Ten years ago I got a call from The Mississippi Film Commission, asking if I might be able to guide a group of movie producers on a location scouting trip on the Leaf River, here in my home state. The part of the river they were interested in runs through Jones County, just two counties east of where I grew up. I’d paddled that stretch several times, so I agreed to do it when I learned that the movie in consideration was going to be the story of Newt Knight and the so-called “Free State of Jones” he led in the area during the Civil War.
The producer and writer of the project was Gary Ross, who at the time was best known for the films Sea Biscuit and Pleasantville. Since the time I took him on the river, he and his associates really hit the big time producing the Hunger Games movies. I thought that perhaps the Free State of Jones project would never come to pass after all that, but they finally filmed it (in Louisiana instead of on location) last year, and it will be coming to the big screen later this week. Here is the trailer, and below the video you can read the article I wrote about taking Gary Ross and his crew out in the swamps on a later scouting trip in 2008. I’m looking forward to the movie and will be seeing it at the earliest opportunity.
The pictures in the blog post below are from the swamps of the Pascagoula River, which begins where the Leaf and the Chickasawhay Rivers join together. This system also includes Black Creek, the setting for the books in my Darkness After Series.
I spent the day Monday working as a swamp guide, taking a group of Hollywood filmmakers on a scouting trip to check out possible shooting locations for an upcoming major motion picture that will be shot here in Mississippi next year. This was not the first time I worked on this project. Two years ago when the film was in the early planning stages, my friend Travis Easley and I guided the director and some of his associates on an overnight canoe camping trip along the Leaf River. They came back shortly after that wanting to see some more typical Southern swamp scenery, so Ernest Herndon and I took them to the Pascagoula River. Both trips went exceptionally well, and writer/director Gary Ross was impressed with what he saw and assured me they would be returning to film The Free State of Jones here on location.
That was a little over two years ago, and I didn’t hear another word about it until Sunday, when they called wanting to know if I could provide two canoes and take them back to the Pascagoula swamp to for a couple hours on Monday. It was a scramble to get ready on such short notice, but we managed and once again the crew was impressed with what they saw here in the Magnolia State. If things go as planned, some of the scenery in the photos below may be coming to the big screen someday in the not too distant future. I can’t disclose the location here, but this will likely be one of many spots in the area that will serve as potential backdrops in this story of Newt Knight and his band of deserters who refused to fight for the South during the American Civil War.
Below: Gary Ross, the writer and director, is well known for his work on such films as Sea Biscuit and Pleasantville. He’s a real adventurer who loves getting into the backwoods and has really taken a liking to the remote swamps of Mississippi.
Newt Knight and his small army of followers eluded the Confederate troops sent to find them by disappearing into the swamps along the Leaf River in Jones County. It would still be easy to hide out in the wetlands along south Mississippi’s rivers and streams.
We saw several small ‘gators in just a short stretch of paddling along a dead oxbow lake. Where there are young ones, there have to be some big adults as well. The alligator population has really been on the rise here in recent years.
I’m looking forward to more of this kind of location scouting work in the coming weeks and months as this film comes closer to reality. It will be quite an experience to see how a production crew works in such a difficult environment, and it will be awesome to go to the movies and see the woods and waters I have loved all my life on the big screen.