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By Anna Julia Vissioli Rodrigues

Directors Tim Grant and Andy McMillan share what it was like to showcase their feature documentary Mississippi River Styx at the 2023 Charlotte Film Festival. The film focuses on an enigmatic drifter with terminal cancer who lives his dream of floating down the Mississippi River on a ramshackle houseboat — until locals start to question his story.

Tell me about yourself. How did you get involved in filmmaking? How did you meet?

Tim Grant: I didn’t go to film school, but I had an interest in film ever since I was a kid. I started making documentaries about 13 years ago as a freelancer. I ended up meeting Andy around that time, and I was a big fan of his photography. I asked him if he was interested in collaborating with me, and it took a while, but this was the project [Mississippi River Styx] that we finally ended up working on together.

Andy McMillan: I started out as a freelance photographer for publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others. Tim and I talked about collaborating over the years, but I only started working in film recently with this project, which started as a short and later became a full-length feature film.

I would love to know more about Mississippi River Styx. How did it start? Was there a part of the story that particularly interested you? What was the process of creating the film like?

AM: I first met Kelly [Phillips], the focus of the film, in a dive bar in Memphis, and I bummed a cigarette from him. I noticed he was passing out copies of newspaper stories about his trip down the river. I was drawn to the sense of agency he had over his end-of-life story. I called Tim and our cinematographer, and a couple weeks later we were floating down the river on Kelly’s boat.

Shooting on the river is quite challenging physically and logistically. We were navigating among gigantic commercial shipping vessels in a small houseboat with a motor that worked intermittently. We nearly sank in the busiest part of the river. It was thrilling but terrifying. The big takeaway from this project is how meaningful collaboration can be and how difficult it is to cover a story like this in a responsible way.

How would you describe your experience participating in the 2023 Charlotte Film Festival? What was the impact of the festival on your film and future projects? 

TG: It’s important to me to be active in the filmmaking community. The community in Charlotte is small but vital. I think the Charlotte Film Festival helps create more opportunities for filmmakers and raises the visibility of film in the region. It’s a good platform to share your work with others and connect with like-minded people.

AM: To me, the most meaningful part of this experience was having the opportunity to share our project with our community. Our friends and family listened to us talk about this movie for years. So, it was nice to finally show it to them. Charlotte Film Festival’s programming is really strong, and we met some great filmmakers here. One connection we made during the festival led to our film being screened for a class at Duke University.

What was your favorite part of the festival?

AM: Our homecoming, being with our friends and family, and getting to see the film with some of our Charlotte-based partners. Our main financier, XTR, is in LA, but we couldn’t have made the film without the generous support we received locally from the good folks at Caravan and Priceless Misc.

How would you describe the festival to other filmmakers and film enthusiasts?

TG: I actually just recommended to a filmmaker that they send their work to the festival. The program is strong, and I have no hesitation in telling people about it. I also tell people and other filmmakers to go see all the good films available, especially the short films, because I enjoyed all the short films I saw at last year’s festival.

What are the benefits of participating in film festivals for a filmmaker?

AM: So many. You get to watch your film with a generous audience — filmmakers and lovers of film — and you get this community. We screened at nine festivals in the past year, and you see a lot of the same people at each festival. You are able to build a sense of community that extends beyond Charlotte.

TG: I started going to festivals as a filmmaker 10 years ago. It’s part of what keeps me wanting to continue making films. We have the opportunity to screen our work for an engaged audience, who are actively watching rather than being on their phones, and to make connections with other filmmakers.

Do you have any future projects that you are excited about?

TG: We do but can’t share them publicly yet. Stay tuned!

Make sure to follow Tim Grant, Andy McMillan and the film on Instagram. 

The 2024 Charlotte Film Festival, scheduled for September 24-29, is accepting submissions! You can learn more here.

Anna Julia Vissioli Rodrigues is a recent graduate from Queens University of Charlotte and is currently the communication intern for IPH.
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