We had the good fortune of connecting with James Kicklighter and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi James, what led you to pursuing a creative path professionally?
When I was 12, my father died unexpectedly. He went from perfect health to dying in a week. The Centers for Disease Control later thought that it could have been one of the first American cases of SARS.
I was in Eighth Grade, and we had just returned from a Boy Scout camping trip. Once we got home, he woke my mom in the middle of the night. He couldn’t breathe.
The local hospital in Claxton, Georgia did what they could to stabilize him. But after two days, it escalated into double pneumonia. Dad had to be rushed to the bigger hospital in Savannah. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he died in the ambulance on the way. They brought him back, just in time to get him to the ICU.
I remember walking to dad’s room with my mom and sister, seeing him hooked up to all these machines. The ICU staff induced a coma to keep him going. I walked out, imagining everything would be fine. But was the last time I saw my father, and even now, I couldn’t tell you the last thing I told him. Three days later, he died.
The experience of his death haunted me for much too long in my life, and I began to use storytelling as a coping mechanism. Over time, I channeled that deeply held grief and trauma to tell stories as a film director. Instead of my trauma being a source of pain, it became a place of power, enabling me to empathize with different people and experiences.
Especially in documentary work, subjects sometimes tell me that they feel as though they’re sitting down with a therapist. I try to really dig into characters and find the core of what makes them tick. In narrative filmmaking, this same skill set permits me to add layers to topics that could be more simplistic. Together, this draws me to topics of loss and identity, which truly speak to the core of who I am as a person and director.
I am fascinated with how we use and overcome these attributes to become the person we are in the present. In the age of COVID-19, it has been rather introspective to see that experience come full circle.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Raised in Bellville, Georgia, population 123, you don’t really grow up dreaming about working in film. For me, doing something so different than many of my childhood peers gives me a unique perspective on my work. I don’t have a New York or Los Angeles view of the world. When you’re raised in a town that small, everyone knows you and your business. But you’re also imbued with a strong sense of community, and I try to bring that to my sets.
Directing is a fine balance between collaboration and clarity of vision. To allow your team to do the best work, I have to clearly express what my intentions are, and give them the latitude to apply their own artistry. If I don’t do a good job of that, audiences will see it in the work, no matter if I make a film, documentary or advertisement.
Time and failure has helped me to improve that skill set. I’ve tried to learn from my creative mistakes, applying those lessons along the way. One of the most instrumental teachings has been learning how to say “yes” and “no.” The projects that I decide to direct are just as important as the ones that I reject.
Earlier in my career, when I was trying to build my portfolio, I would say yes to nearly every opportunity. In hindsight, there are some projects I should have rejected, because I wasn’t fully aligned with the creative team. However, I’m grateful for those experiences today, because I know what I should and should not do as a director. When something comes across my desk, I can quickly identify if the project makes sense for me.
If you’re not on the same page with your team at the onset, you will not be there when you’re finished. Choosing who and who not to collaborate with is one of the most important lessons you can make as a creative.
With my new film, The Sound of Identity, I believe it is the clearest expression of all of those creative lessons and thematic concepts I wish to express as an artist. We were fortunate to have a terrific team, totally aligned in the film I wanted to make.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
When friends come to visit Los Angeles, I love to take them to a few specific places. First, we’re definitely heading up to Malibu Wines. I can sip that Saddlerock Cabernet all day. If we’ve got a ride, we’ll head over to The Magic Castle for the evening, which is easily my favorite club in town. Both are such unique experiences, and equally show some of the best of what our city has to offer.
I live in West Adams, and love to brunch at Vees Cafe, sometimes popping over to Culver City for Cafe Laurent. They’re great neighborhood places with an excellent breakfast, which is my favorite meal of the day.
We would then spend our time at the LACMA or The Broad, wandering about the art and exhibitions. As much as I like a fancy bar and cocktail, I like the down to earth places like Culver’s Cozy Inn. It has been running for decades, and I love the eclectic crowd that it attracts.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
There are four people that were truly instrumental in my development as an artist. First, actor Edith Ivey (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), who agreed to be in my first student films at Georgia Southern University, Theater of the Mind and The Car Wash. She continued on to my first feature film, Desires of the Heart. Without her first “yes” to my documentary short and screenwriting, it wouldn’t have triggered a series of events that got me any directing opportunities in the first place. I feel as though I owe much of my career to her guidance, support and education on how to collaborate with actors.
Second, Lilly Lee and John Maatta. I met them at the 2010 National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY), where my film The Car Wash was screening. I attended a women in film panel with all of these top executives, and towards the end of it, still a stranger, Lilly tapped me and asked, “What did you think of the panel?” I rattled off a few answers and she said, “Well, I put it together.” We stayed in touch, and shortly after graduating from Georgia Southern, she asked if I would like to come up to New York for The CW Network’s Upfront Presentation. I booked a flight and met her and her husband, John, for dinner. I didn’t realize he was the Chairman of the Network until that night! Over the years, they both have served as mentors and instrumental networkers. Without their initial encouragement and push, I highly doubt that I would be living in Los Angeles today.
Last, but not least, Bobby Zarem, the legendary New York publicist. I was directing Desires of the Heart in Savannah, before leaving to do the portion in Rajasthan, India. Lisa Kaminsky, who kept engaging with me on Twitter, wanted to meet. We met up for dinner and hit it off quickly. I knew that she was friends with Bobby, who had recently relocated to his childhood home in Savannah. I asked if she wouldn’t mind introducing us. She did, and we all became fast friends.
Bobby told me so many stories about his life and career, providing me with many lessons along the way. He invited me up to New York to see Broadway shows with him, meeting many of his friends and clients, along with numerous events in Los Angeles. Like John and Lilly, he too made many introductions on my behalf. Some of my first important meetings were because of his involvement. He taught me how to handle myself around the most famous names in the world, enabling me to focus on the work, not the personality.
All of these people came into my life from the age of 19 to 24, allowing me to quickly develop as a person and artist. Even today, I can’t express enough gratitude.