Jul 5, 2023
An insider’s perspective on the Louisiana film industry
For quite some time now, Louisiana has been dubbed Hollywood South due to the many film and television productions happening in and around the state, mostly down in New Orleans but also in the capital city of Baton Rouge. According to the Louisiana Film & Entertainment Association, there have been over 2,5000 films and tv series shot in the state thus far. However, of all the cities used as settings, New Orleans is surely the city that has seen the most, with an explosion in numbers of productions being filmed pre- and post-Covid.
More productions mean a greater need not just for actors but also for all the important people running around behind the scenes making everything work and flow. These are the people responsible for ensuring filming goes smoothly and according to plan, for creating the costumes and building and operating props, sets, and cameras … all the choreographers and coaches and stand-ins, the sound engineers and crews and special fx teams, the assistants and screenwriters and editors—all the people who make up the industry’s foundation but don’t often get the attention and credit they deserve. Kelly Mills is one of those people.
Having been involved in the Louisiana film industry for over a decade now, Mills has had experiences working as a production assistant, as part of the camera department, as part of the art department in set decoration, and most recently as a grip.
“It just depends what I get hired for,” Mills says. “It’s a gig-based industry, so it changes.”
From working on popular tv shows like Strangers Things, Salem, and Your Honor to known films like Where the Crawdads Sing, Mills has been an instrumental part of making sure what’s supposed to run smoothly (and be historically accurate) does just that. She’s a hunter, a gatherer, a creator, a set designer, a prop master, an art director, a fixer, and a most dedicated, loyal worker. She’s also a complete ball of fun to be around.
I was able to sit down with Kelly in January of 2023 to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all from an insider’s perspective. Grab yourselves a tasty beverage and kick back as you read about what it’s like working in the Louisiana film industry today.
MaM: So, you’ve been working in the Louisiana film industry for ten years, right?
KM: The first gig I ever had was in 2009. That was up in Shreveport, and I’ve been working in the film industry since then—full time since 2010.
MaM: How’d you get started, what did you start out doing, and what do you do these days?
KM: This takes a little bit of exposition. So, I graduated with a degree in theater in East Texas, which had absolutely no jobs whatsoever, so I moved to Shreveport and started tending bar.
These two guys started coming into my bar with carpet samples. I asked, ‘Why are you sitting at my bar, taking up space with these damn carpet samples?’ They said, ‘[We’re] from California and we are art directors in the film industry.’ One day they asked me what I thought about their carpet samples. I told them they were all ugly and they needed new samples. Then they asked [if I wanted a job] and I said yes. I had no idea what this job would entail, but yes.
The next day they called and said, ‘[We are] working on this movie and we need an art department intern.’ I asked, ‘When does it start?’ and they said, ‘Now, but we can’t pay you anything.’ So, I did it. Sometimes it’s kind of obvious when things are being thrown in your face, like this is what you need to do. So, I worked during the day on set for this movie and at night I still did my full bartending shifts. I did the whole movie that way.
MaM: What movie was it?
KM: It was called Playing for Keeps with Gerard Butler and a bunch of other people. It was ye old general romance, ‘Oh no, what do I do? There’s a kid. I’m in love with her, I’m in love with him – divorce – ahh!’ You know, that kind of thing. That’s where I first started.
MaM: So, you weren’t just picking carpet samples. What did you start out doing and what are you doing now?
KM: I started out as an art department intern, which legitimately meant I went and got coffee, I rode around with the art director, I helped him take notes, [and] I did a lot of basic sign designs and things of that nature. Then I figured out that I was going to next move to working on set as a production assistant. Because at that time there were some movies in Shreveport, but not a lot, and you needed to get paid for what you were doing, so I started working on set as just a general production assistant – getting actors coffee, shushing people, telling people to be quiet, where you can’t walk – that kind of thing. I was a production assistant for a very long time, probably three-and-a-half years. To move from a production assistant to work in the director’s guild, you need about that amount of time to get your days and submit all the information to try to join.
I quickly figured out that it was a miserable job, and I didn’t want to do that anymore, so, I got lucky when a TV show called Salem came and I got to move back into the art department and set decoration world. I started working with them as their coordinator and working with their set decoration buyers. So, essentially, for a good while I was nothing but a professional shopper, which is a wonderful and incredibly stressful job all at the same time. Then I moved from set decoration to working the property department, which is very, very similar. I moved in the art department world for a good while.
This was in the days before then-Governor Bobby Jindal put the cap on the tax incentives, but it was after Katrina hit New Orleans and a bunch of the productions had moved up to Shreveport. So, it was kinda like this weird wild, wild west where you just took whatever job you could take at the time—it didn’t really matter what department it was in. You just did what you had to do to get the job because that was the only job in town. Then, in 2015, I believe in June, Bobby Jindal put the cap on the tax incentives. I moved to New Orleans because [he did that].
Literally within a week of him announcing that he was capping everything, I knew that Shreveport was never going to see – at least for a good stretch of time – they weren’t going to see a union job, and I had just gotten into the union. The only place in all of Louisiana – if you were going to be filming in 2015 and after, you were either going to be working in New Orleans or living in New Orleans and working in Baton Rouge, that’s it. Maybe there [were] a couple of little low budget ‘I heart Jesus movies’ or Hallmark or whatever, but not anything that was union or paying.
MaM: I heard you say that cap on the tax incentives actually led you to get married.
KM: It did! It did! My poor husband, bless his heart. So, my husband Joe also works in the film industry. He’s a grip. He had come up a couple of times, working in Shreveport, and we did this LOW budget ‘I Heart Jesus’ movie called Dancer and the Dame. We met and hit it off, became friends, and we did a couple more low-budget things together in Shreveport. Then, in June 2015, the TV show I had been working on, Salem, had just wrapped and not a week after, Governor Jindal announced that the tax incentives were being repealed. I was like, ‘Crap, what am I gonna’ do?’
I called Joe and was like, ‘Hey dude, so I gotta’ move away from Shreveport and I’m moving in with you.” He was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Well, I totally would love to have you, but I don’t have an extra bedroom.’ I was like, ‘No, that’s fine, I’m literally moving into your bed – I’m your girlfriend now.’ He was like, ‘Oh, well, yeah, I think that’ll work. You’re gonna’ do that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, man, I literally just sold everything that I own, I bought a new car so I could get myself down to New Orleans, and I’m coming tomorrow.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, well, I guess that’s what we’re gonna do!’ We decided to get married six months later.
MaM: What a great story. (laughs) So what are you doing now?
KM: I move back and forth between the camera department.
I got really lucky—I worked in the art department for years and years; it’s one of my favorite jobs. I love doing it, but it kinda got stale for a little while, so I was talking to a couple of my friends that work in the camera department and they were like, ‘You could do this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah! I could do that! Show me what to do!’
At the time, in the summer of 2021, we had so much work it was just crazy, because we were still trying to come back from the demand from the gaping hole of Covid-19. We were creating content like nobody’s business, and that requires union labor. So, they hired me, and I’ve been really enjoying working in the camera department now. It’s been interesting because I’m learning a whole bunch that I never even thought that I’d be capable of – I’ve always been the art girl.
I’m the ‘I’ll bring the glitter, I’ll bring the fake drink, do you need orgies? We’ll do the orgies.’ That was my gig for years and years and years. Then, all of a sudden, they were like, ‘Here’s this camera that’s worth, like, a house; why don’t you pick it up and mess with it?’ I was like, ‘Oh, God!”
MaM: That’s a lot more technical than the arts department.
KM: In the art department, I have eight different ways that I can make vomit, depending on what the scene calls for. I have lovely vomit recipes. I know how to move a couch by myself … that kind of work. This [camera] is completely different work, and I’m really having a great time learning how to do it and stretching myself as a union employee to be able to do this work.
MaM: Tell us about an average day on a set. Are there major differences between film and TV?
KM: There aren’t really a lot of major differences between film and TV, except for with TV, you pretty much shoot a little film every week, which is rough. You have a shorter prep time, but you’re still expected to produce a film-like quality production. On an average day, our call time will be between 6 and 7:30 a.m. You show up and they provide what they call a non-deductible breakfast, which is a courtesy breakfast. You go, you eat breakfast, and then you show up to your prospective truck – whichever department you happen to be working in.
So, let’s say I’m working in the prop department. I get my tool belt and look at the call sheet so I know exactly what to anticipate for the day. Say we’ve got [an] ‘explody bomb’ [on the list]. I already know how the bomb works, [and] this is what I need to give to the special effects guys who are actually going to make it all ‘splody.’ I know how to explain to the people that this is safe, it’s not going to ‘splode all over them, things of that nature.
So then at call time, that’s when we start unloading our trucks and pushing our carts. Everything is in bins and carts. We usually send someone ahead that works with the actors on set for any hand props they need for the day. We set up and then you find out two important things: Where’s the bathroom and where is craft services. Do they have sandwiches? You make sure that you anticipate any unexpected needs, you wind up coming up with a lot of creative solutions for really, really, weird requests, whatever it may be. Whatever you can possibly think of, we have come up with weird solutions on the fly.
Then there’s lunch, which is a good six hours after you start, Then you go back to work for another six to eight more hours. Our minimum is usually twelve [hours]. It’s not guaranteed that we’ll be in the same place all day. You’ve got to move your carts, you gotta take props away, you gotta give props back to them—a lot of minute details. Then you wrap and go to Avenue Pub (when it was open for 24 hours) and have a drink, then you go home and wonder why you made the decisions in life that led you to work fourteen-hour days.
MaM: What are the most locations you’ve been to in one day?
KM: In one day I had five different truck moves, which means you unload the truck completely, you do your thing, then you load the truck back up and you go to the next location. That’s just the shooting crew. When you’re on the pre-production [team,] you move around all day.
MaM: As with any job, it depends on the people you work with. Is it one big happy family on set, or are there ever issues?
KM: I am extremely proud to work with the brothers and sisters of 478.
Generally speaking, we are kind, courteous, and professional to each other. Of course, when you spend twelve to fourteen hours together, you’re gonna’ wind up butting heads, but I have never met anyone in the 478 that I can say I dislike working with. There are definitely a number of directors I’ve wanted to murder—learn how to read a plan!
MaM: Can you tell us about your worst and best days on a set?
KM: Oh God, it’s probably all the same day! (laughter) No, so my worst day was in Arkansas [on] a movie called Greater. This was in my last couple shows where I was still a [production assistant] but I was moving over to the art department. It was low budget, low rates, miserable non-union, and the last day we had to shoot for 24 hours straight. At that point, it doesn’t matter if everything has gone well, you still have been physically at work for 24 hours. It was just the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life. I was in North Arkansas, of all places. It was cold. I was in the Arkansas University stadium; it was just miserable.
MaM: Now what about your best day?
KM: My best day was probably the first day that I really, really understood what I was doing in the camera department. The first day that I was able to go into the camera truck—this was on a movie called Fast Charlie with Pierce Brosnan (who is a lovely man, sweet man)—and pull out and prep everything that I knew I needed. It was just a good day! Nothing went wrong; nothing f**ked up on the camera; our cables didn’t fail; I didn’t have to haul heavy shit anywhere; and we were just in three different areas in the same place. I didn’t have to push the cart and it was just, it was lovely. I was just really proud of myself for being able to do it—something that I would have never thought that I could possibly do.
MaM: … coming from bartending.
KM: Yeah, coming from bartending and telling two guys their carpet samples were ugly.
MaM: Why do you think Louisiana gets so many film industry jobs? Is it just the allure of the city, the way it’s stepping back in time, or … ?
KM: It’s a combo of things. Some of it is, of course, is the French Quarter, and then some of it is being able to … so many stories are southern. New Orleans, in particular, is equitable to other southern states. New Orleans can play Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia. You wanna do it, you can do it in New Orleans. You want mountains? Can’t do it in New Orleans.
We also have the Central Business District, and we have an infrastructure, thankfully, based around the film industry. We have rental houses, Panavision—the camera rental house—prop houses, and stages where you can shoot all of this stuff. So, [I’d say it’s] between the allure of the French Quarter and the allure of telling southern stories in a southern city. Also having the infrastructure to do so, and then, I think, the icing on the cake are the crews of New Orleans. The grip brothers and sisters and kin, the prop people—all of the people that routinely work in the film industry that are dedicated to the job that we do.
Simply put, I don’t think that I’m bragging here when I say that New Orleans and Louisiana crew works hard and are generous and kind people to spend a really long time around. Producers come back for that. Who wants to work with crews that are bickering and are mean to each other, which of course make delays that cost money? We have a strong and compassionate union behind us. I really think … all of that … is a 1-2-3 punch—a knockout.
MaM: What are some of the most memorable productions you’ve worked on?
KM: Obviously, Stranger Things. I was very lucky to work on Seasons 2 and 3 of that. That was rewarding. I worked the set dec department as a buyer. My job on Season 3 was to carve. It was set during Halloween, [so I had to] carve hundreds of pumpkins. Just hundreds of pumpkins. That was my job. That and they just pretty much gave me a van and cash and said, ‘Go to estate sales.’ They were very conscious of being period correct in literally everything that is on that set. I was literally taking apart appliances and looking for the serial number to see if it was made in 1983 or 1984. Some crazy person on the internet is going to find your name on IMDB, figure out that you worked in the set dec department and then message you. That happened to me. They’re crazy. That was one of my favorite ones.
I worked on a TV show called Salem for three years. It was set in Salem during the witch trials and that really taught me how to work in time periods and period-correct shows. I really honed my skills on doing the research that was necessary.
MaM: Was there ever a piece or something that you couldn’t find?
KM: Thankfully not on Stranger Things. On Salem, we pretty much just had to roll with what we could get. I had a lot of things manufactured. The hardest thing for me was bicycles for Where the Crawdads Sing. We had kids on kids on kids riding period-correct bicycles. They had to be working and functioning, and period correct. So finally, I drove up to Texas, because thank God my dad randomly collects vintage bicycles. I went and raided the man’s barn. I took every one of them to the Freret Street Bike Shop (shout out to Aaron!) and was like, ‘Fix these for me!’ Working on period pieces is my favorite. That’s what I like to do.
MaM: So, Stranger Things, Salem, and Where the Crawdads Sing—anything else that stands out?
KM: Let me look at my IMDB, I’ve done so many things. Ok, I was the prop master on a movie called The Card Counter. [It was] the first movie I did coming back from Covid, and it’s been nominated for a couple awards, I believe, which I’m really excited about. It was directed by the same guy who did Taxi Driver. I did the entire first season of Your Honor as well. I was really, really proud of that.
The thing that I am least proud of: So, I did a movie called The Case for Christ. It was the first movie I ever did in Atlanta. It was miserable, and it was with Pure Flix, which is the worst. They didn’t pay their bills. I had to fight them for every paycheck. They should call Jesus to ask them how to run their business. It was rough.
MaM: You’ve worked in the art department. Anything you’ve made that you’re really proud of? Like the pumpkins on Stranger Things?
KM: Yes! Pumpkins on Stranger Things! One of the things I am most proud of is that in my career I have helped create three different orgy rooms.
MaM: Each one’s different!
KM: Each one is completely and utterly different! My favorite one that I helped to create was on the TV show Claws. I was lucky enough to be the assistant art director on the third season and we just had so much fun. There was this big orgy room. The research I did, I can’t even begin to tell you how many lists I’m on now because of that. (laughs)
MaM: Because of your web searches?
KM: Because of my web searches! Like, every kink that you could possibly think of we crammed into one giant warehouse orgy and I’m just so proud of it! That’s one of three orgies I have helped create—NOT been a part of, but that I just helped create. I would like to point out that at one of them I did have a buffet a la It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
The industry has been almost my entire adult life. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done. I’m proud of the union labor that we are able to do in the Deep South, despite such strong anti-union sentiment that is just built into the way that we’re raised. I’m grateful for our union leadership and the work that they do.
If any of our crew members are reading this, right now we’re in such a very strong economic downturn, but I want to encourage you that we have been through this before, we will go through it, and we will not just survive, but we will come back, be strong, and make movies. Because that’s what we do. We love stories. We will continue to do it.
For more on Kelly Mills, visit her IMDB page and take a peek at all the cool shit she’s done and been an integral part of helping create.
And to Kelly and those like her, we as viewers have to recognize how much we appreciate all of your effort and hard work in creating something of quality that entertains the masses. As viewers, we often do not know what it’s like for any workers in the industry unless we personally know of someone, so next time you meet a Kelly Mills, be sure to thank him/her/them for all the hard work. Without them, we’d have to say to Russell Crowe in Gladiator, “No, Maximus, we are not entertained.” Fortunately, we’re all in a different position so we don’t have to say that.
Let’s hope the entertainment continues to flourish, and as it does, Mixed Alternative Magazine will be there as a landing spot for all the independent artists working so hard to make it happen.
For more on the Louisiana Film Industry, visit them online at www.LouisianaEntertainment.gov.
Questions or comments? Email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.