Joe and Cajun John

It’s Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. And March 25 is National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day. My son is a person with cerebral palsy. This story is about him and his best friend.

I spend more time than is healthy wondering about whether or not my son Joe is lonely, and what that feels like for him. For me, like a lot of people, loneliness can feel shitty. But everything is relative. Right? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and so forth.

So I wonder about Joe. He doesn’t have friends who visit him, friends who are inclined to just hang out with him and do the things he enjoys, like go for a long walk-n-roll, maybe sit quietly and take in a movie or music, or let loose a sudden series of vocalized notes, and fling them joyfully into the room for no particular reason at all, or because it was time (his timing, and his pitch, are usually right on).

But I’m not sure if he’s lonely, per se. I have a sense, based on my observations of him and the feedback that he can muster, that Joe is well-adjusted to his social situation, and is comfortable in his skin.

He’s got a winning smile and when he can open his hands, a firm handshake — qualities that might get him elected to something if he tossed his hat into the ring. The problem is, he’s more of a listener than a talker, and he’s 100 percent honest, so he’d probably be a terrible politician.

This is a quiet young man with a magnetic personality. People are drawn to him, like he’s some kind of beacon, and it’s made him some interesting friends. Take Cajun John.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about Joe called “My Son Is.” Later on, Atlanta magazine picked up the essay and ran it in their pages as a kind of glorified caption to some spectacular photography by Matt Moyer. That’s the version that Cajun John saw. The photos (and I’d like to think, the words) touched John’s heart and inspired him to reach out.

What followed has been an ongoing letter exchange between Joe and John. We’ve sent John some of Joe’s artwork, and John sends us heartfelt, handwritten letters from the Florida prison where he is incarcerated.

In his most recent letter to Joe, Cajun John explains that he’s been researching Joe’s “situation” (cerebral palsy), so he could, “understand better what you deal with daily. What I found out is what a strong person you are. I see some men that have less issues with weaker minds. You are my super hero Joe. I am so glad I saw your article. Man, it changed my life in so many ways.”

When he gets a letter from our house, Cajun John shares it with his fellow prisoners. He writes, “all the guys want to know who wrote me. Then they ask what’s up. Man, when I show them the photo they see why I’m so lucky.”

John is 50 years old, a Christian who found religion in prison, where he works in the chapel, making sure church services are ready to run on time. He speaks at orientation, when anxious new arrivals enter the facility, and he helps guide them toward, “programs we offer here, so they can get involved with positive people. I really do enjoy people and seeing people accomplish goals.” He wants to help others, like the therapists and other professionals in Joe’s life. “It’s a daily work to do all I can,” he writes.

John prays for Joe and our family and wonders in print, “who knows what God will allow you to accomplish,” then closes with, “Your Best Friend, Cajun John.”

And here I was, trying to convince myself that I was Joe’s best friend (thanks a lot, Harry Nilsson). I’ll gratefully settle for being his dad. And it’s that guy, Joe’s dad, who is happier than a three-tailed puppy that these two friends – these treasures – managed to somehow find each other.




Fickle Football Fans

So, I was sitting at a bar on Sunday, watching a few minutes of the Saints-Packers game, actually paying more attention to my beer than the television, when an old guy sitting at a table behind me yells, rhetorically, “what the hell is that on the TV?”

He had a tiny ponytail, his thin white hair pulled back so tightly that the eyes bulged as if his thyroid was raging.

“Football game,” I said, startled for a second by his Marty Feldman eyes. “Saints-Packers.”

“I know what it is,” he said. “Why the hell is it on?”

I looked around the bar. The only people there were me and him and the bartender. “Because people like watching football,” I said, not entirely convinced.

Then he cursed the players, echoing his president, “sons of bitches. Too good to stand for the National Anthem. Turn that shit off.”

No one did.

He was really pissed off at the National Football League over the take-a-knee protest by players during the National Anthem. So he’s boycotting the NFL, like so many other folks, many of whom are still involved in fantasy football leagues, which utilize the stats of NFL players, proving that the righteously angry can have it both ways.

The air in the barroom turned an ugly, stressful shade of red, as the the old guy fussed and fumed over, “those goddamn prima donnas,” and their disrespect of God and country and the soldiers and the policemen, etc., etc., etc.

While this was going on around me I wondered if this guy and his fellow disgruntled fans or their chickenhawk president or any other football consumer got this irate over the NFL’s feeble response to the spate of domestic violence carried out by players. Of course they didn’t. That’s because in the land of the free, taking a political stand – or knee, in this case – is way more offensive than beating the shit out of a woman.

Either way, the attention span of the average irate sports fan is kind of like the old man’s pony tail – short and insubstantial.

And when the players get tired of protesting (probably before then), those same morally outraged fans will be back in record numbers to support “those goddamn prima donnas,” filling up stadiums and watching their big screens, many of them doing what they typically do during the National Anthem, which is, drink beer, binge-eat, scratch their asses, and thank God for football … while standing, of course. You can’t scratch your ass very well if you’re sitting.

More Bang for your Butt

Here’s a health care story that isn’t getting enough coverage.

I know what you’re thinking. “Great. What kind of ardent hyperbole is Captain Comedown going to try and trick us into reading this time? More fanatical garbage about conservative halfwit politicians trying to bully his son into submission, I’ll warrant …”

And most of the time, you’d be right. But not this time, my enthusiastically dispassionate friend, not this time. If you’re more interested in trolling for silly GIFs and mocking the unfortunate with picture memes than in actually giving a shit, this one is in your wheel house.

It begins with a question: What would you be willing to risk to have a bigger, perkier ass?

This topic has bugged me for a long time, which is to say, about 11 minutes, since I read the emailed pitch from a public relations drone before deleting it. The missive asserts that “we’ve all seen the many news stories” of women getting botched buns, “or even worse, dying, following Brazilian Butt Lift surgeries.”

So I googled “Brazilian Butt Lift surgeries,” and discovered a few startling things.

First, it turns out, “Brazilian Butt Lift” doesn’t need to be capitalized, except for the “Brazilian” part. Also, it wasn’t invented in Brazil. It got that name because the first such surgery (in which fat is transplanted from the torso to the tush) was performed (in the U.S.) on a woman from Brazil.

Turns out it’s a fairly common if extensive cosmetic procedure – more than 18,000 of them were performed in the U.S. last year. The great majority of these were performed on women, but apparently there also are plenty of men who want low gravity moons (more than 6 percent of butt-lift patients are dudes, all of them ass-men, one would have to assume).

Anyway, it’s also a potentially dangerous and deadly procedure. The complications that may occur include blood clots, hematoma, bruising, excessive blood loss, complications of anesthesia or liposuction, oil cyst and fat embolism. In the space of 10 months, two women died following this procedure at the same Miami clinic.

The press release continues, “… we’ve also seen women who come off of the operating table looking lumpy and deformed.” Ugly, maybe, but a sight better than dead, I’d say.

The reason for all of this butt lift trouble, according to the press release, is due to unqualified doctors performing back-alley surgeries. And yes, the PR agency really did use “back-alley” in reference to rear-end surgery.

Naturally, the flack-meisters have a solution, and it’s right there in the third paragraph of the release: “A local Atlanta plastic surgeon who specializes in body contouring created the BRAND NEW procedure exclusive to his office called the Georgia Peach Lift … to keep up with the demand of ‘bigger backsides’ while at the same time, he’s giving women professional care and a great result.”

I don’t want to waste too much time on the miserable construction of that third paragraph, but … what would be the demands of a bigger backside, besides bigger pants? I assume the writer intended to write “for” instead of “of” … but I’m quibbling as I digress.

Suffice to say, this Atlanta-based descendent of Hippocrates is giving his patients the kind of fart box they’ve only previously dreamt of, and now they’re sitting on it.

The Georgia Peach Lift promises a more natural looking caboose AND takes fat from places you don’t want it, which got me to thinking: I’m wondering if I should have the fat removed from my head, because then I can pull my ass out of my head for a change.



Stand or Get Out of the Way

Every day she does it. My wife Jane hits the phone, the squeaky wheel, keeping her rising temper in check, and patiently repeating different versions of the same story to the faceless, often feckless drones supported by my hard-earned money – Congressional aides and other lackeys who serve as a protective barrier between elected politicians and the people these politicians supposedly represent. Me and you, my wife and children. Us.

She tells them, pleads with them. Please don’t lump all Medicaid recipients in the same bundle. Families living with disability come from different backgrounds, have different needs, experiences, income levels, values, voting records, and intentions. Why punish everybody the same way? Why punish anyone who doesn’t deserve it? Why punish?

My wife knows that this is political showmanship and gamesmanship intertwined, and the real outcome of the Republican “health care” plan is unknown. We know what they’ve proposed or said or written, and we know that almost all of it was done in secret. But we don’t really know anything beyond the GOP’s misguided and rather dark intentions.

We have fears, we have concerns, we have expectations. But the bizarre scenario that Trump and his henchmen are shoving down the collective American throat will remain mostly a mystery until it comes out the other end. And then, all we’ll have to do is follow the stench and check for texture.

Here’s what we do know right now.

We know the impact that Medicaid waivers have on our son, Joe, and people like him and their families. We know that simply amputating waivers from Medicaid would not only take away services and goods that support people like Joe, but would also negatively impact people who provide those services and goods. Physicians, physical therapists, fiscal agents, technicians.

We know that all of the in-kind services Jane and I provide our son at home are saving the health care system a ton of money. Our friend Rebecca is a professional caregiver who comes to our house to take care of Joe, so Jane and I can go to work and pay bills and contribute to the economy and support our community.

And we know that my son’s pediatrician treats a clientele comprised of 60 percent Medicaid recipients. You think he’s happy with the shenanigans of these bullies who are minding the store?

The spare change Joe draws from Medicaid (which is secondary coverage – we also work to pay for our health insurance) also goes a long way toward giving him a decent quality of life. He can go to concerts and we can pay recreation league fees, and take him to movies, and buy gas for our gas-guzzling wheelchair-accessible van, and so on and so on. And those weekly visits we get from the UPS guy with boxes of feeding tubes or diapers or other equipment must have an economic multiplier effect.

Now, do I believe for a minute that the cruel bastards in office will put physicians out of business, or that they even want to? Honestly, I don’t think most of them have even considered the ripple effects of their kneejerk legislation. They are way more concerned with the insidious billionaires supporting their temporary fascist surge (perpetually unhappy and insatiably wealthy folks like the Mercers and Kochs).

I keep asking no one in particular, “why do these scavengers want to hamper my family’s ability to thrive?” And, “what do they have against people like my son?” But here’s the one that keeps puzzling me: “Why did so many people who rely on government-supported services like Medicaid vote for Trump?”

There are several possible answers to the last one, of course. Some of these folks have been rubes their entire life, eternal marks in the long con, the kind that fat-cat grifters like Trump can spot a mile off. Some probably have suicidal tendencies. Some are just plain angry and hate Hillary Clinton (and have no real reason why as they mumble, ‘Benghazi’ or ‘Email,’ lacking the ability to find one on a map, or use the other one to communicate). And a few are just dumber than a bag of hair and, bless ‘em, can’t read or comprehend words bigger or deeper than “ketchup.” These folks might have been told by their pastor to vote for St. Donald. It takes all kinds.

But, what really concerns me is the ability, or inability, of people with a conscience to keep up the fight. I read something on social media recently from a friend suggesting we just let it all go to hell – let the GOP’s proposed suicidal health care plan happen and stop fighting for the dumbasses mentioned above, the willfully uninformed who supported (or still support) Trump. The message, basically: Why waste time fighting for people who could care less?

Oh, how I wish that I could afford such a luxury!

I’m still idiotically and naively waiting for the day when the civil rights of people with disabilities is considered interesting enough or sexy enough or otherwise gratifying enough to become a cause celebre for many of my progressive-minded friends. If only I knew the secret to leveraging the collective white liberal guilt just in my own little world! Hey, I’m not minimizing the conversation and consternation over race in this country, or excusing myself from it. But still, you know, a brother’s gotta wonder. Especially today of all days – June 22 is the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. LC, which declared that people with disabilities have a civil right under the American with Disabilities Act to live and participate in their communities.

My family is incredibly lucky to be in the community we have chosen to live in. We are deeply grateful to the friends and strangers and friendly strangers who make up a community that has always had our back. If I could clone Sautee Nacoochee, I would (but you wouldn’t like it … inside joke).

The point is, we’re just one family that has been lucky, but we exist, nonetheless, on the edge of a cliff – and there are thousands of others in Georgia, millions across the country, who would be negatively impacted by the GOP health care plan, as it stands now (something so offensive, in my opinion, as to be unfit for a bathroom wall).

Some of these families give a damn, and some don’t, but we’re all circling the same drain. My family is not willing to slide down without a fight, regardless of whose company we’re keeping on the way. Stand (or sit) with us, or against us. If you can’t decide, then kindly get the hell out of the way and let the tired people fight our fight.

P.S. But we’d prefer you stand with us.


Goodbye, my friend

I wrote this a day after Col. Bruce Hampton died, for Atlanta magazine. I was still numb, working my way through tears and confusion over the loss of this man, who had become my friend over the last eight or nine years. He had many friends. Bruce collected people. He could guess your birthday the first time he met you, but that barely scratches the surface of his magic. The story below is slightly edited from the Atlanta magazine version, because this is my blog and I can say things here that I couldn’t or wouldn’t say there. 


I heard Col. Bruce Hampton say on several occasions that he’d probably die on stage, eventually—that he’d prefer to die there, actually. I didn’t really take him seriously. Shit, he didn’t want to be taken seriously. But then, “eventually” arrived.

Even when Bruce collapsed on stage during the encore of his 70th birthday all-star jam, Monday just before midnight at the Fox Theatre, most of us — the 4,500 friends and fans in attendance, including the musicians around him, figured this was another one of the stunts he’d become famous for in his 50-plus years of performing. In other words, we’d all seen him fall on stage before.

“The guys that have played in bands with him for years said he’d pulled some shtick like this,” said John Bell, lead singer for Widespread Panic, part of the evening’s star-studded lineup and one of the 27 musicians performing during the encore performance of “Turn on Your Love Light.”

It’s important to note here that Bruce, often referred to as the patriarch of the jam band scene, preferred the brass-infused original R&B recording of “Love Light” by Bobby “Blue” Bland over the Grateful Dead rendering, adding his own version of the Bland signature growl to Monday night’s performance.

“I sound like everyone I’ve stolen from,” Hampton told me several years ago, when I started gathering material for a book about him. At the time, it seemed like a straight-forward proposition. How little I knew.

“Another guy tried to write a book about me, but it was insane—filled with space ships and spies and things that made no sense,” Hampton said, adding later that this was his 165th trip to the Planet Earth, “the only planet in the solar system with aluminum.”

Then he correctly guessed my birthday, and I correctly answered his baseball trivia questions, and he invited me to his Tuesday lunches, and our extended, wide-ranging bullshit sessions lasted until Monday night and will someday yield a book that now has a different and somewhat sadder ending than the one I’d intended.

Anyway, that Bobby Bland growl was the last thing Bruce (who actually turned 70 on April 30) performed, with intent, on stage. Then, his back to the audience at stage right, he motioned to 14-year-old guitar wunderkind, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, to step up and take a solo. As the young star of Broadway’s “School of Rock: The Musical” began shredding, Bruce lowered himself to his knees, arms in front as if paying homage to the guitarist — another one of the musicians Bruce has fostered over the years, helping to find success and stardom.

A fine athlete for most of his life (and he would have been the first one to tell you), Bruce could throw a tight spiral, or make a hook shot from half court, or pull off a pratfall without injuring himself. At least, he could in his younger days. This wasn’t that. But even as he collapsed, he had the presence of mind (or a physical sixth sense) to brace himself, cradling a speaker with his left arm before lying, face down, on the stage, like he was playing dead.

He lay there, and the band played, and no one in the Fox, except perhaps Bruce had a clue. How could we? He’d always been the great trickster, a free range artist who wrote music and poetry and drew pictures and acted and could also speak fluent hyperbole, the kind you wanted to believe.

“Eighty-eight percent of my stories are true and the rest are embellished,” he warned me once. “Mythocracy is where I live. I’d rather have somebody laugh at something I say than learn the weight of an onion in Idaho.”

After the ambulance came and carried Hampton away to Emory University Midtown Hospital, a small group huddled on Ponce de Leon Avenue near banjo picker Jeff Mosier, a longtime Hampton collaborator, who said, “We’ve all seen him do this kind of thing so many times—some of us were going to get down on the stage, too.”

Everyone thought he was joking. The Atlanta music legend who cried wolf.

“Pretty quickly,” Bell observed, “it all turned very real.”

On a typical Monday night, Bruce would have been playing team trivia at the Local 7, a tavern in Tucker, instead of playing the last gig of his life, which may have also have been one of the best gigs of his life.

The stellar lineup included Chuck LeavellDerek TrucksSusan TedeschiJohn PopperTinsley Ellis, most of Widespread Panic, John Fishman from Phish, former Cy Young Award winner (and a decent guitar player) Jake Peavy, Oliver Wood, and piano player Johnny Knapp, among others—“artists that Bruce has fostered in some way,” said Leavell, who added, “he’s certainly been one of the most influential and inspirational human beings I’ve ever known.”

After hanging backstage for most of the evening, Bruce came out to play for the last hour or so, with a set list that included the prescient “Fixin’ to Die” and his most well-known song, the ironically-titled “Basically Frightened.”

“The truth is, Bruce was fearless, and one of the things he instilled in all of us as musicians and artists was to be fearless, and never let boundaries get in the way of expressing yourself,” Leavell said.

The oldest person on stage was the 88-year-old Johnny Knapp, a former jazzman who started gigging with Bruce about five years ago and became the centerpiece at the Tuesday lunches Bruce organized. Johnny, who left the stage before the encore, was sitting in the wings in his wheelchair near Bruce, who was waiting to go back on.

“I told him, ‘Well, you’ve got five minutes, then it’s all over.’ And he said, ‘Johnny, I’ll be glad when it’s all over,’” Knapp said. “I thought we were talking about the concert. Maybe we weren’t.”

When it was all over, and word came to Johnny and to everyone else who waited downtown into the wee hours of Tuesday that the Colonel had died, the arc of Hampton’s remarkable story landed right where he predicted, or hoped, it would—one last show, one last note, then out.

“It hurts to say this, but there’s something sadly poetic about the way things happened,” Leavell said. “As if Bruce had already written the last sentence on the last page of the last chapter of his story.”

Piece of Mind

I should be working on that book, but I’ve got to focus on my job because, let’s face it, that’s what pays the bills. But then, if I want to remain relevant and employable as a writer, I’ve got to pitch some more ideas and be ready to turn them around quickly, and of course, there are the plays I’d like to finish, none of which takes any of the load off of my wife, or addresses her questions about the future …

… or helps my son’s hip subluxation and frequent discomfort, which only serve to limit his ability to move freely, which is due to his high tone, which isn’t going away and makes lifting and maneuvering him increasingly difficult as he grows, a condition that doesn’t help the problem with the headrest on his wheelchair, because my son hasn’t found a piece of equipment he can’t push to the limit.

Now, though, it’s a fever and he’s home from school, which means one of us, his mother or I, must stay tethered to home, because he can’t care for himself, that’s our gig, no matter how old he is or gets, our gig and we’re the bottom line; we are where the buck stops; we’re the first string and the back-up plan.

But in spite of everything, he has the most shining smile — not a dim-witted smile, nor a heroic smile, but a knowing smile, his inner-awareness of a bigger picture, a big joke, THE big joke, the reason we live, toil, and breathe; the reason we laugh and cry, all of the big reason or reasons. It is a contented smile, his grasp of the universe, of the joy umbrella, a smile that you work for, that he give freely, a winning smile, in spite of his challenges, including the hip issue, the high tone, the pain, the hurdles placed in his way by cold and distant elected people in expensive suits.

And if I was any kind of father, I would have invented a solution for all of the bad stuff and leveraged all of the good stuff, devoting more time and undivided attention to his needs and my wife’s needs and my daughter’s needs, and catching up on all of that sleep I’ve lost, or misplaced.

I would have written that wealth-generating bestseller, or invested wisely, or gotten into a different line of work, or played and won the lottery, instead of sitting here stewing over the book that I should be working on and the job I need to do and the anxiety I feel over my own fading ambitions and relevance as a storyteller.

If it feels like one foot is attached to the ground and the other is moving me in circles, it’s only because I don’t have more feet to get tangled up in all of the directions my thoughts are taking me in. But that’s just a feeling, a moment’s reflection, a piece of mind, and not the three-dimensional reality.

The reality is forward. Forward, with and/or without a plan, because the plan usually changes anyway and plans often are interchangeable when your choices are limited. Forward, through the hills and around the bends, because there always are hills and bends, which we may welcome or curse in the same exhalation. Forward, to see what happens next, or to make what happens next, and to be the happening.

Lights, Cameras, Kudzu

I was thinking about a departed friend, Lewis King, and dug up this old story that features Lewis prominently, as it talks about Deliverance and his involvement in all of that. The story focuses broadly on Georgia’s film industry, 10 years ago, when the estimated impact of the industry was about $450 million. Today it’s something like $7 billion!!!


Lewis King became the basis for one of the enduring characters in American literature and cinema because of an adventurous heart and his proficiency with a canoe paddle. But it was his skill with a ping-pong paddle that earned King big-screen immortality.

Deliverance author James Dickey used his river buddy King as the model for Lewis Medlock, the gritty outdoorsman played by Burt Reynolds in the film version of the novel about four Atlanta men on a deadly canoe trip. Then Dickey insisted to the filmmakers who descended on northeast Georgia that King needed to be involved in the movie.

“He told them something, probably that I was indispensable. He could exaggerate a bit,” says King, a longtime Atlanta real estate man who now lives in Sautee-Nacoochee, not far from the Deliverance setting.

“I wound up being called the ‘technical advisor,’” King says. “I got screen credit because I beat the director, John Boorman, in a ping-pong match. I was asking for $40,000, but he offered screen credit.

“Anyway, when I saw the film, there it was – my name, huge, on the big screen. I was shocked … and I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who pays his gambling debts.’”

The Warner Brothers production filmed on location during the summer of 1971 in Rabun County, on the Chattooga and Tallulah rivers. The movie, starring Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and a host of northeast Georgia locals, was a smash with critics and audiences.

Deliverance, which made its theatrical debut 35 years ago, is one of those seminal films that becomes synonymous with a place and its people, thanks to Boorman’s stark portrayal of violent, backwoods mountain men. But, perhaps even more important, the film represents the launch of Georgia’s modern film industry.

“This office is a direct result of that little film,” says Bill Thompson, director of the Film, Video and Music Office in the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “Ed Spivia was the state’s director of tourism at the time Deliverance rolled into north Georgia. He went up there, saw the large crew, the equipment, the money being spent. So he came back to Atlanta and told Governor Jimmy Carter, ‘Hey, there’s a vibrant business here.’”

Carter created the Georgia Film Office in 1973 and Hollywood kept coming back.

“There was a time when Georgia was number three in the nation in film and TV production,” says Thompson, who stepped into his job in November, after 25 years in the film, video and television domain. “We were out on the edge. But today, most states have some form of entertainment industry incentive. The competition is quite fierce.”

Thompson’s film mission is to push Georgia back to the edge, market the state to Hollywood producers while nurturing a growing indigenous community of independent filmmakers.

Blockbuster Business

Since the film office’s inception in 1973, according to state figures, about 550 major motion picture and television movies have filmed here, generating more than $4 billion for Georgia’s economy. Last year, the total production budget value in Georgia for movies, TV, commercials, music videos and video game development was $251.1 million for an overall economic impact of nearly $450 million.

But there is a sense that Georgia has slipped and may be missing out on a meatier role.

Scott Tigchelaar, president of RiverWood Studios in Senoia, refers to the 1980s and 1990s as “the good old days,” when a string of blockbuster hits were made in Georgia, including two Academy Award winners for best picture: Driving Miss Daisy (1989, filmed in Atlanta and Coweta County) and Forrest Gump (1993, Savannah).

“Georgia had a good heyday. That’s when we really built our film infrastructure,” says Tigchelaar, whose 120-acre studio complex, the largest in the state, is about 45 miles from downtown Atlanta with a list of hit client films that includes Fried Green Tomatoes and Sweet Home Alabama.

“Equipment companies, lighting, cameras, post-production houses were all springing up,” Tigchelaar says. “And it was cheaper to film in Georgia, much less than Los Angeles or New York. We have versatile terrain, good weather, easy access.

“Those were the primary reasons movies took off here. Then the film industry sort of went away. The Canadian dollar got cheap, Canada added tax incentives. And also, the film industry went offshore.”

Tigchelaar and Thompson both note the Cold Mountain irony – a Civil War film that takes place in the South, but was shot in Romania.

“Some states have been able to claw back into the picture by passing their own tax incentives for film production, and Georgia is following suit,” Tigchelaar says. “But time might be working against us, because other states with better incentives are building their infrastructure, and getting film after film. Right now, there are eight movies being filmed in Shreveport. I mean, Louisiana is cleaning everybody’s clock.”

Louisiana was number one last year in the trade publication, P3/Production Update, which ranks the top 10 places to shoot in the United States (outside of California, whose $34 billion film and TV industry in 2005 puts it in another universe).

Ranking criteria include financial incentives, infrastructure, support services, annual revenues generated by the film industry, level of difficulty for productions, crew base, cost of living and desire to return. New Mexico, Florida, New York, Hawaii and North Carolina were ranked ahead of number seven Georgia.

Georgia’s legislature passed the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act in 2005; it offers a 9 percent base tax credit and up to 17 percent in credits based on how much a production spends, where it’s spent and who gets hired. With just minutes left in this year’s session, the legislature increased the incentive package somewhat in a bill that was sent to the governor’s office.

“So much of the decision-making process is done before location scouts even hit the ground,” says Jay Self, director of the Savannah Film Commission. “They’ll budget a movie for location before seeing it based totally on the economics of the incentives.”

Savannah was a hotbed of major studio activity in the 1990s (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Legend of Bagger Vance, as well as Forrest Gump).

“We’re busy with smaller projects now, like independent films and catalog shoots. As for larger feature films, we just don’t seem to be economically competitive at this point,” Self says. “We are directly impacted by South Carolina. Our locations are pretty much the same, but their cash rebate program more than doubles Georgia’s incentives.”

Self offers up the recent example of Reinventing the Wheelers, the working title of a new TV series pilot starring Alyssa Milano that takes place in Savannah. It was shot in Charleston, SC. “They had a total budget of about $4.5 million,” he says. “Based on Georgia’s incentives at the time, they would have saved $300,000 if they filmed here. They wound up saving $680,000 in South Carolina.”

The Georgia Production Partnership (GPP), a nonprofit coalition of industry professionals, was established in 1998 to help nudge Georgia’s purse keepers in a direction that is favorable to film.

“Since our inception we’ve been consulted and have influenced a number of initiatives,” says Craig Miller, co-president of the organization and a filmmaker whose Craig Miller Productions turns out commercial and industrial films for a client list that includes Coca-Cola, UPS and The Weather Channel.

“Our goal is to provide a single voice to speak with government, or entities outside of the state who might have interest in shooting here, to promote filmmaking across Georgia and put us back in the forefront,” he says.

Coming Attractions

A group of about 15 filmmakers and Atlanta Film Festival programmers and jurors has boarded a purple bus on a bright morning for what Alison Fibben of the state film office calls, “a snapshot of what you can do in Georgia.”

The tour is being arranged by the film office and IMAGE (Independent Media Artists of Georgia, Etc.), the nonprofit organization that created and manages the annual Atlanta Film Festival, a 31-year-old event. The focus is clear – there is much to offer the filmmaker in Atlanta.

This is a tour of the filmmaking infrastructure. The first stop is PC&E (Production Consultants & Equipment), then on to some of the city’s other top equipment and production facilities, including CineFilm, Crawford Communications and, finally, the ultra-cool Lab 601, a post-production plant located in the old Mathis Dairy building on North Avenue.

The brainchild of brothers David and Peter Ballard, Lab 601 has all of the latest digital video and audio post-production tools in a setting that looks like a high-tech kindergarten. All day we have been looking at million dollar machinery that can convert film to digital, change the color of a person’s fingernails, create stunning visual and audio magic – but the highlight for the tour group seems to be the fire pole the Ballards have installed at Lab 601. Almost everyone slides down.

Next door to Lab 601 are the offices of Pop Films, an up-and-coming independent collective of former Georgia State film students whose movie, The Signal, was a hit at the Atlanta Film Festival after debuting at Sundance, where producers secured the filmmaker’s Holy Grail – a distribution deal that will put their horror film on 500 screens this fall.

Interest in the film has netted Pop Films a three-picture deal, says the state’s Bill Thompson, including a remake of the 1980 camp horror flick, Motel Hell, and a sequel to The Signal.

“These are a bunch of young guys who basically worked for free and made a smart movie that people in Hollywood are paying attention to,” Thompson says. “That’s the kind of indigenous little production company we’re going to see more of.”

The film program at Georgia State is loaded with potential. “We have a huge undergrad program, 400 to 500 majors right now,” says Kay Beck, who taught Thompson and has been something like a guru for GSU film students. Talk to The Signal’s guys, or the guys at Fake Wood Wallpaper, who produced another independent comedy-horror hit, Blood Car, and Dr. Beck’s name keeps coming up.

Beck is director of the Digital Arts and Entertain-ment Laboratory (DAEL) at Georgia State, which she describes as something like a business incubator, a smaller, arts and entertainment version of Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC).

“The growth and interest in film and video has skyrocketed, because of the democratization of production equipment,” Beck says. “We can all make movies now and edit them on our home computers. My generation – the boomers – wanted to write the great American novel. Now the desire is to make the great American movie. Visual communication has become the norm and everyone can be a filmmaker.”

It’s worth noting that the audience favorite at this year’s Atlanta Film Festival (150 films in the 10-day event) was a documentary, Darius Goes West, produced by amateur filmmakers.

The movie – brilliantly funny and poignant – chronicles the cross-country journey of Darius Weems, an Athens youth with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and his friends. Directed by Logan Smalley, a University of Georgia grad who plans to study special education at Harvard, the film has traveled the country, picking up awards at every festival where it is shown, with all proceeds benefiting muscular dystrophy research (

Big Screen, Big Dreams

The old reliable behemoth of Georgia’s film and television industry is Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta. That includes the Cartoon Network, Turner South, Turner Classic Movies, TNT, CNN. Turner remains the communications standard with its limitless supply of programming, but much of the original work, popular TV shows such as The Closer, are produced out of state.

Atlanta remains Georgia’s entertainment industry hub – a hip-hop vortex that attracts music video and commercial producers. But the city is increasing its image on the movie map thanks to Tyler Perry Studios (TPS), which promises to produce two feature films and about 100 television show episodes a year, much of it focused on African-American themes. This is the brainchild of writer/director Tyler Perry, whose hit films, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion and Daddy’s Little Girls, were made in Atlanta.

“Atlanta has been our good luck charm, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Roger Bobb, supervising producer of a TV series being made at TPS, House of Payne. “We’re proving that you don’t have to be in Hollywood to shoot films and television series, that independent thinkers can get around the Hollywood system and create profitable, viable productions.”

Rainforest Films (Stomp the Yard) is another independent firm that is building Atlanta’s reputation as a solid location for African-American filmmakers, while BET (Black Entertainment Network) is producing its new sitcom, Somebodies, in Athens.

Down in tiny Colquitt, Georgia, Ralph Wilcox, a veteran black actor and producer, has launched the Southwest Georgia Film Commission, and a production studio.

“At first, the business and political community thought this whole notion had to be hatched by a con man,” says Wilcox, director of the commission and the Jokara-Micheaux Production Studio.

Thanks to a state grant and the assistance of the producers of Swamp Gravy, the popular story play that has become a Colquitt cultural industry, Wilcox is now teaching film to rural students – makeup, sound, lighting, set design, acting. Billy Bob Thornton is planning a film in the area, and Wilcox says he’s getting calls from Hollywood.

“Word is getting out, people are starting to take the area seriously,” Wilcox says. “My vision is to use the movie industry as a vehicle for economic development.”

In Senoia, Scott Tigchelaar is positioning his massive RiverWood Studios for its own brand of economic development. They’ve purchased land in Senoia with the intention of filling it with period-looking structures.

“Everything we build will look like it was built 120 years ago, to be consistent with the historic look of the town,” says Tigchelaar.

In the perfect script, a movie is the gift that keeps on giving. Tigchelaar envisions a live, work and shoot community – restaurants, office space and residential housing that will double as a live back lot for future RiverWood Studios projects in the years to come.

For the some of the local crew on Deliverance, the impact lasted decades. When James Dickey recruited his pal Lewis King to join the action in northeast Georgia, King in turn recruited Claude Terry and Payson Kennedy, two Atlanta canoeing buddies. They got paid $150 a day to serve as location experts, stunt doubles for the actors, or raft captains for a production team on troubled waters.

“Neither of us went home again,” says Dr. Terry, who purchased river gear from Warner Brothers following production, left his post as a med school professor at Emory and started Southeastern Expeditions.

Kennedy left his job as a librarian at Georgia Tech to start Nantahala Outdoor Center, which opened for business around the time Deliverance was premiering on the big screen. It didn’t hurt business.

“No, that movie was really good for business, for both of us,” Terry says. “That movie was a life changing experience.”