By Morgan Miller
In a city bursting with vibrancy and zest for life, it is hard to imagine any aspect of it beginning to fade, especially the New Orleans film industry. Some may say that Hollywood South has died, but those actively involved with the Louisiana production scene maintain that it has never been more alive.
On a recent Sunday morning, a production crew met at a local library to shoot a scene for a short film, Speak. Other than those on set, the library was vacant; its usual occupants were most likely engaging with the rest of the city in live Jazz music accompanied by a shrimp and grits filled brunch— the ideal time to film in seclusion in New Orleans.
Despite the “SILENT ZONE” sign that greeted guests as they entered a room lined with colorful books and cozy chairs, the library roared with sound. Bulky cameras and lighting equipment were unpacked and assembled as crew members shuffled around the set rearranging props, occasionally colliding with one another in haste. As the actors repeatedly mumbled their lines to memory, Kellyn Morris, the writer, producer, and director of the film, yelled above the clamor for “quiet on set.” Those three simple words unexpectedly held immense power, hushing the entire room instantaneously as if someone had pressed the “mute” button on a remote control.
“Lights, camera, action,” and all eyes focused on the film’s lead, a young boy from Slidell. He wasn’t much older than 11 or 12, yet he performed masterfully, executing each of his lines with pure emotion and skill. “There are so many gifted actors here in New Orleans who want to work,” Morris gazed at her cast proudly, “young talent, new talent, old talent— people who were not able to get into the Hollywood industry, or who didn’t have the means to get into that industry, but have the opportunity to do so here.”
New Orleans film productions have opened the industry doors for other creatives as well. Morris herself is a rising star in the sparkling world of cinematic storytelling. Studying Digital Media Production at Tulane University has not only allowed her to prosper her academic knowledge in the classroom, but also develop first-hand exposure to the field, provided by the chance to work on live sets and interact with industry professionals directly.
“I’ve had such a dynamic education and immersive experience within the film industry here in New Orleans,” Morris explained. “Yes, I could have studied film in Los Angeles or New York or gone to one of the other huge film schools, but you end up being a cog in several hundred thousand masses. Here, I had a special opportunity to gain access and get involved.” Her face quite literally brightened as she began to reflect on her experiences in New Orleans. “Having a smaller program has allowed me to integrate into the city. Next week, my class and I are meeting a famous editor who does work for all of the Marvel movies, which is a really exciting opportunity.” As she spoke, she smiled ear to ear. “The kids in L.A. can’t just go to Warner Brothers and watch an editor work on a major feature,” her toothy grin couldn’t possibly widen any more.
“I see New Orleans being integrated into my work for the rest of my life,” Morris asserted with certainty. “The south gives you so many stories and promotes art in so many ways, especially the film and TV industry.” The natural blend of film production into a culture already rich in traditions of music, food, and festivals is possible only in a city like New Orleans. Morris appreciates New Orleans, not only as a steppingstone into a cut-throat industry, but as inspiration for her creative storytelling, as well. “The spectacular uniqueness of this city has enlightened me with a refreshing perspective and incentive to write,” she gushed.
Known to be a low-cost leader for shooting film and television, New Orleans’ attraction to Hollywood filmmakers is no hidden secret. When producer and screenwriter Sean Sorensen was asked what brought him and his newest film to the city, he candidly replied, “tax credits”. While he and his team were grateful to be saving millions of dollars by shooting in New Orleans rather than in L.A., Sorensen also expressed his pleasure in giving back to the low-income community here. He explained the amount of manual labor that a production set requires, which in turn creates hundreds to thousands of jobs for locals. “We’re bringing a lot of money to your economy,” he said as he joked about the hotel costs, travel fees, and, of course, the many restaurant bills that had accumulated over his recent stay.
Resurgence is rooted in the spirit of New Orleans. Having rebuilt a city twice, following the devastation left behind by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and then again by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans’ recent comeback within the film industry should come as no surprise. After a 2015 decision to revise the motion picture tax credit program, the city experienced a dip in its film production. Nevertheless, New Orleans’ commitment to recovery has once again risen the number of film projects in the city, climbing its way back into the heat of the industry spotlight. Just last month, MovieMaker named New Orleans the second best city to “live and work as a moviemaker in 2019,” following closely after its southern neighbor, Savannah, Georgia. “The film business as we know it is never going back to Los Angeles,” said director Joe Carnahan during a recent press conference. The true defining quality of Hollywood South is creative evolution, which is the crux of survival. The movie industry in general may be dying, but New Orleans is keeping up, if not excelling, above the tide.