Choctaw Nation citizen Mark Williams is an award-winning filmmaker who started out small, learning storytelling skills as a child from his father, and then taking those skills all the way to the big screen. Williams now owns his own production company and has produced, edited and directed several films.
Flashback to 2006. Williams was sitting in the back of a theater at the Tulsa Film Festival nervously waiting for his film to be screened in front of an audience. It was his first film, something he was doing as a hobby. When that audience responded with an opening laugh, Williams not only relaxed, he knew film was what he wanted to be doing.
He’s been in film and winning awards ever since.
The road to an award-winning film career was not overnight, but telling stories has always been part of who he is. Williams’ own story begins on the Choctaw reservation in Mississippi, later moving to Oklahoma with his family as a child. He grew up listening to his dad tell stories; then as a teen he took those skills and started writing comics and stories for fun. Those same stories later turned into screenplays and a successful career.
Williams’ film projects and success span many genres, from children’s comedies to thrillers, to paranormal documentaries. The year 2015 was a game-changing year for him with the debut of “Violet,” a thriller focusing on a couple seemingly haunted by a former mental patient. “Violet” won 12 awards on the film festival circuit and helped connect Williams with people in the film industry who have been helpful in advancing his career.
Since then, Williams has produced a number of documentaries highlighting the stories and journeys of Indigenous athletes as well as “Tvshka Nowvt Aya,” a documentary about Choctaw stickball. He currently has numerous projects in the works.
Williams is passionate about Natives telling their own stories and gathering support for them. He, too, joins the movement in adding #MoreNatives to the film industry.
We chatted more with Williams, Q&A style, to learn more about his journey and what advice he would give to those who come after him. You could be next!
CNFO: How did you get started in the film industry?
Mark: I’ve always enjoyed writing, even as a little kid and just doing creative things, whether it be making comic books or producing video spoofs of popular ’90s movies. My dad is a really good storyteller, so that kind of fell into my lap as well. But these things I was just doing for fun because there wasn’t much to do in a small town. But when I got older I tried doing all the adult stuff like getting a job, going to school, even getting married, but something was still missing it seemed. So I began writing again, eventually knocking out a screenplay and a short film starring my friends and family. It somehow ended up at a Native film festival in Tulsa, and I remember sitting in the back of the theater — nervous at first but eventually overwhelmed with the awesome reactions it was getting from the audience. It was at that point I knew this is what I wanted to do so I used that experience to make a second short film, then a third and eventually my first feature film. I just studied other people’s work, learned from my mistakes while making bigger films with bigger budgets, and finally casting real actors. Now I’m at the point where I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to direct or put together other people’s projects as my clients.
What advice would you give to those looking to get into the film industry?
Don’t be worried about rejection or failing, because it will happen and maybe not everyone will like your work. But that doesn’t mean your work isn’t good; it might just not be their cup of tea. So keep telling the stories that are important to you, keep making the films that you would be excited to see, and if you keep doing that, then the passion will reflect in your work. You will need to rely on that at some point when things get tough.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your career?
Probably the most important thing I’ve learned so far is trusting myself and realizing we all have a unique way of storytelling. So don’t try to copy someone else’s movie or their style. I mean you can be inspired by them, sure, but use it to elevate your own way of making films. Your voice is what makes you the unique filmmaker that you are. So use it. Someday you want to have somebody look at a movie and say, “Oh, that’s so-and-so’s movie. I can just tell!”
What’s your career highlight?
I don’t know if it’s one thing. I think for me it’s just seeing people enjoy themselves. I know that’s a broad answer and kind of a cliché, but that’s what got the ball rolling for me way back in 2006 when my first movie played in front of an audience. Seeing moviegoers react the way I hoped they would, that was the greatest feeling ever. Fast forward 14 years later, I still get that feeling when I sit with an audience for my movies. It’s still a highlight for me. But nowadays I make a lot of social media content, so instead of audience reactions, I guess it’s sometimes audience engagement. That means they’re enjoying it — still a highlight for me.
What is your vision for Native people in the film industry?
I would love to see Natives depicted for who we really are and not just how Hollywood has historically portrayed us. We all didn’t grow up the same, talk the same, look the same. It’s been said again and again we need to tell our own stories, which is so true. We are naturally great storytellers. But the other end of that is we also need to support the artists, filmmakers, actors, etc. who are taking on that task. Get behind them, watch their movies, go to their events. It’s going to create a movement.
You can check out Williams’ latest work on his Facebook pages, Digital Feather Media and Native Boy Productions LLC, and his Instagram page, Digital Feather Media. You can also learn more about his projects on his IMDB page.
He’s currently screening his feature film, “Warrior Coach,” on the festival circuit. The film centers around a Choctaw, Kiowa and Apache coach at a small Native school producing big time basketball talent.
Williams is also working on an upcoming documentary with the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department about a relatively unknown story regarding the Trail of Tears and the outcome it’s had on the Choctaw people. Stay tuned for more, and our thanks to Mark for sharing his story and insight.
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