the local ball games. But that is where I learned to love cameras, running cables, working with a production team, and editing.
HB: Was it ever a concern of yours that the film industry in the U.S. seems to be limited to primarily one or two cities?
JJ: When I started actively watching films and studying them around 1999, I decided very quickly that I was more interested in indie filmmaking than big budget Hollywood productions or television. Thankfully the radical technology shift has made it possible to make films everywhere with less and less money. So New York and Los Angeles being the meccas of the U.S. film industry never concerned me as much as I just tried to jump in and learn what was changing in the industry and where I could fit in with that.
HB: After going to art school in Philly, what was your next step? Did you immediately move to L.A.? What was your experience like there as a young woman trying to catch a break?
JJ: After I graduated, I got my first job as a Director of Photography on a micro-budget film being shot in Philly. It was intense difficult work – a lot of learning under pressure, being resourceful, teaching those even less experienced than you to be part of a team – the type of work that is almost miserable, but when it’s all over you miss everyone and want to do it again. My L.A. experience right after that summer was a complete reversal. Sure, I expected to start at the bottom and I did. But there was no ‘film family’ on those sets and no sense of community when it came to paying work. Any of the film work that I enjoyed didn’t pay anything and rarely led to gigs that helped with the rent. The paying work I found in three years was all the stereotypical stuff – it’s not what you know, but who you know, soulless commercial jobs where people just complain about deserving overtime, and of course having to have a “day job” that wasn’t exactly in your field. I lucked out and had some good jobs and met some wonderful filmmakers, but after realizing it would easily take 10 years to get the jobs I wanted, I decided I didn’t want to give L.A. that much of my time. There are other ways to make movies.
HB: When did you first start thinking about shooting a feature film in Arkansas, and what was the tipping point where working in such a non-traditional movie market seemed like your best option?
JJ: In 2008 I returned to Philadelphia to DP another no-budget feature with the same director under very similar circumstances. Even though I was happy to make that film, I had an overwhelming desire to make my own film where I had more control. The idea of making it in Arkansas was appealing because of my hometown resources. I knew I wouldn’t have to get permits, I could get free locations and some props – things like that make a huge difference to an indie film.
HB: Were you surprised at the amount of people you met in Arkansas making films and interested in independent filmmaking?
JJ: Surprised? More like flabbergasted. On the east coast, everyone romanticizes the west coast, and on the west coast everyone acts like L.A. is the only place to possibly work. The idea of coming home to Arkansas and finding people making movies blew my mind. After a few years back, I see the Louisiana film industry is really taking off, some stuff is happening in Georgia, and Arkansas is making a small foothold in more commercial work but yeah, networking here has been really exciting.
HB: Obviously you went into making 45RPM with a certain timeline due to the grant you received from the Ozark Foothills FilmFest, but how did 45RPM fit into your timeline with regard to your career as a filmmaker? Did you have any kind of personal deadline for having your first feature finished?
JJ: After leaving L.A., I had the basic idea that I wanted to make my first large production in my home state. I was tired of working on other people’s projects, good and bad. I didn’t know when I started that it would be a feature, or that I would step up to write, direct, produce, AND animate. I also didn’t realize 45RPM would take almost five years (concept to distribution) or that the film would be as complex as it turned out to be (hundreds of cast, crew, artists, musicians involved) so no, I didn’t have a concrete personal deadline for the project. I just wanted to make a film that was my very own creation after leaving Los Angeles. I managed to do that by my 30th birthday so I think I’m on track. A completed feature film, of any size budget, is an accomplishment in my book.
HB: What are some of your favorite projects coming out of the Arkansas film scene right now?
JJ: Goes without saying I’m excited for 45RPM to be finished, but otherwise lots of cool shorts are being made right now. Some of my friends in Georgia are making “Picture Show” which will be screening here in Arkansas. I’m excited to see “Rapture Us” directed by Levi Agee & “Mary” directed by Zach Turner. “Bad Water” by Amman Abbasi is finished and starting the festival circuit already. I really want to see Mark Thiedeman’s feature “Last Summer” and Josh and Miles Miller, who made the award-winning short “Pillow” are working on their first feature “All The Birds Have Flown South” and I can’t wait for that to get underway. I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out, but these are the ones I know off the top of my head. And I should mention that I’m constantly impressed with the work coming from the UCA film department. Way to go Arkansas!
Check out the gallery below for some photos from the 45RPM premiere by Kandi Cook!