DIRECTOR: JUSTIN WARD ‘The Meanest Man in Texas’ | Exclusive SMC SPOTLIGHT Interview

By Candice Anne Marshall

Recently, we posted a SPOTLIGHT on Director Joshua Shultz for his short film ‘STROBE’ complete with an in-depth interview with he and his leading lady for the film, Chelsea Debo. In researching the background on other Actors in the film a little further, I discovered Los Angeles, California-based Actor Mateus Ward (see Mateus Wards’ in-depth SMC SPOTLIGHT interview/review here). His role as a meth addict in this film was so convincing, I decided I needed to know more about him. That’s when I stumbled across his Facebook Fan page and discovered he was cast as lead Actor in the upcoming film, ‘The Meanest Man in Texas‘(just hitting the Film Festival circuit now). This lead me down the rabbit hole and what I discovered was a kaleidoscope of magnificent talent and that talent has a name: Justin Ward.

Ward is the Director and genius behind this compelling film and it is evident in every detail that was portrayed historically and thematically. ‘The Meanest Man in Texas’ is a true story account (set in the late 1920’s and onward) following the life of Clyde Thompson, who, at the age of 17 was convicted of murder (self-defense) and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Within hours of his inevitable fate, Texas Governor Ross Sterling reduced his sentence to life in prison. This began the true account story (title of the same name) written in the early 1980’s by Author Don Umphrey who compiled a detailed and documented account of what turned this young man into what the media would later label ‘The Meanest Man in Texas’.

Photo still of Actor Captain Colt played by Jamie McShane at the Prison Farm where Clyde Thompson was placed.
Photo by: Ryan Gunnerson

Aesthetically, this film scores high in my list of epic true-story cinematography: I have always been a fan of vintage films and the imagery, costumes, sets and final produced result of this film is exquisite. Lead Actors Mateus Ward (yes, he is Justin’s son, also, plays Clyde Thompson), and Alexandra Bard (Julia, Thompson’s love interest and savior) bring depth and emotion with conviction. I admit, I was a blubbering mess each time their on-screen relationship was tested with inevitable challenges and hurdles.

Actor Jamie McShane lends combustible energy to his role as Captain Colt. Now, I don’t want to give too many of the details away (you’ll just have to attend the Film Festival circuit to see what I mean!), but let’s just say that the friction between Wards’ and McShanes’ characters was on-the-seat-of-your-chair gripping, explosive, sometimes humorous, and compassionate. Characters throughout the film such as Ben Reed (Thompson’s grief-stricken Father), and Casey Bond (Preacher) lend depth to this already intense story. My hats’ off to Casting Director Laura Ward who, clearly, has a true penchant for recognizing strengths and weaknesses in each Actor and has suitably matched them for every role in this film – brilliant! A full list of the cast and crew for this film can be found (here).

There aren’t a lot of films anymore that motivate me to head to the theater and feel inspired by their stories and I am also not the kind of individual to watch even much television these days. For me to sit more than 10 minutes during any film, whether it be in the theater or in the comfort of my office or home, it must be compelling in its content, visuals, and supported by stellar performances. ‘The Meanest Man in Texas’ is this complete package delivered by a ‘Rolls Royce’ caliber cast and crew. Having a Journalist background, I am drawn to factual-based films where accuracy portrayed in the overall details, visual, and acting is congruent to the time/era it takes place in. In my opinion, Justin Ward along with Producers Casey Bond and Brad Wilson (Higher Purpose Entertainment, in association with OHAHA FILMS, Inc.) have brought truth, humor, emotion, and enlightenment to this otherwise dark story that I am certain will inspire viewers to look beyond misfortune to know that there is always hope and the ability to achieve a positive outcome.

If you haven’t heard about this film yet or the cast and crew mentioned, I encourage you to check out the social media links after this interview and stay tapped in to find out when it will be available for public viewing and where. In the meantime, spend two minutes of your day and check out the trailer to this incredible film below.

And did I mention the films ‘Rolls Royce’ caliber?

You’re welcome.

Director Justin Ward Photo by: Joshua Shultz Provided by: Justin Ward

SMC SPOTLIGHT Exclusive Interview | DIRECTOR: JUSTIN WARD ‘The Meanest Man in Texas’

May 9th, 2017

SMC – Hello Justin! Welcome to the SMC SPOTLIGHT! We have begun expanding SMC into other areas of the arts such as the Film Industry. We are thrilled to be talking to you today about your new film ‘The Meanest Man in Texas’. Let’s begin first with some background questions…. can you tell us about your role in the making of this film?

JUSTIN: Thank you.  I am the director and co-writer of the film. 

SMC – Can you share your career background with us?

JUSTIN: I began my career working for Mick Jagger at Jagged Films, his film production company.  I went on to work as an assistant to the producers on several studio feature films, and was fortunate enough to work with and observe such producers and directors as Robert Redford, Norman Jewison, James L. Brooks, Richard Donner, Ron Shelton, Arnon Milchan, Joel Silver, and Grant Hill.  I developed a documentary sports series for extreme sports for ESPN, and produced and directed over 300 hours of programming from 1999-2005 on that network.  In 2006, I was the Showrunner on a magazine TV series called “Inside the UFC” for Spike TV. I also created and was the Showrunner of “The BJ Penn Show,” and in 2011, I created, directed and Executive Produced the documentary film series “Rock Stars” on National Geographic.  In 2015, I directed the award-winning syndicated farm-to-table series “Localicious.” I have also produced, directed and edited for The UFC, The USSA, The ParaOlympics, Nascar, Warner Bros. Marketing, CBS, NBC, FOX, The Travel Channel and the NFL.  This is my feature film directorial debut.

SMC – What lead you to this story about the life of Clyde Thompson aka: ‘The Meanest Man In Texas’?

JUSTIN: Mateus Ward and I wrote an anti-bully film called REBEL in 2014, and I shot a teaser to help raise financing.  Brad Wilson, one of the producers of “The Meanest Man In Texas” read the script and saw my teaser.  He and his partner Casey Bond brought the project to me and asked me to direct it.  I worked with writer Don Umphrey on the script for a few months, then we jumped right into production.  It all happened very quickly.

SMC – Let’s get into the details of the film itself: how much of Clyde’s life story was accurate in this film? Sometimes in films, there is a true account of the biographical story and in others, it’s a ‘based on’ account….

JUSTIN: When I read the book, it was hard to believe any of this could have happened to one man!  I was blown away by this unbelievable story.  So, it wasn’t hard to stick to the truth—it was more dramatic and exciting than any fiction.  Don Umphrey had spent years talking to Clyde Thompson and others to get all the facts, and we felt it was important to stay as close as we could to his true story.  All the situations actually happened, and are true.  However, we flushed out a few characters that Clyde knew or mentioned, but didn’t give much detail about.  When I started on the script, I wanted to really explore more deeply Clyde and Julia and Clyde and Capt. Colt’s relationships. 

SMC – Can you tell us what the importance of telling this story though film was to you? How did it resonate with you personally?

JUSTIN: I was so moved by this story, I had to tell it.  There were so many themes that resonated with me in the story.  First, I think it is a powerful story about redemption.  That no matter how dark things get, there is always hope.  The other theme I wanted to explore is the idea of how a corrupt justice and penal system can change you.  Clyde went into prison a typical teenager, quite innocent in many ways, and soon gained the moniker “the Meanest Man In Texas.”  I wanted to make a film that asks the fundamental question: do circumstances define who we are, or can we become the person we want to be in life, no matter our circumstances?  Once I started re-writing the script, what really resonated with me in the true story was the unconditional love between Clyde and Julia, so I wanted to make sure we flush that element out more.  Society wants to put us in boxes, they try and label us, for example he’s “a killer” and she’s a “hunchback,” but this is a story about two people who didn’t accept those labels—in fact, they defied them—and loved each other unconditionally regardless of how society saw them.   So, for me, it became a powerful story about redemption, forgiveness and acceptance, and that was the film I wanted to make. 

(l-r) Justin Ward, Mateus Ward, Jamie McShane
Photo by: Ryan Gunnerson

SMC – I also see that Don Umphrey, the author who wrote ‘The Meanest Man in Texas’ was involved in this project as well. Can you tell us how much of a benefit he was to have included in the making of this film?

JUSTIN: Don was a wealth of information. Having met and spoken with Clyde himself was a huge resource.  It took Don 39 years to get this story to the big screen.  I was very respectful when changing the script and ran everything by him, just to make sure it was historically correct.

SMC – Your Casting Director Laura Ward did an excellent job at assembling the Actor profiles for this film! Can you tell us a little bit about her background and what vision she had for the film also? (this could even be a question you could let her answer)

JUSTIN: Laura was amazing. Laura has a phenomenal eye and worked around the clock to find the best actors for every single role.  Every actor we cast was incredibly talented!  It was such a joy collaborating on this with my wife.  I knew we had little time for rehearsal with the actors, and most likely we would get no more than a couple of takes, so we were really looking at auditions and audition tapes where the actors were “performance ready,” with maybe a few adjustments.  

LAURA WARD:  It was really important for us to find actors that looked vintage, as if they were from that era.  We saw a lot of actors from popular shows, but it was important to find classic faces and great acting.  During the process, it was great to see how many actors came really prepared and embodied the character they were portraying.  I come from an acting background and have studied with some great teachers.  Being the mother of a young actor, and watching roles being put out on breakdown, cast and then filmed, I was able to use that experience in searching for our cast.  I was seeking actors who brought something special to each character.  I am so very proud of this cast!

SMC – In conversation with you, this past weekend you earned ‘Best Picture’ at the ICFF (International Christian Film Festival) Film Festival in Florida! What an accomplishment! What are your thoughts on this?

JUSTIN: It is such an honor to win a Best Picture award. The festival also gave Mateus Ward a Best Actor in a Feature Film award.  Brad Wilson, our producer, was in Orlando for ICFF, and said it was an extremely successful screening and festival. 

SMC – Tell us about your LA premiere? Can you tell us what some of the reactions to the film were?

JUSTIN: I was thrilled we were accepted to the Independent Filmmakers Showcase Film Festival in Beverly Hills.  It was great to show the film to our friends, family and industry peers.  The reaction was amazing, and many people stayed after the Q&A to continue to discuss the film, which was incredible.

SMC – The emotion that was expressed in this film was very intense and laced with some humor throughout (‘Got a light?’) – can you tell us if that was your personal touch to the film or if those were true accounts of the kinds of things the real Clyde would have said or done?

JUSTIN: I have to admit, the line “Got a light?” was my addition.  However, it was based on Clyde Thompson’s type of humor.  I like to think it was something he would have said.  I didn’t have much time, but I did my best to add humor and charm into the film where we could, since it was such a dark series of situations.  The casting director and I wanted to make sure that the actor Barney had a great sense of humor, and Anthony Guerino brought in a lot of awkward charm and humor to the role.

(l-r) Justin Ward, Mateus Ward
Photo Property of: ‘The Meanest Man In Texas’
Provided by: Justin Ward

SMC – What are your thoughts on Mateus’s skill as an Actor in this film?

JUSTIN:  I can’t explain how extraordinary it was to work with my son on this project.  I may be biased, but I believe he is one of the most talented actors of his generation.  The fact that he’s won 3 lead actor awards for this film, backs up my belief.  I don’t know any 17-year-old that could pull off what he did in this film, let alone many actors of any age.  Not only did he lose 17 pounds for the role, research for months, reached out to the family, but he also learned a very difficult accent and certain cadence, aged himself up physically and vocally, and carried the film.  The role required so much emotional, mental and physical range, and he nailed it.  I am extremely proud of his work on this film. 

SMC – I discovered your film through an industry peer – Joshua Shultz (Bellus Magazine, Director: STROBE), can you tell us what your connection with Joshua is?

JUSTIN: We met Joshua through an article he was doing on Mateus back in 2013.  We have all kept in touch, and Joshua asked Mateus to be in his anti-drug film STROBE.

SMC – With the SMC SPOTLIGHT, we have begun a ‘Spotlight numbered series’ with some of our high-profile clients and would like to continue following your journey and career. Is this something that would interest you?

JUSTIN: Yes.  Of course.  We would love to be a part of the Spotlight Numbered Series. 

SMC – What do you think is the value in having the support of media platforms such as SMC?

JUSTIN: SMC is such a great publication, with incredible talent and interesting interviews, I am honored to be included.  I think there is huge value in SMC sharing indie films to their audience.  Our goal as filmmakers is to make films so people can see them, and we are able to reach new audiences through publications like SMC.

SMC – Can you tell us which industry peers have been most supportive of your film? Who would you like to give a ‘shout out’ to?

JUSTIN: The success of the film is a culmination of everyone who worked on, acted in and helped support this film.  First, the executive producers Don Umphrey and Marshall Danby, have been incredible to work with on this project.  I have to thank the Producers Brad Wilson and Casey Bond, who hired me.  My wife Laura, son Mateus, and daughter Adiana for their constant support.  Shirley Roberts and Clyde Echols are members of the family who helped fill in the gaps.   It was my first film, so I reached out to a few people in the industry for advice, like Ralph Bertelle VP of Production at Paramount, Greg Berry an incredible art director and production designer, and Clenet Verdi-Rose a director and 1st AD.  So many people were so supportive, I’m sure I have missed some, but I am humbled by so much support by people like Dennis Lavalle, Eric Swanson, Andrew Morgado, PJ Ochelan and Joshua Shultz.

(l-r) Mateus Ward, Isabella Acres
Photo Property of: ‘The Meanest Man In Texas’
Provided by: Justin Ward

SMC – What are some of the projects you have coming up? Are you able to share that info with our readers?

JUSTIN: I have a couple of projects that I am trying to package right now, a feature film and a music documentary.  Mateus and I are also seeking financing on the anti-bully film we wrote together called REBEL.

SMC – Will you be including Mateus in on more future projects?

JUSTIN: This was such an incredible experience for both of us, we hope to continue to work on projects together.

SMC – Pardon my ignorance, but I have never asked this question before: what is the process of getting a film completed? Can you give us a play by play from first concept to final output?

JUSTIN: Basically, it’s like bearing a child.  For this film, we had a short window of pre-production which included budgeting, scheduling, re-writes, finding locations, casting and wardrobe.  Production was 11 days.  Post production included 4 weeks of editing, color, mixing and final output. 

SMC – You had mentioned to me that this film took only 11days to complete – wow! That’s some intense shooting! Can you tell us what a typical day would be like on set from start to finish?

JUSTIN: Having only 11 days meant everyone had to be extremely prepared.  I had every shot, every angle, every beat planed out.  Then, when we got pressed for time, I had to throw away the game plan, and in the moment, create a way to get the scene shot in just one shot, with no coverage.  This happened several times a day.  The cast and crew all had to adapt and be fluid, because I refused to throw out scenes, I threw out set ups and coverage instead.  We made every day.  I couldn’t have done it without my first Assistant Director and the Cinematographer Will Barratt, or with a different cast and crew.

SMC – Can you tell us what the next several weeks and months look like in terms of Film Festivals and promotion of this film?

JUSTIN: As of now, we are waiting on a couple more film festivals, and just trying to create some buzz and get people excited about the film.

SMC – I have to say that I was pretty impressed by the portrayal Alexandra Bard gave of Julia in this film. Can you tell us what working with Alexandra was like?

JUSTIN: Alex walked into the audition and had morphed herself into Julia.  I remember after she left, I asked the casting director for her headshot, thinking I found my Julia.  When she handed me Alexandra’s headshot, it was a glamor shot of this gorgeous woman, I said, “No, the one who JUST auditioned.”  Alex is one of the actresses every director dreams to cast.  She was 100% committed to the role, did her homework, transformed herself for the role, never complained, took direction, and gave a stellar performance that has left audiences in tears.  We lucked out that she walked through the door that day.  I knew from her first audition she was our Julia.

Alexandra Bard (Julia)
Photo by: Deborah Kolb

SMC – Some of the other Actors in the film had some pretty stellar skills presented in the film also. Ben Reed, who played Clyde’s Father was compelling! Jamie McShane as Captain Colt – that was also intense! How do you feel about the skills that these two gentlemen portrayed?

JUSTIN: I am proud of every actor in this film.  We assembled some amazingly talented actors, and they all stepped up and delivered strong performances.  I cannot say enough about Jamie McShane.  In New York, he won Best Supporting Actor at the Film Festival, and deserves many more awards for his performance.  Jamie was a pleasure to work with and he stepped in and accepted this part late in the game.  He didn’t have much time to prepare.   He was so respectful of the script and my vision, yet brought so much to the role. We had some incredible discussions about Capt. Colt and his journey. Besides being a great actor, he is an extraordinary human being.  Great example of the kind of actor / person he is, Jamie arrived on day 1, and it was over 100 degrees outside.  Hotter inside the Morgue.  Jamie shows up with 2 huge cases of water on his shoulders, and passes them out to the crew.  Then stepped in, and delivered that performance that left us all mesmerized. 

SMC – At the end of shooting, and it’s time to attend Film Festivals, do you feel like the cast has become a family? I mean, this is a story about a young man whose life was changed forever but there were key people along the way that helped to bring him to this epiphany in life…. surely this is the kind of thing that would connect people.

JUSTIN: Yes.  Well, some of the cast and crew are actually family.  Seriously, there is a certain connection with people when you make a film.  This team was especially special.  We were fortunate that the entire cast and crew were all really great people, besides being so talented.  It made an impossible task fun, and everyone has been so supportive during the festival circuit.  We have all gotten very close. 

Still from ‘The Meanest Man In Texas’ with Cast
Photo property of: ‘The Meanest Man In Texas’
Provided by: Justin Ward

SMC – Can you tell us all the film Festivals that ‘The Meanest Man in Texas’ has been a part of and which are coming up?

JUSTIN:  We have been accepted to 7 film festivals, including the Nashville Film Festival, The New York City International Film Festival, The Beverly Hills Film Festival, IndieFEST, The International Christian Film Festival, The Los Angeles Cinefest of Hollywood, and The Independent Filmmakers Showcase Film Festival.

SMC – What accomplishments overall can you list for us that the film has earned so far?

JUSTIN: It has been accepted to 7 festivals, with over 20 nominations and 10 wins, including a Best Picture. 

SMC – Where will the general public be able to see this film?

JUSTIN: We are still on the film festival circuit, but check our social media for any updates on distribution.

SMC – How can one of our readers reach out to find out where they can see this film?

JUSTIN: Follow us on social media for more information and updates:

Twitter

Facebook

Instagram

SMC – Finish this sentence: If I was not pursuing my career in Film, I would have been a……

JUSTIN: Theater Director… or a scuba or kayak instructor.

SMC – Okay, final question: Can you tell us what your thoughts are on the future of film and the role independent films play?

JUSTIN: I think studio films play a great role as pure entertainment, but it is the indie films that filmmakers have a voice.  Films such as “Mean Streets,” “Momento,” “Resevoir Dogs,” “Precious,” and “Moonlight,”  are all independent films and have very unique cinematic voices.   I think Indie films are essential to the industry, it is where stories like this can be told.

SMMC – We couldn’t agree more Justin! Fabulous work!

_____________________

Film poster for: ‘The Meanest Man In Texas’ Photo provided by: Justin Ward Property of: ‘The Meanest Man In Texas’

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