‘Get On Up’ director wants to give back to place he now calls home
NATCHEZ — With a major Hollywood production gearing up in Natchez last week, production crews scurrying all over town and casting calls for extras an almost constant occurrence, many locals may ask one simple question:
How did a film about the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, wind up in Natchez?
One man, Jackson native turned southwest Mississippi resident, Tate Taylor made it happen.
Taylor directed 2011’s acclaimed film, “The Help,” which was filmed in Greenwood. Taylor said he considered returning to Greenwood to film the James Brown film, “Get On Up.”
“But the fact is that Natchez is really blessed with having a lot of various places for venues for the James Brown concerts, Martin school, the city auditorium and some other various structures,” he said.
Taylor said eight musical numbers will be featured in the film, and he will able to shoot half of them in Natchez.
“That was, practically speaking, a good reason,” he said.
But Taylor’s motivation for making “Get On Up” in Natchez went beyond just the bottom line of the film’s budget.
Taylor, who recently purchased a house in Church Hill near Natchez, said he wanted to give something back to Natchez.
“I like to think of myself as a new citizen; I’m not a native son, but I kind of wanted to do my part and play catch up and try to do something really cool for the area.”
Taylor left Mississippi more than 20 years ago, but felt a yearning to return after he filmed “The Help” in the Magnolia State. Taylor said being back in Mississippi made him want to move back home.
“I missed thunderstorms and bugs and road kill and people being very religious, and many of them getting cocktails after church,” he said, laughing. “It’s just a fun paradox, this state, and you can’t quite figure it out. It made me miss home.”
So Taylor returned to Mississippi, buying a house in the Churchill community, north of Natchez. When “Get On Up” came along, Taylor said he knew Natchez would be a great filming location because of the plethora of historic properties in the area.
“My hat really goes off to (Historic Natchez Foundation Executive Director) Mimi Miller and what she’s done here in this town,” Taylor said. “She is preserving something that is just really rare.
“And because of the historic structures here in Natchez, and I’m not just talking about antebellum mansions, because we’re shooting at Dunleith and that’s the extent of that, but it’s the little things that are saved and protected that mean so much.”
For example, Taylor said, the area around the home of “Miss Nellie” Jackson at the corner of Rankin and Monroe streets will be used to film scenes set in Augusta, Ga., where James Brown moved when he was 5 to live with relatives.
The film crew is restoring Jackson’s house to be used as a filming location for “Get On Up.”
Taylor traveled to Augusta to meet with the Brown family about the film.
“That part of town … is gone, but it looks exactly like the area around Nellie’s.
“It’s a time capsule that we have here, and that is just one of the greatest assets this city could have (for the film industry).”
Taylor said he also hopes that “Get On Up” will also entice other filmmakers to come to Natchez to make movies.
“That’s going to take all of us working together to make it a hospitable place and make it easy for them,” he said.
The appeal of cities such as Greenwood and Natchez is important to draw filmmakers to the state, Mississippi Film Office Director Ward Emling said.
“Natchez has such a consistency of architecture,” he said. “We operate visually when we’re scouting. If I can turn my camera 360 degrees, and not leave a period … that’s big.”
Emling said each film shot in Mississippi raises awareness of the industry opportunities here, trains crews and creates opportunities for Mississippians to get more and more experience in film.
“That helps us further attract and recruit films,” he said.
“Get On Up,” Emling said, will put Natchez “back in the general mind of filmmakers.”
“It shows, once again, that Natchez can support a film production,” he said. “There’s no secret that it can. It certainly did back in the 1980s when all the mini-series (productions) came there.
“If I look at my world, and I am competing with film commissions around the world, my most unique thing is Natchez. It’s the most unique of locations that we have, and so all of these things kind of get out into the public film world psyche.”
Taylor said more film industry opportunities could be in store for Natchez, but first things first.
“I have some really cool ideas,” Taylor said. “But I’m being honest, I’ve got to get this one under my belt. I would hate to say I want to do this or I want to do that. I’ve got to make this work, but when that happens, I’ve got a lot of fun ideas to do here.”