Entertainment industry allows Georgia native to raise a family close to his roots

What started in front of the camera for Chris Birdsong has ignited a successful career behind the camera years later. Well, if being dragged to sets by your mother to be an extra counts, then that’s exactly what Chris did.

As a kid, Chris’ mother would take him and his siblings to sets for Georgia productions such as “In the Heat of the Night” and “RoboCop 3” to be involved as extras and experience the local entertainment industry.

And that was just the beginning.

After high school, Chris enrolled in what was then a new program at Chattahoochee Technical College, graduating alongside the second-ever class to complete the program. It looked like he was going to have to make the jump across the country to L.A. if he wanted to pursue his dreams.

“For the longest time I thought I’d be doing commercials or music videos here in Georgia and I would have to go to L.A. if I wanted to work on bigger productions,” Chris said. “I was raised here and I love this state. I wanted to stay.”

Chris interned on Alton Brown’s “Good Eats,” as a production assistant, but once the tax incentive kicked in things really started ramping up. Chris was to take it to the next level.

In 2007 Chris joined I.A.T.S.E Local 479 and worked a variety of jobs from key grip on the show “Somebodies” to best boy on “Vampire Diaries.” And it’s only gotten better from there. Chris has since been the key grip for major productions such as “Halloween II,” “Hidden Figures,” “Selma,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” and “What Men Want.”

“I thought I would be on the road all the time so having a family wasn’t really in the plans,” says Chris. “But the incentive brought so much work to Georgia that my wife and I have been able to buy a home and start a family so close to where we were raised. That means a lot.”

Today, Chris stays busy raising his two boys, ages three and seven, and working as a key grip. His successes have even allowed him to start his own company, Atlanta Grip and Expendables, renting the same kind of equipment he uses to others like him.

“Not only has the tax incentive allowed me to have my own business, it’s allowed me to use my connections to get other people work,” says Chris.

Husband and wife team create storyboards for Georgia’s major productions.

As a young kid, Brian McGee spent hours watching his father draw everything from doodles to portraits. That early fascination laid the groundwork for a passion that helped him build his career in New York, California, and now, Georgia.

His career not only brought him to Georgia, it connected him with the woman who would become his business partner, and then his wife. 

While working as an illustrator for Turner’s Cartoon Network in Georgia, Brian met Audrey Beharie. Her background in the entertainment industry helped them launch their own company.

“Brian and I met in 2010 and realized we had a lot in common. So, in 2012 B.R.E Productions International was officially formed,” says Audrey. “I source projects in Georgia and make contacts. I handle the confidentiality agreements so we can receive the script and begin working on the scenes that they need storyboarded. Those are some parts of the business that I get done to create a sense of stability with the client.”

When they first met, Brian saw the type of business acumen that an artist could use when dealing with multiple productions, and it didn’t take long for her to start representing.

“I don’t know too many storyboard artists in Georgia who work the way I do,” says Brian. “But with Audrey by my side, it allows me to have a second set of ears and eyes. In business, two brains are always better than one!”

By working as Brian’s agent, Audrey leverages Georgia’s attractiveness as a film destination to draw in clients.  B.R.E has created storyboards for productions such as “Lovecraft Country”, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”, Ozark, and Marvel property

“The Gifted.”, amongst others.

“The advent of Atlanta and Georgia as a world hub for productions has been beneficial to us,” says Audrey.

It was actually one of Georgia’s first major successes that helped B.R.E get plugged into the industry.

“One day out of the blue, someone called me to work on a project for a ‘little’ cable show called ‘The Walking Dead’. ‘I was like ‘What?!  That’s my favorite show!’ It was a great experience,” says Brian. “That led to other opportunities such as ‘Blockers’, ‘Goosebumps 2’, MacGyver, HoliDateand ‘Good Girls.’ Living in Georgia has been more fruitful for me than living in Los Angeles!”

A life-long connection to Columbus leads to helping safely restart Georgia’s film industry

When Meredith Riley Stewart had the opportunity to produce the independent film “The Inheritance”, she was convinced that Columbus would make the perfect setting. As a Phenix City native, she knew the picturesque city on the banks of the Chattahoochee very well. But she didn’t know that the film industry was about to be forced into a holding pattern.

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Meredith kept the production alive through constant conversations with her Georgia contacts. Those contacts eventually put her in touch with MercyMed, a local clinic that serves marginalized communities.

Together, they created a union-compliant system, now called PiperMed, that let them film “The Inheritance” with on-site COVID-19 testing and additional public health protocols that kept cast and crew feeling safe. Throughout the entire production, there were zero positive tests out of the  more than 350 performed.

“We were able to do it in a way that got us all safely back to work and put paychecks in the hands of so many industry professionals who had been out of work since March,” says Meredith. “We realized the need for a system of COVID compliance solutions – medical professionals partnering with productions – as essential for the industry coming back to Georgia. We developed it into a model that we could share with other productions, and that’s where PiperMed came from.”

Headquartered in Columbus, PiperMed helps studios across Georgia with both film and TV productions, but they hold their first project in high regard.

“Almost all of the investors for ‘The Inheritance’ came from there, and they saw this film as an opportunity to put money right back into their community,” says Meredith.

She understands the importance of reinvestment through her own connection to the city. Throughout high school, she crossed the bridge from Phenix City to Columbus five days a week to dance in The Columbus Ballet. Those formative years led her to major in Dance, and interestingly, also earn a major in Biology.

“I was very much involved in the art scene there growing up. Columbus was like the big city to the suburbia of Phenix City,” says Meredith.

Even though she now lives in Los Angeles, her work as an actor, producer, and PiperMed founder keeps returning her to the art scene she grew up with. It’s only fitting that her dedication also has hundreds of others returning to work in a way that’s focused on their safety, so they can focus on their job.

“Having testing as the cornerstone of our protocol helps everyone’s mental health,” says Meredith.

Find more information at OnSetCOVIDtesting.com and PiperMedGA.com

The Gift of Georgia

When productions come to Georgia, they can bring hundreds of crew members. Some of them might consider the state a second home, while others will experience the state for the first time.

Daren Gayle of Georgia Gifts & More wants to make sure everyone gets a taste of Georgia’s culture, even if they can’t leave the set to do that.  

With more than 300 local businesses represented and offerings like Braves Koozies and peach cobbler jam, the Tucker-based company is doing a fine job of showing the world what Georgia has to offer.

“Everyone wants something that says Georgia,” says Daren. “Everyone knows when they come here they have to get some pecans. They know you have to come here to get the peaches and peanuts.”

Gift baskets are given to cast and crew for any number of reasons, and because they work with companies like BET, Starz, and Tyler Perry Studios, Daren and his wife Karen have sent Georgia-themed mugs, hats, and shirts home with national and international film stars and crew members. At one point they were handling annual orders for EUE/Screen Gem’s holiday gifts.

Overall, film and television productions account for more than 10 percent of annual sales for the family owned business. A steady increase in orders over the past several years led the husband-and-wife team to open a brick and mortar location. From there, they serve as ambassadors for Georgia, offering crew what could be their only glimpse into the diversity of the Peach State.

“We were a home-based business when we came together, and we were strictly Internet. It got to a point where our customers wanted to show up and secure the gifts as opposed to doing it all online,” says Daren.

His background in entertainment had him traveling and handling booking with major musical artists, and Karen already had a successful gift basket company when they met. Together, they’ve been able to ensure that one of Georgia’s most important industries and the people who work in it will always remember where they filmed … and how much they loved Georgia’s peach cobbler jam.

Single mom trades travel-heavy job for rewarding studio opportunity

Rachel Fry, office manager at EUE/Screen Gems Studios Atlanta, is a proud mother to an energetic five-year-old boy. After building a career in sports TV production and reality TV, she had to figure out a way to continue her work and care for her son.

Atlanta’s booming film industry offered her a great opportunity to do both.

“I loved traveling for sports productions, but I had to find a city where I could work and care for my son,” says Rachel. “There are really only a few places where I could do that and Atlanta, with its many freelance opportunities and affordable cost of living, felt like a great choice as a single mother.”

After traveling for years for her career and flying her son across the country to stay with his grandparents while she was gone, Rachel moved to Atlanta and joined the EUE/Screen Gems team as an office manager in 2019.

As office manager for the bustling studio, Rachel uses her organizational skills honed over many years as a production coordinator to help her keep track of the many requests and issues that arise on a daily basis.

From a young age Rachel knew she wanted to work in TV.  As a former athlete and self-proclaimed sports junky, sports production was a perfect fit after graduating from college with a degree in media communications.

Rachel began her career doing freelance work for leagues like AAA baseball, the NFL, MLB, college basketball and football, and the Drone Racing League. She expanded her skill set during this time working as a camera operator, production coordinator and director.

Rachel says she loves her job at EUE/Screen Gems. She especially enjoys working with the networks and keeping normal hours.

“It’s been hard building my career as a single mother in the film industry but coming to Atlanta changed my life,” says Rachel. “I can work in an industry that I love and have time for my son’s activities, too.”

From classroom to film set, teacher leaves lasting impact on kids

Teachers are used to wearing numerous hats in their career, and Reeva Forrester is no different. The married mother of two from Gwinnett has been a special education instructor, a learning coach, and a diagnostician. Now, she’s an on-set educator.

After teaching public school for nine years, her role as a diagnostician had her acting more like a school psychologist, and with a desire to teach again, she took a friend’s advice whose daughter was working four days a week on a film set.

“She told me she had a studio teacher, and that I might want to try that,” says Reeva. “I love teaching, and I love kids. I did some research, and the first job I applied for, they called.”

For two seasons she worked on “Resurrection” instructing a lead actor. After that show wrapped up, the Georgia native started getting more calls, especially as the film industry exploded across the state. She’s been a part of productions such as “Venom” and “Jumanji: The Next Level”, and TV series like “Greenleaf” and “Devious Maids.” She’s even been on location for the occasional music video.

But being outside of an actual classroom also brings different challenges.

“On set, you want to make sure the kids are safe. There are a lot of different people on set, and kids can wander on and off. I have to make sure they get quality time and they’re in an area where they can learn without a lot of distractions,” Reeva says.

Teachers are used to challenges and putting in long hours, and there’s a lot of preparation that goes into her curriculum. She only finds out about a week ahead of time who she’ll be teaching, then she contacts parents and teachers to gauge where each student is at and what materials she’ll need.

Reeva also gets to be a part of surreal moments. Once, she taught a student through her senior year, and like any other senior, she needed a graduation ceremony. Instead of a commencement speaker, she was joined by the cast and crew, which included several major celebrities.

“We had a big celebration for her. It was a special and unique experience … getting to see her graduate while fulfilling her dreams as an actress,” says Reeva.

Rome’s film industry allows North GA native to work close to home

Seth Ingram and Max Martini. Photo by Andy Calvert.

The Rome International Film Festival has been around for 17 years, and Seth Ingram has been running the show since 2015. In that time, he has successfully raised the profile of the event while maintaining his work in film/TV and higher education.

Seth began his higher education in film at the North Carolina School of Arts before completing his graduate work closer to home at Georgia State University. The film industry at the time here was slow. While still dabbling in independent work Seth settled down and started a family. His wife and three children made it even more important to find steady work.

“Georgia’s film industry makes it possible for so many of us to build careers in our home state,” says Seth, who was born in Rome, GA. “As a husband and father, it’s more important than ever for me to make a decent living, If I can do that doing what I love to do that’s a bonus. I enjoy imparting my knowledge and creating opportunities for others.”

Through the connections he made in school and the years that followed, Seth created a path to doing what he loved. During the day you’ll find Seth at the School of Film Studies at Georgia Highlands as a Division Chair, helping build the future of the industry in Georgia. His work includes building a film production pathway in partnership with the Georgia Film Academy, and a Film Studies degree at GHC.

And much like Seth saw an opportunity from the tax credit bringing jobs back to Georgia, the city of Rome and surrounding areas have also taken advantage. Feature films like “The Mule” directed by Clint Eastwood have set up camp in the area, as well as shows like “Stranger Things” and “Ozark, who have filmed in the area in recent years.”

PAM studios recently chose Rome for a studio location. Film production in Rome area is continuing to grow with its small-town appeal and various landscapes that serve as natural backlot. And with that so is the Rome International Film Festival. In the five years since Seth’s arrival, it has attracted celebrities such as Burt Reynolds in 2017, Judge Reinhold, Henry Ian Cusick, Mark Valley in 2018, and Max Martini in 2019. RIFF continues to entertain and educate North Georgians about the film industry while providing opportunity for local and international attendees to meet the right people and advance their career.

“Rome has all natural, beautiful landscapes,” Seth said. “Everyone who comes here loves it and eager to come back.”

The Rome International Film Festival is scheduled for Nov. 12th-22nd. Learn more at www.riffga.com.

Long days on set rewarding for former city paramedic

Left to right:  Director Mike Flanagan, Met Clark - Actor, Stunt Coordinator Chuck Borden

As a young kid growing up in Powder Springs, Met Clark would sit in his parent’s house and watch movies that were made far away in Hollywood. He watched everything from gut-busting comedies to thrillers with daring rescues and stunts. But he never dreamt of flying out West to join the action.

“I never would have thought in a million years that I’d be doing anything on a film set,” says Met, who now resides in Atlanta.

And at first, he was right. It was a chance invite on an ordinary day from a coworker that changed Met’s life and career path. Before that, he was a paramedic who served as fire rescue, which was a good way to put the skills he learned as a paratrooper in the 325th Airborne to use.

“I ended up joining the union in 2017 when a friend who was working on ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ invited me over to come work as a medic,” says Met. “From there, I’ve had a whole bunch of opportunities come my way.”

Some of those opportunities put Met on camera doing stunts and acting. He’s appeared in productions like “Haunting of Hill House,” “The Underground Railroad,” and “Doctor Sleep.” And because Georgia has become such an important destination, his medic and water safety credits include both Avengers films, “Stranger Things,” and “Just Mercy” … plus a couple others he can’t talk about yet.

“I’m actually doing movies full-time,” says Met, adding that he took early retirement from the  City of Austell Fire Department.

Life on set isn’t all about film credits, though. His workdays can stretch to 18 hours long, and there’s still the fact that everyone there is counting on him for guidance and safety.

“It’s still the same stuff and still the same real dangers,” Met adds. “The construction guys might chop their fingers off or nail their hand to a board.”

When a mistake like that is made, it’s Met’s job to make it right, and sometimes the stakes are higher than a wounded hand.

“I did have to save an actress. I was water safety and she was supposed to tread water,” he explains. “As soon as I pulled the float away, she sunk. I went in and had to save her.”

When Met’s parents moved from Thailand to Powder Springs in 1970 to avoid the conflict in Vietnam, they couldn’t have predicted the path their one-year-old son would take. But he’s not basking in the sunlight, he’s just happy he gets to contribute to productions that millions of people love. And there’s the perk of knowing when a new season of “Stranger Things” is about to film.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate, I can’t lie,” he says.

Gwinnett County resident trades low-paying jobs for grip work

Musician Daniel Deckebach worked in kitchens and bars to supplement his income. Yet the night life and low wages motivated him to seek out a new career, one he’s now developing as a grip in the film and television production industry.

He says he’s always dreamed of owning a home, and the money he earned in Georgia’s film industry helped make that dream come true.

“I was able to save enough money from my work in the film industry to put a down payment on a home,” says Daniel. “I couldn’t have achieved my dream before on kitchen wages.”

While working in the kitchen at East Atlanta’s The Earl, Daniel met crew members working on various productions in Georgia, and learned more about their work. The film industry appealed to Daniel, with its combination of hard work and creative people like him.

At The Earl, Daniel met key rigging grip Francis Harlan, a connection that would change his life.

“Francis gave me a chance. I didn’t know anything, but I was hungry and ready to make a change,” says Daniel. “Francis liked my work ethic and I did my best to step up to the challenge and gain knowledge and experience. I ended up working on his crew for the next few years.”

Daniel’s first experience as a grip was on the film “The Hate U Give.” He benefitted from the small crew size, which gave him the opportunity to learn many aspects of rigging. He says Francis was a great teacher who showed him both what to do and why they were doing it. Now Daniel can operate large, heavy machinery like condors and pettibone forklifts, a difficult skill he’s proud to have learned.

According to Daniel, the benefits of working in the film industry have made a huge difference in his life. He has affordable medical benefits. He bought a home. And he has pride in his work.

“Kitchen work was monotonous. In the film industry we’re at a different place and on a different adventure every day,” says Daniel. “I’m always learning new things. It’s challenging and I’m proud of the work we do.”

Love of storytelling creates path into Georgia’s film industry

When a family move from Chicago landed Brent Lambert-Zaffino in Canton, GA, as a teen, Brent brought his love of movies and visual storytelling with him. It’s a passion that stuck with him through high school, college and multiple stints at coffee shops.

Today, Brent is the Programming Director for the Etowah Film Festival, which this year will be a virtual experience at the historic Canton Theatre highlighting Georgia productions

Brent’s path to Etowah Film Festival wound through Kennesaw State University, where he studied communication in hopes of finding a career that fit his passion.

“I thought I might be an English teacher, but I realized I have way too much creative angst for that,” says Brent.

After college, Brent worked and became the manager of a local coffee shop where he kept busy building relationships. Some of these relationships are still helping Brent today.

While working at the coffee shop, he fueled his love of film by developing a videography freelance career for corporate and music videos.

“I just kept finding enough work to upgrade my equipment and keep going,” says Brent, adding that he kept adjusting his work to best suit his abilities and continue to grow. Brent raised money to fund his first film, “The Head.”

His work with the Etowah Film Festival is a natural fit for someone who spent much of his time in high school at the Canton Theatre watching new and old films. He was eager to step in when Event Director Laine Wood approached Brent about a new project, The Etowah Film Festival.

“It wasn’t something I had experience with, but it seemed to fit my skills and I was eager to promote the talent in the area,” says Brent.

Thanks to COVID-19, the Festival’s second year requires a different approach. But those coffee shop relationships may come in handy once again.

Turns out a former co-worker’s husband was able to put Brent in touch with a streaming company who provide streaming services to large events.

“It looks like the show will go on,” Brent says, “and hopefully we can continue to showcase Georgia’s talent for years to come.”