A film studio might seem like the last business that one would associate with Mathews County, but independent filmmaker Robert Griffith thinks it’s a perfect fit.
The former Richmond resident has worked around the country, from the backlots in California to Florida, from the Midwest to up and down the East Coast, but throughout his 35-year career, Virginia has been his home base.
Over the years, he’s progressed from television work as a cinematographer to working in the medium as a free lance editor and advertising director to owning his own award-winning independent studio, Griffith Films.
For 15 of those years, Griffith has owned property in Moon that he initially used as a "shadow space." But as time passed, he realized he was more creative in his home on Billups Creek and, because his work generally requires traveling to various sites for filming anyway, he found that working out of his Moon office was just as productive as working out of his Richmond office.
"When I do a film, I start with an outline," he said, "and I did an outline in two weeks at the desk in my new office space. I’ve never had a better creative space."
Not only that, but the atmosphere and amenities in Mathews have grown increasingly conducive to bringing in guests from the industry, with restaurants where they can eat, bed and breakfasts where they can stay, and a burgeoning arts community.
Griffith said that when you live in a major city and have an occupation such as filmmaking, there are certain "trappings that go with it" and people have certain expectations of you. In Mathews, however, he’s known as just plain Jessie to some folks because that’s what he put on his license plate after his dog died, and life goes on at a slower pace. He does a lot of kayaking and boating and cooking, and he travels with his wife Rosemary to visit the various farms and vendors from which she buys items for her Main Street business, Real Goods.
When his son graduated from college, Griffith decided it was time to sell his Richmond home and move his editing equipment to Mathews.
"The work takes me where it takes me, from project to project," he said. "I wanted to be here so I made a commitment and sold my home in Richmond."
Because Richmond has a broad industrial base that attracts the crew people needed for film making, Griffith said he plans to maintain a studio there for the meantime, but said he’ll eventually phase it out.
While the first part of his career involved some lean years when he was grateful for whatever piecemeal work came along, Griffith said his growing body of work has given him name recognition, and although modest about his accomplishments, he’s clearly become a sought-after filmmaker whose projects are well-paid and involve quite a bit of creative license.
"As a filmmaker, you’re always looking for funding," said Griffith. "But if people are finding you, the money is usually there."
For the past 10 or 15 years, the majority of Griffith’s films have been documentaries that involve mostly non-profit and grant work. One of his projects, a documentary titled "Moviemaking in Virginia," was supported by the Virginia Film Office, First Market Bank, and others in the business community. It gave him access to some big names in the film industry–Cissy Spacek, Sam Shepherd, Robert Duvall and others who live in Virginia or have done films here–and it helped lead to his most recently completed documentary "Voices of Hope and Recovery," which has brought him increased recognition since its premiere before then Gov. Tim Kaine and other Virginia officials last year.
"I’ve never gotten more e-mails or had more people stay longer to comment after a premiere," he said.
One of Griffith’s favorite clients has been the non-profit Elk Hill, a Boy’s Town-style residential treatment program for young men. He’s made six films for the program, one of which received a Silver Telly Award. He said, "I really have to squeeze the dollars," but he has watched with pride as the program has grown over the past 21 years.
Griffith also takes pride in the work he did as the director of photography for Richmond director David Williams’ low-budget film "Lillian," which won a special jury award for distinction at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993 and was number seven on the Hollywood Reporters’ Top Ten List that year.
Last October, Griffith received Richmond Magazine’s 2009 Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts in the category of film. Named for the founder of the Virginia University School for the Arts and the University of Richmond arts program, the Pollak awards are coveted by Richmond artists because the recipients are chosen by their peers.
"It’s a business of self-promoters," he said, "so it’s nice when you don’t spend a nickel or put yourself in that light and you get a call anyway."
Griffith currently has one film in production and one in its initial creative stages, and he thinks his business will grow and be successful for at least another 10 years. And it will all be done right here in Mathews County.
"If you’re an established independent filmmaker, you can work in Moon in Mathews," he said. "It’s a lifestyle."
Film to air
Griffith’s documentary, "Voices of Hope and Recovery," made under the auspices of the Virginia Department of Psychiatry and the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, will air on television for the first time Friday, at 10 p.m. on PBS channel WCVE.
Funded by a block grant, the 50-minute film features interviews with a variety of people who live with mental illness. It will air again on WCVE at 11 p.m. on July 12, and PBS station WCVW will air it at 4 p.m. on July 11 and at 8 p.m. on July 13.
To view the film online, visit www.dbhds.virginia.gov.