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Louisiana film industry leaders credit Natchez upbringing for their success

Baton Rouge Film Commission Executive Director Liza Kelso is a Natchez native who credits her hometown’s influence on her success in the filmmaking industry.
Baton Rouge Film Commission Executive Director Liza Kelso is a Natchez native who credits her hometown’s influence on her success in the filmmaking industry.

 

A Disney movie and a handheld VHS camcorder were the first tools two Trinity Episcopal Day School graduates used to build successful careers in the film industry.

The beginnings of the careers of Baton Rouge Film Commission Executive Director Liza Kelso and Celtic Studios Executive Director Patrick Mulhearn in film began in Natchez, and the two say their hometown has been a big factor in their success.

Kelso got her start in the industry as what she calls an “illegal intern” on Disney’s 1993 production of “The Adventures of Huck Finn,” filmed entirely in Natchez.

Celtic Studios Executive Director Patrick Mulhearn is a Natchez native.
Celtic Studios Executive Director Patrick Mulhearn is a Natchez native.

“They weren’t allowed to hire interns … but I ended up working my tail off and taking lunch orders from Disney executives and explaining what a muffaletta was,” Kelson said.

Kelso ended up being asked to move to Wilmington, N.C., and worked for five years in production accounting. She met her husband, Gary, a grip, during the production of “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.”

Kelso moved with Gary to Los Angeles where they lived for eight years. Kelso also worked for the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca for 11 years.

As more and more films began being made outside of California, Kelso said it made sense for them to move back South. They moved to Baton Rouge in 2001.

“Someone put my resume in front of Mayor (Melvin “Kip”) Holden, and he hired me as film commissioner,” she said.

Baton Rouge saw $100 million worth of production come through the city last year alone, Kelso said.

“This year, we’ve already topped the $100 million mark,” she said.

Kelso credits the vision of Mayor Holden and a great working relationship with fellow Trinity graduate and Natchez Mulhearn.

The studio has played host to multi-million productions like “Oblivion,” “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” “Battleship,” and “The Fantastic Four” is currently filming at the studio.

From film school to law school then graduate school for mass communications, Mulhearn landed at a few TV stations and the state film office before taking over Celtic Studios.

Mulhearn says he has always enjoyed watching movies, but his interest in filmmaking was piqued by school projects at Trinity.

“We were going around the neighborhood with a big VHS camera making, I guess you would call them home movies, but they were really school projects,” he said. “I think I got the bug from that.”

Kelso thinks it could be something in the water in Natchez.

“When you grow up in Natchez, you don’t have fear,” she said. “You have curiosity, and you want to go out and meet the world.”

Kelso also credits her parents, Lee and Sherry Jones, for encouraging her dreams, and says her fearlessness may also be fueled by early exposure to Natchez’s tourism industry.

“Maybe it was because we had to stand in front of tourists and tell them about Natchez,” she said, laughing.

That definitely has something to do with why Kelso and Mulhearn are good at their jobs, Mulhearn says.

“We’re good at our jobs because we’re from Natchez, and hospitality is everything,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to make people feel at home here when they’re making films. It’s making sure they have a great experience, and hospitality goes a long way.”