Driving anywhere in metro Atlanta, it’s hard to miss the mustard yellow signs with blocky black text affixed to electric poles and street signs. Random words and arrows point toward roads lined with trailers and sets that come down as quickly as they go up. Simply put, Georgia’s film industry is booming.
Scenes from downtown Atlanta can be seen in “The Yellow Birds,” a military drama based on the book by Kevin Powers, starring Jennifer Aniston and Toni Collette. The film is about two young soldiers who fight in the Gulf War, but only one comes back home. When the Army refuses to release the deceased soldier’s body to his mother, played by Aniston, she goes on a mission all the way to Congress to find out what happened to her son. Up-and-coming actress Renee Willett plays alongside Aniston as Claire, a congressman’s aide who assists Aniston’s character.
“I personally took away the love and strength a mother has for her child,” said Willett, who can also be seen in the upcoming Robert De Niro film “The Comedian.” “I think we all know that, but this movie really shows that. It is a story not about her grief, but about her strength, and I think people will relate to that.”
Willett, who recently shot a film called “Beast of Burden” with Daniel Radcliffe in Savannah, says that Georgia has almost become a second home, and that she looks forward to the Southern cuisine every time she films here.
With competitive tax incentives and beautifully diverse landscapes, in 2016, the state was No. 3 in film production. The impact of the $2 billion film industry was evident at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, with half a dozen projects filmed here being screened at the festival. The creative energy at the festival is infectious as budding and seasoned filmmakers and talent alike are looking for a big break.
Last year, there were three films made in Georgia in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition. The Sundance Film Festival was founded by actor Robert Redford in 1981 as a space to showcase daring, emerging filmmakers. Every year, directors, producers, writers, actors and actresses swarm the normally quiet and quaint Park City to network, see films, compete and — if they’re lucky — earn a distribution deal with a major movie house or streaming service.
This year, “The Yellow Birds” and Netflix’s “Burning Sands,” co-written and directed by Clark Atlanta University adjunct professor Gerard McMurray, are competing. In addition, an independent comedy called “#DigitalLivesMatter,” the second season premiere of WGN’s “Underground” and the new crime drama “When the Street Lights Go On” were featured at the festival. All of the projects were shot in Georgia except “Burning Sands,” which was filmed in Virginia, but it has its Georgia connection through McMurray, who has been on leave making films.
“Burning Sands” is a drama that explores the complexity of masculinity, sexuality and the sometimes dark side of pledging within fraternities at black colleges. McMurray is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., which he pledged at Howard University. He says that this was a story he wanted to tell for a long time.
“I ultimately wanted to make a film about what it is like to go to school at a black college,” McMurray said. “I researched fraternities, marching band culture and incidents at FAMU and Virginia State for the script, but the themes of brotherhood and masculinity are what the movie is really about. Hazing is in the background.”
The film stars Trevor Jackson (“American Crime”), Alfre Woodard (“Luke Cage”), Steve Harris (“The Practice”) and Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”), and will be available for streaming on Netflix on March 10.
Another film featuring Atlanta talent that had a presence at the festival is “#DigitalLivesMatter,” which is a comedy about a young black stand-up comedian whose routine is discovered on YouTube and leads to him having an audition. Then, on the day of his audition, all of his social media followers disappear. When he embarks on a journey to gain 1 million social media followers before the audition, high jinks with crushes, crazy exes, and his best friend (who is creating a device to help twerking burn more calories) ensue.
The cast features members of local improv troupe Ratchet People Meet, including DC Young Fly and Ernestine Johnson.
“’Follow Me’ was the original title, but because of Black Lives Matter, ‘#DigitalLivesMatter’ is a more impactful title,” said the film’s director, Terri J. Vaughn (“The Steve Harvey Show”). “We got some slack for that, but this film is the answer to Black Lives Matter. It was black funded, black directed, black produced and features local black talent.”
The festival’s screenings are not just limited to film. The pre-Civil War historical drama “Underground” films in Savannah; and the second season premieres at 10 p.m. March 8 on WGN America. Cast members Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge, director Anthony Hemingway, producer John Legend and co-creator Misha Green participated in an event called Clips & Conversations hosted by the Blackhouse Foundation, an organization associated with the Sundance Institute that supports filmmakers of color. (You can attend an Atlanta screening of “Underground,” which will include several cast members, at SCAD’s aTVfest on Feb. 2; see atvfest.com for tickets.)
“This is a story of American heroes that has never been told, so it’s easy to keep the mystery going,” Green said. “We go to a lot of different places, including across the pond this season. The architecture in Savannah is amazing because you can get so many feels there. We can go out to the swamp or we can go to the city and get that 1858 London feel.”
Director Brett Morgen shares Green’s sentiment after filming the new crime series “When the Street Lights Go On” in Georgia. The drama is set in 1983 in a small Illinois town that erupts when a high school girl’s and her teacher’s bodies are found in the woods.
“It’s a show that takes place in the ’80s, and millennials have really come to romanticize the ’80s,” the Academy Award- and Emmy-nominated director said. “But I lived through the ’80s and I thought it was a really terrible decade, so hopefully people gain a new view of the period.”
The show started off as a feature film, but after changing hands, the script was morphed into a television series that eventually found a home with Hulu. But the streaming service passed on the project, and it now seeks a new network. “When the Street Lights Go On” had a world premiere at Sundance as a part of the Independent Pilot Showcase, and Newnan residents can expect to see some familiar sights if it gets the green light.
“Atlanta was great. I had very little faith that we could pull this off in Atlanta, but it was amazing,” Morgen said. “The crews were amazing, and I tell people now that if you want to get into the movie business, go to Atlanta.”