In 1999, Curtis Nichouls came to Jackson for six months as an artist-in-residence teaching art programs. He then moved to New York for a few years, but after 9/11 in 2001, he found his way back to Jackson for six more months, hoping to get back on his feet.
“The people here were absolutely amazing, especially in the art world. I think Mississippi and Jackson as a whole get under-represented in the sense of the art world. But no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always ran into people from Jackson, Mississippi,” Nichouls said.
From Mississippi, his next destination was Philadelphia, Pa., where he was making independent films. The Louisiana native comes from a long line of storytellers, he said, as his grandfather was an actor, painter and woodcarver out of New Orleans. Nichouls followed in his grandfather’s footsteps with acting before transitioning into producing five years ago.
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During his time in Philadelphia, he was making independent films. He was debating where to move next and, at the time, he was noticing a trend of films being shot in Louisiana and Georgia.
“I looked up Mississippi and saw that they had an incentive that was under the cap of around $10 million at the time. It was a cash incentive,” he explained.
Mississippi’s tax incentive was better than the surrounding states, which offered a tax rebate, and a bonus was the wealth of writers, musicians and visual artists who live in the state, he recalled.
“I felt like if I went to Jackson, I could possibly build a team, and we can actually make some amazing things in Jackson, Mississippi, that would be world renowned. And I felt like once it got going, I would be seen as a big fish in a small pond and be one of the first people sought after as opposed to going places where it’s already built,” Nichouls said.
So, he moved to back Jackson nine years ago and recently started a production company called Sweet Unknown South Studios.
“The joy of bringing a bunch of artists together to create one work of art is probably the most taxing thing in the world, but also the most enjoyable because it’s so taxing. Anyone that deals with artists knows that it’s a stressful process,” the producer said.
Filmmaking can bring together 80 to 100 or more artists to create a work of art, and there are times that artists gel together and times where they don’t, Nichouls explained.
“So as a producer and especially a creative producer, my job is trying to help them see past differences and work on the jellying part,” he added.
‘The Sweet Unknown’
Sweet Unknown South Studios is an offshoot of Sweet Unknown Studios, which Nichouls’ business partner and director Wes Miller created. Though Nichouls works with other directors, Miller is his main partner, and they’ve done five films together thus far.
As they were building the company, Miller thought the name didn’t suit the type of content they were trying to produce, Nichouls recalled.
“When I asked him where he came up with the name, Sweet Unknown Studios, he said, it’s all about faith. It’s about stepping into the sweet unknown. So, I decided to keep part of the name and make it South,” he said.
He named his company Sweet Unknown South with the south part hinting back to his Louisiana upbringing. The logo started off as a Black woman’s silhouette with her hair turning into butterflies, and the second logo was a woman’s hands holding Pandora’s box with various images on each side of the box, he explained.
“Now I’m using a brother and a sister, two young Black kids that are running and jumping into a lake as my Sweet Unknown South logo,” he said.
Miller started out doing Christian films, but then realized it was easier for them to get into bigger films if they did action. They jumped into socially conscious films like “Atone,” which deals with the church and taking care of the community, and their “A River Runs Red” deals with police brutality.
“We had a movie called “Hell on the Border,” which is a western based on the real life of Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy and high decorated U.S. Marshal. “He is the real lone ranger,” Nichouls said.
Nichouls said they are working on a Black, female-led western, and they want to do horror films and comedy. But it was their most recent project, “A Day To Die,” that has attracted attention in Mississippi—they shot it in the capital city with film legend Bruce Willis as the star. The script didn’t originally have any Black actors in the film, but he and Miller made some changes to the script.
“I told him we should do it here. I reached out to the mayor, police chief and the fire chief, and told him that I needed some assistance,” he explained. “We needed to do a camera test, and we need a couple of items, and the camera tests to be able to make it look the way it would possibly look when we make the film.”
With help from the city and Visit Jackson, the convention and visitors’ bureau, the crew was able to shoot in the city for eight hours and produce a reel to send to actors that the studio could potentially borrow money from based on the actors being a part of the film, Nichouls said.
Filming was set to start last year around April 1, but the pandemic forced the country to shut down on March 15. The studio still didn’t have a big A-lister at the time, so Nichouls and Miller continued to reach out to different actors to try and get funding.
“(Investors) wanted to know where we were going to film. They wanted to film it in LA, then they wanted to film it in Georgia, then they wanted to film it in Birmingham. Mississippi was the last choice. They did not want to come here,” he mentioned.
Georgia was the agreed-upon filming location, but the person who pushed for the movie to be shot there caught COVID-19. The movie moved to Jackson and Bruce Willis signed onto the role instead.
“He said he’d be willing to do it as long as his private plane would be able to land at the Jackson airport,” Nichouls mentioned.
‘Wherever You Are Can Be Special’
“A Day To Die” is a bank heist film with lots of action, explosions and good fun, Nichouls described. Other notable stars in the film are Frank Grillo, Leon Robinson, Kevin Dylan and Gianni Capaldi, who also starred in “River Runs Red.”
The crew wrapped filming on April 23 and are now in the editing process with a December deadline and a theater and streaming release around February or March 2022. Having Bruce Willis be a part of this film was exciting for Nichouls, he said, because he is a legend.
“I believe that Bruce Willis has only worked with one other Black director before, and I believe that I might be the first Black producer to work with him,” he noted.
Willis filmed in Jackson for four days and loved his time here, Nichouls said. Visit Jackson set him up with a golf outing for him and his team and took him out to dinner, the producer explained.
“We filmed with him, and he absolutely fell in love with it. In fact, the next film that he’s in, it’s supposed to be in Georgia, and he moved it to here. They want to film it here in June,” he added.
The biggest issue Nichouls faced was the negativity from some Jacksonians, who would warn Willis and his team to be careful of the city.
“In their hotel, they were being told this and told to watch their cars and all of that kind of stuff. So I had a lot of talking to do to calm a lot of this down, but it worked out,” Nichouls elaborated. “I fought a lot of fears from people talking about violence and things of that nature. I have to often remind people the places I came from are far more violent than it is here.”
Even Nichouls’ own family had reservations about him moving to Mississippi due to the racist history that continues to plague the state. “I’m like Jackson? Racist? There are places that I grew up in that were much more in that realm,” he said. “But when they get here, it’s nothing but love.”
It’s a constant thing to educate Jacksonians that they have something amazing here and to educate people outside the state that Mississippi is ripe with creative people, he said. It was a two-year fight to get “A Day To Die” here as people in the film industry like sets to be high-security, which isn’t something they associated with Mississippi, the producer explained.
“I believe that Jacksonians and Mississippians as a whole have been let down a lot. I believe that they’ve been promised a lot of things that never came to be, so it’s hard to believe that this is the time or this is the place,” Nichouls stated.
As a non-native, he said it’s been easier for him to work here as he’s not just making promises to Jacksonians without delivering on it. They gave him more leeway and were willing to hear him out more when he started to bring other celebrities here, he thinks.
In Nichouls’ experience, he has noticed that most places that are known for poverty produce the most creative people. He wants to hone that creativity and get people to come to these places instead of flocking to New York or Los Angeles.
“New York and LA are just geography. Wherever you are can be special. And if you’re a special where you are, people will come to you,” he said.
‘The Next Hollywood’
Nichouls said he is in the process of buying a building from the state to turn into a studio. The pandemic taught them the importance of being able to shoot films inside. He wants to build something similar to what filmmaker Tyler Perry has in Atlanta.
In 2015, Perry acquired a 330-acre lot on the former Fort McPherson Army base there and turned it into a motion-picture studio. It is one of the largest production facilities in the country and showcases 40 buildings, 12 sound stages, and 200 acres of greenspace and diverse backlot. Nichouls said this large space allowed Perry to continue filming through the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of film classes that go on across the state, and a few of them had to shut down because there wasn’t enough work here for students. And what I’ve found is that a lot of Jacksonians have moved to New Orleans and Atlanta to be a part of those industries, but I’m hoping that our studio will give them the opportunity to come back,” he said.
In his conversations with Jackson Public Schools and colleges here, one of the issues that the city and state finds is that they are losing a lot of the residents, particularly young people.
“This will give them the opportunity that they can come over to our space and not only learn, but utilize the space to create content. Some of the greatest writers in the world come from Mississippi, but their work is being brought to life in other places. Now they’ll have that opportunity,” the producer explained.
Nichouls hopes that the City of Jackson and State of Mississippi will see these films and celebrities coming here and drop money into the city as a morale booster.
“If we can get to the point where a Bruce Willis walking downtown doesn’t mean anything, I think we’ve made it. And I believe that it does amazing things for pride because celebrities enjoy being in your city,” he said.
More than anything, a film industry in the state means more money gets spent in these cities. Savannah, Ga., which is smaller in population and geography than Jackson, gets an annual revenue boost of more than $130 million off films. And the State of Georgia is getting close to $10 billion from their film incentives program, the producer explained.
As co-chair of the Mississippi Poor People’s campaign, Nichouls hopes that his films will help take Mississippi out of poverty. It’s how he hopes to add to the legacy of the state, he said. “I think the influx of money into the state from films could convert Mississippians with jobs and revenue to where it can remove that blemish. If I did that, I could die happy,” he expressed.
Mississippi has so many artists, yet all it is missing is training, he said. With trained people to work in the industry, crews will flock here to shoot their films because they don’t have to deal with the big-town mentality, Nichouls said.
“Imagine ‘Black Panther,’ something that looked like it took place in three different countries, right? All was shot in Atlanta. Imagine if it was shot here in Jackson, which is very well possible,” he said.
“What that means is that Mississippi could become the next Hollywood. Louisiana and Georgia have surpassed Hollywood in revenue years ago. Mississippi could be that.”