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Mississippi Filmmakers: Johnson Thomasson

Posted on July 4th, 2013
Posted on July 4th, 2013

by Coop Cooper

Johnson Thomasson is a young and enterprising Mississippi filmmaker based in Starkville (with roots in the Delta) whose film career is taking off. He directed his first festival-bound short film “Blood Feud” in 2010 and just completed his latest film “Headrush,” an ambitious and wonderfully shot short that questions the morals of cutting-edge science. He was recently a guest-speaker at the Tupelo Film Alliance meeting in June and has been accepted to the graduate Directing Program at University of Southern California – one of the top three film schools in the world – for this upcoming fall semester. Thomasson is a gifted Mississippi filmmaker who has a knack for production value and direction, and is an inspiration for other Mississippi natives looking to break into the business. Here is my brief interview with him…

What got you interested in filmmaking and how did you get started?

I can trace my very first brush with filmmaking back to a hot summer day in the Delta in 1995. I was 8 years old, biking around my hometown of Indianola, and I rode up onto the set of John Grisham’s “The Chamber” just in time to see a downtown law office explode. The foam special effect bricks and sugar glass rained down onto the street in front of me. It was beautiful.

For the next several years, when we visited my grandparents for the holidays, I would borrow their home video camera and make scary movies of me and my siblings and cousins… So, when I got a little older and got my first summer job, I spent the money I saved on my own camera and some digital editing software, and it’s been off to the races since then.

What inspired you to apply to film school?

I was 15 when I got the camera. By the time I graduated high-school, I had made several short films, and I was 100% positive I wanted to spend my life making movies. I wanted to go to film school. But I’ve been gifted with a math brain – my Dad’s an engineering professor and my Mom’s a math teacher – and my Dad didn’t want to see me waste that. He encouraged me to get a more practical undergraduate degree (I studied Computer Science at Mississippi State), and then go for a Master’s in Film. So, I’ve had my heart set on this goal for eight years (graduated high school in 2005). Last fall, I sent in the applications. I put everything I had into them, heck, I spent a full two years on “Headrush” and the biggest motivation for making it was I believed it would be my key to get into film school.

At this point in my life, I’m almost entirely self-taught in the art of filmmaking. I’ve read countless books and watched countless YouTube videos. I’m ready to study under the best teachers and study with the best students, to have dialogue, for once, rather than just absorb words off the page. I also really want to spend some focused time studying the history of film, and carefully viewing the classics. And of course, networking. USC has the oldest film school in the country and has a vast network of alumni in the film industry. It will be a huge opportunity to get plugged into that.

What job and other aspects of your MS life that you will miss will you be leaving behind going to California?

I’ve been working in the IT department at Mossy Oak for three years. It’s going to be sad to leave these great folks behind, but they have all been very supportive of me pursuing my dreams.

I think I’m going to miss the stillness and peacefulness of life in Mississippi. I’m an introvert by nature and Mississippi gives me the space I need. LA is all rattle and hum, 18 million people in one metropolitan area. I know I’ll want to get back to the quiet life from time to time.

I’m taking the best part of Mississippi with me though. My wife, Leah, a born and bred Tupelo girl, is making this adventure with me. I think we’re going to have a blast.

What do you hope to learn there and do you think you’ll ever return to MS to make more films here?

They’ve learned to make films in an assembly line fashion in Hollywood. There are some negatives to that, but there’s a lot to learn. I hope to cherry-pick the best of what the studio system does and incorporate it into my own filmmaking practice. I’d love to have a career like Robert Rodriguez – for the record, I’m not a huge fan of his films – but that guy does it his way. He’s got his own studio on his ranch outside of Austin, Texas and he is constantly making big films on his own terms. I’d love to set up shop in a similar way in Mississippi one day. And with the democratization of filmmaking tools thanks to advances in technology, that’s a real possibility.

What do you think has to happen to improve the quantity and quality of both indie and big budget productions here in the state?

From what I understand, Mississippi lacks the broad crew base necessary to support more productions of any size. Programs like those at Southern Miss and Hinds are working to remedy that. But the bottom line is, a production won’t want to film in Mississippi if it has to ship its entire crew in from out of state. I think we’re headed in the right direction though. I sense a groundswell of filmmaking activity in Mississippi that makes me very excited for the future. And let me just say, that the film commissions in Mississippi are really doing a great job. I worked with the MS Film Office, the Canton Film Office, and the Tupelo Office to bring “Headrush” to life, and I got fantastic support from all of them.

I think growing awareness about the local filmmaking community is important too. We’re Mississippi, we’re known for our artists, our writers, our musicians. I guess because independent film is still a relatively new art form, we’re not as familiar with it. Well wake up Mississippi! It’s 2013 and people are making movies right around the corner from you! Aren’t we proud of Morgan Freeman and Sela Ward? Let’s create an environment where talent like that is encouraged to grow.

Thomasson’s “Headrush” is launching its premiere tour in Tupelo on July 25th, Madison on August 1st, Starkville on August 22nd and Oxford on September 3rd. You can find details on these screenings and watch the trailer at www.headrushmovie.com.

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