Story by Carrie Beth Wallace
Images by Trey Walker
Meredith Riley Stewart is Chattahoochee Valley native whose career in the arts has taken her across the nation and back. Now based in LA, Stewart is an actress and film producer who has just completed filming her first feature film, The Inheritance, in Columbus, Georgia.
Read on to discover how Stewart's career led her to film, why she chose Columbus for her film's location, and what it's been like to film here amidst a global pandemic.
Do you have personal ties to Columbus, GA? Why did you choose the location you did?
I was born and raised in Phenix City. So I was in Columbus nearly every day, dancing with the Columbus Ballet, attending the Springer and the CSO, hanging out at Peachtree Mall! I now live in Los Angeles but when I read this script, written by my friends Alexandra Boylan, John KD Graham and Andrea Polnaszek (collectively known as Mustard Seed Entertainment), I had this feeling it would be a perfect fit for Columbus.
I approached them to coproduce and play one of the leads, so we spent the last two years putting this project together. It’s because of the support of the community - from the VisitColumbusGA office to my personal local relationships to multiple churches in Columbus and Phenix City - that this became the home for our film.
What's your personal journey to film been like? How did you get into film?
When I moved out of the area, it was to go to Philadelphia to dance professionally with a modern dance company there. While dancing, I also got into acting - in theater, commercials and eventually on TV. Opportunities took me to New York where I continued to pursue acting but also started to feel the urge to create my own work.
My husband (also a Phenix City native) had a job in New York that transferred him to LA, and honestly it couldn’t have been a better opportunity for both of us to grow. In LA, I found collaborators almost immediately and started creating. I learned so much with each indie project I created and took that knowledge on to the next one, growing with each in size and scale. And now here I am producing my first feature film!
Who is working on this project with you?
Alexandra Boylan is my coproducer as well as one of the writers of the film. John KD Graham, co-writer, is also producing and is our director.
What has it been like to film in the middle of a global pandemic? Please describe some of the safety protocols you've put into place to keep your actors and crew safe during this time.
We were initially slated to film starting in early April… When the weather would have been lovely in Georgia! But obviously the pandemic had us pause our plans. All 16 sister unions in the entertainment industry came out with white papers and guidelines in early summer. I read every single one of them and along with our line producer, created our production’s unique protocol. We had to use this to prove to our cast and crew and SAG-AFTRA that we would uphold everyone’s safety on our set as a top priority.
This included creating a new crew position, a Covid compliance officer. He is on set full-time, constantly ensuring we adhere to protocols (like physical distancing while shooting indoors) as well as administering tests. All 40+ crewmembers wear masks the entire time they are on set. The cast, as the most vulnerable since they don’t wear masks when the camera is rolling, is tested three times a week; everyone else is tested once a week.
In our hiring process, we found cast and crew who were willing to adhere to CDC guidelines not only while on set, but while off set too, so that each Monday, we were confident we could all come back to work. We’ve completed over 250 tests at this point…All negative!
What inspires you about the film process?
As an actor, being able to create a film with a story that is filled with hope, filled with laughter, in a time when the vast majority of my colleagues are not able to go back to set is something I’ve been incredibly grateful for every single day. Not only am I getting to work, and with some incredible actors, but after the post production process, we will have a film that will bring light and love to the world, at a time when we could all use more of both.
My hometown community has been incredibly supportive of the film, especially during this pandemic. We have so many people encouraging us, praying for us… And so many elements have fallen into place with such ease that we really feel blessed to be here.
Have you been able to use any locals on your crew? Columbus is a Camera Ready Community, and I'm curious how that's assisted with your project.
Yes! We are employing about 15 Columbus residents on this crew, most of them full-time. I am so proud of the fact that, especially during a pandemic and when unemployment benefits are running out, we were able to come here and give jobs to people whose goal it is to work in the entertainment industry. 90% of our budget was raised locally so it was important to us that we put as much money as possible back into the community that brought us here.
Do you have a projected release date?
We will start the post production process as soon as we wrap. Typically it takes about a year to get all the different layers of post done and the film sold to a distributor and a marketing plan put in place for its release. So hopefully by next summer, we will be back in town for a premiere! And hopefully by that time, we can all safely gather to celebrate! ◼︎