Director James Kicklighter spent the first 18 years of his life in Bellville, Georgia, population of 123. Since then, he has gone on to become a multi-award winning Los Angeles-based film director and producer of narrative films, documentaries and advertising.
His work has been featured by the world’s press including The Hollywood Reporter, The Times of India and FilmInk Australia. Kicklighter has served as a panelist at the Oscar-qualifying Hollyshorts Film Festival and Director’s Guild of America, taught filmmaking courses as an educator on Stage32.com, and his interview series with the popular YouTube channel Film Courage has over 250,000 views.
He spoke with ProductionHUB about his latest film, The Sound of Identity.
PH: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started as a director?
James Kicklighter: I started making films when I was 18. Growing up in Bellville, GA, population 123, we didn’t really have people who worked in the film business, so I had to figure it out on my own. I was fortunate to meet a local college professor at a young writers conference. I heard that he was looking for help on his first documentary film. I convinced my mom to let me help out.
During that production process, I learned how to work with agents, writing off letters to their clients. I figured out how to book travel, coordinating different schedules. I even got Final Cut Pro 7 and figured out how to edit. Though the documentary was terrible, as none of us knew what we were doing, we got John Mellencamp and Dixie Carter from “Designing Women” to be in our film. It was an incredible real-life education that set my career in motion.
From that moment forward, I shot high school graduation videos, weddings, whatever I could find, to invest those profits in myself to make my own work. Over time, my narrative films, documentaries and music videos started finding their way to film festivals across the country.
Once I started getting some positive press, eventually, other people started paying me for my services. You really have to be willing to put in the time and effort, keep pushing through success and failure, to get to that place. I feel very fortunate to have the career that I have built today.
PH: How has your work changed the past year?
James Kicklighter: During the pandemic, I was fortunate to have completed my new film, The Sound of Identity, while also finishing principal photography on my next film, The American Question, in February 2020. That was purely by dumb luck.
Following numerous subjects since December 2016, The American Question examines the root of American polarization and the repercussions of eroded civic institutions, public trust and leadership. Guided by an all-star lineup of experts, including Amy Chua (Day of Empire), Colin Woodard (American Nations), Yuval Levin (The Fractured Republic) and Yascha Mounk (The People vs. Democracy), we examine the broader arc of history and discover new revelations about the shared values system that binds society together in times of triumph and turmoil.
Having all of that time in lockdown, I was able to work remotely with my co-editor, J.D. Sievertson, to shape four years of material into a cohesive, 90-minute narrative. In a normal world, I would have never had such time to work on a project. I go between directing advertising, narrative films and documentaries, working on multiple projects in a given year. Though it was strange to work exclusively on a project, it was helpful for the density of the material. We’ll see what audiences think when it comes out, but I think that really helped.
But more importantly, having this great pause allowed me to reassess my work/life balance, adopt my dog Oscar, and discover a knack for gardening. I’ve worked nonstop for the last 15 years, and I realized that I need to create more down time for myself. It gives you perspective, but also, more fulfilment.
PH: Let’s discuss The Sound of Identity! How did this project come together?
James Kicklighter: I met producers Russ Kirkpatrick and Andy Kinslow in 2017 through an organization called Tulsa Tomorrow. Their goal is to relocate young, successful professionals to Tulsa, from a variety of career paths from across the country. Though we only met for about 30 minutes, we talked about film and how Oklahoma could have a future that looked like Georgia.
I guess I left a positive impression, because when they acquired the rights to The Sound of Identity, I was one of the director’s they called. Though I declined the film three times, unsure of my qualifications to direct it, Russ and Andy convinced me that it was right within my wheelhouse. Speaking to Lucia Lucas, the star of the show, I realized that I could do something different than the logline an audience will expect on paper. That was very important to me creatively, and so, I pitched them my vision, they liked it, and I got the job.
You don’t get to say this very much on documentaries, but I was able to capture everything I wanted. That enabled me to tell an extremely specific story about what it means to be an artist, of any kind really. If any of the elements that exist in the film didn’t fall into place, it could have been a very different story. Sometimes, sort of like meeting them in 2017, things happen through serendipity.
PH: It was produced in Tulsa, OK. Can you talk about what that experience was like? You brought some crew from LA and hired some local? What was that like?
James Kicklighter: Filming In Tulsa was an absolute dream. The city has stunning art deco locations, a variety of urban, suburban and rural landscapes, and a completely amenable film office prepared to execute your vision.
I brought in my longtime director of photography, Jonathan Pope, and our frequent camera operator Ted Endres, who ended up serving as DP for the last week of shooting for scheduling reasons. Otherwise, we hired entirely local in Oklahoma.
When you’re working with people you’ve worked with before, everyone has a general understanding of the other’s expectations, working habits and preferences. You never know what you’re going to get until you start working. But in Tulsa, we had professionals that were just as good as the crews we would hire in Los Angeles. That’s why you see major films, like our executive producer Josh Bachove’s Minari, shooting in Tulsa.
PH: Describe the pre-production process. What did that entail?
James Kicklighter: Preparing to shoot a documentary film is always a challenge, because the script is written on the page. You have a logline, a concept that you’re working from. First, I had to figure out how to execute the A story of Lucia Lucas. Second, I had to understand how we would move beyond that story to tell a more rounded picture. The story of the first transgender opera singer to have a leading role on the American stage doesn’t make a movie in itself. What is the story going to be about?
Once I recognized that her story was also the story of anyone who may be on the cusp of success, then I was able to lean into some of those universal elements of the creation process. Being that we were in the world of opera, Jonathan Pope and I both came to the conclusion that the film had to feel cinematic, treating every frame as we would a narrative picture.
We purposefully selected every location, scouting like we would for a scripted film. With the help of our producers and the Tulsa Film Office, we found interview settings that were enmeshed with characters personalities, imbuing them with a strong sense of space. All b-roll and scenes in the film would be shot on sticks or the Ronin, giving the film composure and fluidity. Making those sorts of decisions at the onset enabled us to blend the narrative with the technical execution, creating what I hoped would be a blur between documentary and narrative film.
PH: What were some of the challenges you faced?
James Kicklighter: One of the big ideas that I had for the film was the notion of the growing stage. For Lucia’s three principal interviews, they would start on the smallest stage, for the second act move to a middle stage, and for the final act, be on the largest stage, the stage of her performance.
The idea was that with each act of the film, as within our life, we move on to larger and larger stages as artists with each success. Once you pass one phase, we don’t return to it. Crafting the film in that way was a major challenge in directing and editing, because it set firm boundaries for the structure of the film as I was shooting it.
It required that I get everything I needed in real time from each of those interviews, which took a tremendous amount of creative and emotional energy. I was lucky that it worked.
PH: How would you describe documentary filmmaking as a whole? What’s the process for finding a story within a documentary?
James Kicklighter: I put it in the context of tracking the story as it unfolds. I often say that you make three films, the one you conceive, the one you shoot, and the one you edit. Usually, the final product is a mix of all three. If you walk into something imposing a hard narrative concept to what you’re shooting, you’re not allowing yourself latitude to discover new elements of that story as the film evolves.
I typically have a general sketch of what I want to do, which is important. However, I do think it’s equally essential to work without an outline. Otherwise, you’re trying to impose too much direction of where you want the story to go, as opposed to letting the story play out organically. Though you can never “fix it in post,” that is usually where you fashion the story in documentary films.
To track the story, you examine each of the plot points, and figure out the different directions they could go in real time as they occur. You have to figure out which ones are worth following, and which ones you can’t tell. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. But having multiple options allows you to have those choices in post-production, and if you did a good job, then the material feels natural and unscripted in the edit.
I know plenty of people that don’t work this way, and that’s okay. You have to find the process that works for you.
PH: You’re a director, producer and editor. What are some of the benefits and/or downsides?
James Kicklighter: I find that each skill feeds my primary job, which is directing. Being an editor who occasionally edits other people’s work, I see good and bad ideas in shooting and coverage. Through listening to the audio on either side of the takes, I observe how different people direct. Then, I glean those thoughts and consider it in the context of how I would have done it. Did they have a better approach, how would I have done it differently? But most importantly, editing helps me to be less precious with my own work, being more judicious with cutting. I find that most feature length stories don’t have a reason to be more than 90 minutes.
Being a producer, I understand the logistical and financial components of filmmaking. That is helpful when I communicate to producers on films that I don’t produce, because I can speak their language. I understand how the requests I make as a director impacts their bottom line, and how to maximize spending accordingly. Additionally, I try to be a team player in distribution, because I understand the financial risks and obligations they have.
Understanding your job from many perspectives enables you to do your job better. In my case, I think it only has helped me as a director.
PH: What do you hope people take away from The Sound of Identity?
James Kicklighter: To become an artist, you have to have something authentic to say, but it can take years to be heard by a mass audience. You just have to keep working at your craft, even when that work is hard, until your voice becomes so powerful that people can’t ignore your voice.
Spend time asking yourself, why do you want to do what you want to do? What is it that drives you to be an artist? If you can answer that question clearly, over time, people will join you on your artistic journey.
PH: Where can they keep up with you (on social media)?