It is hard for me to imagine that I started JamesWorks Entertainment eleven years ago. After all, I was sixteen on the cusp of seventeen; I could fail hard.

Our first film was That Guy: the Legacy of Dub Taylor. We were looking to tell a story about the western character actor and the influence of character actors in early Hollywood. It was a big fail; more on that in a moment.

Director James Kicklighter with Designing Women's Dixie Carter.
Director James Kicklighter with
Designing Women's Dixie Carter.

There, to the left, you can find me, the pasty, scrawny producer and assistant director with unfortunately shaggy, dyed black hair with red highlights.

Along with my deeply inexperienced team, we had worked hard to convince a whole bunch of agents and managers in Hollywood that we should interview their clients.

Some of them said yes. From my hometown of Bellville, Georgia, population 123, it was an amazing adventure to go to over twenty states, working with the likes of John Mellencamp, Dixie Carter, David Zucker and many others. 

I wish that I could tell you the film was good. 

That Guy: the Legacy of Dub Taylor, Trailer

It was poorly edited and certainly not color graded, because we all were learning how to use Final Cut 7.

It was poorly shot, because we had no budget for proper equipment or lighting.

It didn't have any sound design, everything varied from scene-to-scene. 

When it was time to premiere the film, the Taylor family decided they did not want to participate, and so we ended up screening it once in front of a public audience at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia. 

While I can't speak for our team, I personally learned a whole bunch about what not to do in making a film. But I also learned how to do research for a film, coordinate travel, communicate with agents, and figure out the mechanics of an effective interview.

Dumbfounded (currently grateful) that we had wasted the past two years on a film that no one was going to see again, I decided there was one way to proceed.

Fail. Try again.

I started making wedding videos, high school graduation videos, children's audiobooks; in short, anything that could finance my making films and taking them to film festivals.

At this point, I had arrived in college and had signed up to do a study abroad experience in Italy. Itching to try a documentary again, I asked the director of the Montepulciano program if I could follow four students and make a film about the experience.

Di Passaggio, Trailer

Turning the camera on myself and coming to terms with my teenage years (a crazy but true story about how I became interested in film) while taking classes and following my peers, I directed Di Passaggio, my first film solo.

Having learned some lessons from Dub Taylor, I tried to apply them.

Di Passaggio didn't light the world on fire, but it got me into the Macon Film Festival, my first film festival for which I'll always feel a special kinship (and also learned not to get blackout drunk on the first night).

This time there was an audience that paid to attend and it wasn't relegated to a singular screening.

It wasn't quite a success, but I failed less hard.

I decided if I could make a documentary, I could certainly write a script for a short film. Inspired by a comment about loneliness overheard at my local car wash, I wrote and directed my first scripted piece.

Though I had originally envisioned the leading role for Dixie Carter, she had just passed away, and so I turned to Edith Ivey, who had just come from David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Edith and I had met on a documentary short created for the NAB Show in Las Vegas financed by Georgia Southern, my alma mater.

She loved the script.

We made The Car Wash for a thousand dollars, big money for me at the time, and totally out of my pocket. It was received by some big, well attended film festivals, including the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (Sundance for Youth) and the Garden State Film Festival. 

The Car Wash, Full Film

Finally, I made something that festivals liked, and you bet I went to all of them and networked like crazy.

Director James Kicklighter on the red carpet at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth, worried if his future career would fail.
Director James Kicklighter
on the red carpet at the
National Film Festival
for Talented Youth

I budgeted for it, because growing up in Bellville, there simply wasn't access to people in entertainment. Any connection I made had to be earned, never given.

On the festival circuit for The Car Wash, I met some of my first mentors, including the former Chairman of The CW Network and his wife, who invited me to New York for the Upfront Presentation only a week after I graduated from college.

Subsequently, they invited me to their home in Los Angeles for a summer party, where I met a whole bunch of other people. They changed my life because I made a good impression and was eager to learn from them.

At this point, I thought I needed an agent. 

Then I got a cold hard dose of reality; I didn't have enough work to showcase and the work I had wasn't good enough. 

One of those agents, a prominent leader at UTA, told me pointedly, "when you need an agent, you'll know, because they'll start calling you, not the other way around." I did better, but still failed to achieve my goal.

While on the festival circuit, I met Maureen Cooke, a writer/producer from New Mexico who had optioned Will McIntosh's Followed and had decided that I was the perfect director for the short.

Slowly but surely, we put the money together and made it.

Followed trailer

For the first time, we had international press; Ain't it Cool News, FilmInk Australia and Spain's Fotogramas. 

Suddenly, six years into starting my company, people around the world were paying attention to our work.

Shortly thereafter, I got my first offer to direct a feature film, Desires of the Heartwhich was to be shot in Savannah, Georgia and Rajasthan, India.

It wasn't only a first feature, it was an international film for a Bollywood producer who had never done an English language film.

Boy had I made it now.

Director James Kicklighter in the press for Desires of the Heart in Rajasthan, India
Director James Kicklighter
in the press for
Desires of the Heart
in Rajasthan, India

There were some caveats.

My producing team of seven years didn't get along with the producer of Desires.  But also for the first time, I wouldn't have final cut or total control over the production.

From a creative standpoint, I felt that taking the project would be a great moment to flex the creative skills we had accumulated over the years. It would certainly be a tremendous learning opportunity for myself and our team. We agreed to proceed together.

Then one day close to production, my production partners got in an epic, irreconcilable argument with the producer.  I either had to walk away from the project or walk away from them.  

It was one of the toughest, most heart-wrenching decisions of my life.

Director James Kicklighter with Mark Ezra Stokes and Kasey Ray-Stokes
Director James Kicklighter with
former production partners
Mark Ezra Stokes and Kasey Ray-Stokes

These guys, who had grown up together with me, were more than professional partners, they were family.

But in this moment, they were in the wrong. I had to fire them from the project.

Shortly after, they walked away from me, and I have never heard from them again. I mean a complete blackballing, blocking from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. In an instant, I lost my colleagues, my friends, and my family. 

For the first time in my professional life, I was alone.But there wasn't time to mourn, I had a movie to make. The film had originally been attempted nearly ten years prior, but had collapsed only a few days into filming, never to be completed.

The option of director James Kicklighter's Desires of the Heart, years before he was attached to direct, when the film fail the first time.
The option of director James Kicklighter's
Desires of the Heart, years before he was attached
to direct in its first incarnation.

I vowed not to let that happen and we didn't. 

Starting from scratch, I worked with the producer on a script rewrite while preparing for shooting. Alicia Minshew was already attached for the female lead, but our lead male actor had dropped out a week before filming was supposed to commence.

Director James Kicklighter with actor Val Lauren on the set of Desires of the Heart in Rajasthan, India, terrified to fail.
Director James Kicklighter with actor Val Lauren
on the set of Desires of the Heart in Rajasthan, India

Following advice from my mentors, an executive at HBO suggested Val Lauren for the lead, and I pursued it aggressively.

Director James Kicklighter on the set of Desires of the Heart in Savannah, Georgia
Director James Kicklighter on the set of
Desires of the Heart in Savannah, Georgia

We put him in and we were good to go.

We finished the film and some people even liked it.

Desires of the Heart, Trailer

Desires of the Heart screened at festivals across the United States and around the world, including the Cannes Marche du Film, where it was showcased to the global film market. 

Review of director James Kicklighter's Desires of the Heart in Film Threat is not a fail
Review of director James Kicklighter's
Desires of the Heart in Film Threat

Similarly to my first documentary outing, it didn't set the world on fire.

Indeed, it was only released theatrically in India, not even getting distribution in the United States for various marketing reasons.

I finally got some calls from agents and managers, even finding one at a respected agency that loved my writing and my work.

But just as things were looking up, just as I thought I was going to get signed and the world was going to be my oyster, he moved agencies -- where he was only going to represent actors. 

I thought I was going to make it with this film, but I hadn't.

Then, I started to realize a pattern.

Every time I made something, it was with the intention of using it for me to get to the next rung, to reach the next peak. But when I reached each peak, I realized there was another mountain chain in front of me.

It hit me like an avalanche.

Film Courage, Full 2015 Interview

Hadn't I already achieved something? 

At long last, I was consistently working, getting to pick and choose the projects that I wanted to take on.

  • I wasn't working at Starbucks or driving for Uber.
  • Journalists were interviewing me and people were asking questions, not just at a local level anymore, but across the country and around the world.
  • With each failure, I grew.
  • With each mistake, I learned.
  • I figured out how to really listen to people, orchestrating productions both large and small, creating projects that were connecting with people.
  • I learned how to lead and how to make hard decisions.

Eleven years later, a sequence of events turned into a career. 

I didn't need an agent or a manager to get work, I just needed to keep working and make good work. In fact, I looked around and realized that my entrepreneurial spirit had gotten me further along than some of my friends who were represented.

Everything follows in time.

Director James Kicklighter doesn't fail, wins Best Music Video at the Garden State Film Festival
Director James Kicklighter wins Best Music Video
at the Garden State Film Festival

You don't become an overnight success; many nights of hard work build success. In fact, you learn something new on every project and I don't think you ever "arrive."

Hell, I'm 28.  

I have plenty more to learn and do, and believe me, I certainly don't have all the answers. The second you know all the answers, you should pack up and go home.

That's why I try to surround myself with people who know a lot more than me, because there is much to be curious about. It's the same curiosity that led a kid from a small town in South Georgia to pursue his passions and live his dreams.

There will always be another mountain to scale. But a lot of people aren't willing to put in the work to do it; indeed, it took me eleven years to work with names you recognize.

There's a difference in having passion and pursuing it with vigor. In fact, many quit along the way because the spark isn't strong enough.

This is a tough, unforgiving business.

But if you really want it, keep going. Don't ask permission, just do so you can figure out how to accomplish your end goals.

Because if I can do it, you certainly can too.