Filmmaker at Secret City Films and Executive Director, Knoxville Film Festival
Oana Harrison: Do you feel like you are successful, that you found your calling? What was your path to success?
Keith McDaniel: Success is an interesting term…. There are several types of success: financial, professional, and personal or family life – often time, they don’t all happen simultaneously.
For me, family is the most important thing. I have two teenage sons: one is in college and one is still in high school – great boys. My wife and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. If you asked if my family life was successful, I would definitely say “yes.” Family life always has its challenges but we’ve been together and plan on staying together through thick and thin.
Health is also very important. I have struggled with my weight my entire life. I thinned out a little bit in college and then I gained weight again, and have been heavy for the last 40 years. Back in February of last year, I knew I had gained too much weight – I felt awful, I was getting older, my body was just not cooperating. I weighed 292 pounds, the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life. Also, my wife had a heart-to-heart discussion with me about being around for the kids, she was concerned – and justifiably so. I knew it was time to do something about it, so I went on a low-carb diet. Later on, I added walking to my diet. In November, two days before my 59th birthday I did a 5K walk in Oak Ridge – my first (and maybe the last road race I’m in) but it was kind of a big deal. I just passed the one-year anniversary since beginning my weight-loss voyage and, I weigh below 200 pounds for the first time in 40 years! How did I do it? Well, I counted every carb, I wrote down everything I ate – I knew that was what it would take for me to succeed at this. I had to be accountable. Today, I went clothes-shopping for smaller sizes and that was a great feeling – a real personal success so far. And I couldn’t have done with without the encouragement and support from my family and my Facebook friends.
My professional life has taken many different directions over the past 35 years. I graduated from Carson-Newman with a degree in communications and I have worked in the field most of my career. I spent a decade in the newspaper business, first as a reporter and editor, and eventually in graphic design. In the mid-80s, when Mac computers became popular, I started doing design and I really loved it. About twenty years ago, I was working for a company doing video production when my boss came to me and asked me to make a documentary about the county in which we both grew up. I didn’t know anything about making a documentary but, as a huge fan of Ken Burns’ (an American filmmaker, known for his style of using archival footage and photographs in documentary films), the project sounded interesting. I worked on it for about a year and created my first historical documentary. We had a big premiere and released the documentary on VHS tape (this was before the age of DVDs). Recently, a friend of mine found the original VHS tape on eBay. I asked him: “how much did you pay for it?” He said “99 cents.” “Well, somebody got ripped off!,” I told him. The documentary wasn’t very good but I fell in love with the process of making documentary films, and especially historical documentaries.
I was almost 40, we were expecting our first child, and we had just bought a new house, when I came home and I told my wife: “Honey, I’ve decided that I want to be a documentary filmmaker.” She was fine with that because she’s an artist too. We met in the theater and she understood my bent for creativity. So I decided to pursue documentary filmmaking while I was working a real job, in production.
Over the past twenty years I’ve done a number of historical documentaries, most of them focused on East Tennessee. But probably the film that received the most notoriety is a film I did eleven years ago called The Clinton 12. This was in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the integration of Clinton High School in Clinton, Tennessee. That story had never been told well before and it was an important part of American history, an important civil rights story in the United States. I was really fortunate to be able to produce that documentary, and doubly and triply fortunate enough to get James Earl Jones to narrate it. That instantly gave it credibility.
The Clinton 12 won a number of awards: best documentary, audience favorite, and probably the one that’s dearest to me is the Nashville Public Television Human Spirit Award. That really put it on the radar for PBS. So by the end of 2007, we got national distribution. We aired on about 80 percent of PBS stations for a number of years. I would say that The Clinton 12 was a success. We didn’t make a lot of money from it but a lot of people saw it and heard that story, and it made for an interesting ten to fifteen years.
A nice side note to that story – because the story is still being told today – is that last January, I got a message saying the Disney Channel was coming to Clinton to the museum to do a short piece about The Clinton 12. A young Disney actor by the name of Cameron Boyce happens to be the grandson of Joan Allen Boyce, one of the original Clinton 12. The whole family came to Tennessee so that the grandchildren could connect with their family history.
OH: How did the Oak Ridge Film Festival come about?
KM: One afternoon, in 2003, I was sitting in the back yard with my wife and I told her: “I think I’m going to start a film festival. I’m going to call it The Secret City Film Festival and have it in Oak Ridge.” I didn’t know anything about organizing a film festival but I figured it couldn’t be too hard. Little did I know… So, I started the annual Secret City Film Festival in 2004. After The Clinton 12 came out in 2006, I realized that the story needed to be told on a national scale and started thinking about how I could make that happen. Over the next 15 months or so, I screened the documentary at over 45 film festivals and I attended probably close to 40 of them, so I was gone what seemed like every weekend for an entire year. To me, that was my film festival school because I got to see big festivals and small ones, I saw how they operated, what worked and didn’t work, what filmmakers liked or didn’t, so that was an important part of The Secret City Film Festival’s success.
I continued with the film festival in Oak Ridge for eight years but one of the challenges was location: there wasn’t really a movie theater where I could host it. I had friends who worked at Regal Cinemas in Knoxville, so I asked them what they thought about me moving the film festival to Knoxville. They were very enthusiastic. Once it moved to Knoxville, it quickly boomed because it attracted many attendees from Knoxville and Maryville. It also caught the attention of some folks at Dogwood Arts. They approached me wanting to add a film component to what they did. Regal told them don’t do it – it’s a pain and you’ll lose money but if you’re bound to do it, call Keith McDaniel because he’s done it for several years and he knows what he’s doing. Lisa Duncan was the Executive Director at the time and we spent about six months getting to know each other, then we came up with a three-year agreement for equal partnership – it was a good partnership. We re-branded the festival as The Knoxville Film Festival. The Dogwood Arts team was able to get sponsors that I had never been able to get before. The first weekend we had about 3,000 guests, screened a lot of films – it was kind of a big deal. At the end of three years, when the contract was up, Lisa went on to start her own marketing company, so Dogwood Arts got a new executive director. We decided to continue the relationship but we did it year-to-year. Last year was probably the most successful year in terms of revenue, profit, and participants. It was absolutely fantastic. When it was over, much to my surprise, Dogwood Arts decided to bow out as my partner. Right now, I’m planning the 14th year of the film festival, which will be the 5th year of the Knoxville Film Festival, on my own.
I really was trying to decide if I wanted to continue with the festival, also knowing I was up for the current job at Carson-Newman. I’ve been working as a freelancer for the past 11 years, so I have been able to commit all the time that I need to the film festival but I didn’t know how a full time job would affect things. I brought in my inner circle of friends from the film community to ask for their opinion: “Do we want to do this or just say ‘it’s been a great ride’ and call it a day?” One of them was sitting in a corner and he spoke up: “Keith, we gotta have the film festival! Even if we cut it down to two days and take it back to the church we have to have it!” Before I moved it to Knoxville, it was in an old church that used to be a movie theater. We never made much money on the film festival, but I never did it for money – I did it to encourage young filmmakers, people who had that artistic bent for film making, and to give them an opportunity once a year to get together and celebrate with the film community in East Tennessee. Even if it cost me money at some point to put together, from the standpoint of what I accomplished over time – bringing the film community closer together, giving artists an opportunity to show their work, to meet their peers and have their work seen – the film festival was a success. And I’ll continue with it for as long as I can.
OH: Out of all you did so far, what do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of your work?
KM: I tell people that I still have a lot of years left in me but I’m not a spring chicken anymore. Once you’re getting close to 60 – I’m not there yet but getting close – you start thinking about what you have accomplished, what is going to be your legacy. I think that first and foremost it’s my children but on a professional level, The Clinton 12 is it. And the film festival, as a contribution to our community. I’m very proud of that. The role that I’ve taken – and I enjoy this a lot – is that of a facilitator. In college, I had a professor who was a mentor to me. Even though he was a talented guy, the thing that he did best was to give others an opportunity to shine. So, like him, what gives me the most satisfaction now is letting others shine, even more so than making films does; providing opportunities for other people to do their best work, to be creative, to shine is so rewarding. I did that with the film festival and that’s also the reason I love teaching film classes at Carson-Newman. These are young people who are just starting out and I want to share my knowledge that I accumulated over thirty years, but I also want to give them opportunities that they haven’t had before, to learn something and be creative, to make an impact.
OH: What was the most important contributor to your success – or was there more than one?
KM: You know, I think probably that when I was a kid, my mom and dad told me “son, you can do anything you put your mind to,” and I believed them. Their encouragement was always there. My wife has always been supportive and so are my kids. I think probably the most important thing is the continued support I had over the years to pursue my dreams. There have been people in my life who asked “when are you going to get a real job” but the encouragement offset that. The second most important thing was knowing that I was doing something good for someone else, that I was facilitating someone else’s success.
OH: On the flip side, what are some hurdles you overcame in pursuing your dreams?
KM: It’s hard to make a living doing what we do. It has always had its challenges and I’ve never made a lot of money. There have been times when I wished I’d done something else that was more stable, more secure. Pursuing my passion for film has been challenging – it first gave me gray hair, and then it made it fall out but I haven’t seen it as a hurdle. My attitude has always been: I might not know anything about this but I can learn. That allowed me to explore and accomplish things that I’ve never thought possible.
OH: What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way or things you wished you’d known before venturing out?
KM: I had to make some smart decisions along the way. One of them was to wait to get married. I was a month shy of my 35th birthday before I got married. I think I was too young and too immature earlier to be able to settle down. If I were giving people advice today I would say give yourself a chance to discover who you really are before you make a life-commitment to another person. I think that’s important.
Everything that happens, happens for a reason – and sometimes that reason is a result of you making poor choices. However, you can learn something from everything that happens. That’s the key: learn both from your mistakes, and from your successes.
Not everyone is going to like you or what you do. When The Clinton 12 came out, I got a negative review in one publication. They didn’t like the movie, they didn’t like the narrator, – it’s Earl Jones, how can you not like him? – they didn’t like the music – I had an original score created for it. I decided that I was going to look at it analytically – did the writer have a point? If they did, I can learn from that and it will make me a better filmmaker. If they didn’t, then I wouldn’t let it bother me. They say never read the reviews or the comments on Facebook but I say that if you can learn from them, then you’re better off.
OH: What’s next for you? New goals, projects?
KM: I am enjoying my new job at Carson-Newman, my alma mater. It’s nice to be back. I’ll be doing some video production, as well as some writing, and teaching a documentary film making course this fall – I’m looking forward to all that. We just opened submissions for the 2017 Film Festival and that will be taking place in September – so, I have six months of preparation for it. My plate is pretty full but I’m enjoying myself. All is well, and I hope that it continues for many years to come. Sometimes a smooth road is a good road to be on.