Onie Johns

Willy Bearden
Memphis Author
and Filmmaker

by Terre Gorham

I was born in 1950 and grew up in a small, two-bedroom house with two older brothers in Rolling Fork, MS, and I lived in that town for my first 18 years. It's on Highway 61 — the Blues Highway — in what we call the Deep Delta. We always thought that people from Clarksdale, MS, were Yankees because they were north of us!

Rolling Fork was a small town of about 2,500 people. I knew everybody in town, black and white. It was kind of a Mayberry experience, with an old town square and a very safe environment. I lived four blocks from the town square — in between it and the school. We were either riding our bicycles or walking around town.

My mother came from a big country family near Carthage, MS, so I grew up around many aunts, uncles, and cousins. They weren't wealthy, but they were probably the wealthiest family in the neighborhood. My mother's family were all a bunch of big cut-ups, always telling stories, always something going on.

My father's family was wealthier and from a different class of people. My mother told me that after she and my father married, they went to his family's house, and it was the first time she had ever heard people talk about ideas and not just about other people.

I had lots of little jobs. I'd wash windows for the parts store once a month. I'd hoe fields, pick up pecans to sell — I always knew where to find money. My brother had one job growing up; I had hundreds. My brother saved his money to buy things; I frittered mine away. I wanted to be the life of the party.

But one of my jobs was at the Joy Theater. I was 10 when Mr. Stevens hired me, and I delivered movie circulars all over town. The theater changed movies three times a week — three double features, with the cartoon. Mr. Stevens would also take me to the rural towns surrounding Rolling Fork, and I distributed flyers there.

Consequently, I got to go to the movies for free. I worked there for six years at least, so pretty much my whole childhood, I could walk into the movie theater any time I wanted. I went to every film that showed there, and I saw everything. I was transfixed by the movies.

I realized at an early stage that movies were all just storytelling, and I loved a good story. Being around town so much, I was always in little neighborhood stores. There were always people sitting around on the porches telling stories, or at the gas station, where the Greyhound bus came through four times a day. My mother was a beautician, so I hung out in the beauty shop a lot. You hear everything in a small town in the beauty shop! I knew all the dirt on everybody in town — I loved that!

When I got to be about 14, I started hanging out in the pool hall. If my higher education had been in the beauty shop, my graduate school would have been the pool hall. I heard everything.

And then one day when I was 17, I was sitting in the pool hall and realized that I had been sitting around listening and hanging on every word from these people for years, and they were all unemployed alcoholics! I thought, "Wait a second! Maybe I'm being steered wrong here!"

It was just a culture of people "hanging out everywhere," and folks would pontificate on everything. In retrospect, there were lots of people who did nothing but sit around, whittle, and spin yarns. I always kind of wondered what these people did and how they made a living. Now I know that they really didn't make a living, and they lived with their parents or relatives, or sometimes had no place to live at all.

It's that curse of being a "character." Sometimes you don't have it all together. Lots of times, to me, the people who had it together weren't that interesting on that level. So it's something you forego, something you give up.

But it was a wonderful place to grow up. I learned so much and was surrounded by people who liked a good story.

I didn't know what I wanted to do. I couldn't imagine myself being anything. I knew I wanted to do something cool, but that was about the extent of it.

I had not planned on going to go to college, but my music teacher insisted. The Vietnam War was going on, so if I didn't go to college, I was going to get drafted. I got into theater at college and not only did I act, but I did all the technical things that was needed. I experienced the love of learning from being in college.

But I dropped out of college and moved to Memphis in 1971. I felt that I needed some adventurous education. My friends let me sleep on their floor, and I drove a liquor delivery truck for two years. I learned Memphis like the back of my hand, and I felt on top of the world. I was a sponge.

So that gave me the adventurous education I needed, and in 1975, I was ready to go back to college. But I still didn't know what I wanted to do.

In 1976, a friend of mine — George Larrimore, who was a news producer at Channel 13 — needed some help shooting a film project in West Point, MS. We were halfway there when he said, "Don't you want to look at the camera?" I didn't much care, but OK. It was a 16mm Canon Scoopic with a zoom lens. I put it up to my eye … and I didn't take it away from my eye for the next hour. I was fascinated. George showed me how to do everything during the shoot. I thought, Man, I'd like to do this again sometime.

Two years later in 1978, I'm still at Memphis State, but I suddenly got the idea, Why don't I go down to Motion Picture Laboratory on South Main and just see if they'll hire me? I got it in my head that this was the thing for me to do. I think I willed it to happen. I went in MPL and said, "If you hire me, I will be the best person you've ever hired in your life."

So I dropped out of college in 1978, lacking only 20 hours to graduate and worked at MPL for nine years. It was the first thing I had ever done that made complete sense to me.

Later, I traveled extensively as an account executive for MPL, and I got to know filmmakers around the country. I went on location with them all the time. After a couple of years, I found myself thinking things like, I don't think I'd set the camera there and I would light this differently.

One day it occurred to me that I could do this. I'd had such a wide range of experience, and I had a producer's knowledge of lighting, filming, audio, rigging, technical aspects. I knew that this is what I wanted to do. But I was 35 and was in line to become president of MPL. I was looking at running a huge company and making $100,000 per year in the 1980s. I talked to my oldest brother. He asked me what things I liked to do. I told him. He said, "Well, when you become president, you'll never do those things again." It stunned me. He was right.

I quit MPL within the year.

I started William Bearden Company, and I started finding clients — corporate, nonprofit, individual — and pitching ideas, jingles, live events, music shows, and various filming projects all over the country. I continued to learn — and do to this day. The business just grew on its own by word of mouth. Everything worked out beautifully.


My first documentary … was in 1994. I had begun smoking cigars, and I saw that cigars were going to be the next "cultural curiosity" like wine was. Everybody wanted to know everything about it. I called up the greatest cigar makers in the world — the Fuente family in the Dominican Republic — and told them I wanted to make a documentary. I flew there, shot the film, and told the story. Time-Life Home Video bought the rights.

Making a documentary is like … building a little boat and setting it off to sail. It sails forever! You do it once, and it sails forever. They still show everything I've done on TV all the time. I have people call me about documentaries I did 10 years ago, but that's OK; it's new if you haven't seen it.

The movies I watched as a child … The theaters showed lots of cowboy movies, Tarzan, vampire films, Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe stories, and those old Universal films.

The first movie I shot … was in 2009: One Came Home. I'm very proud of what we did, with local actors and a story that I co-wrote with David Tankersley. I've done a lot of hard things, but making this movie was the hardest by a factor of 10. I discovered, though, that I really like making movies.

One of the things I learned early on as a filmmaker … trust my instincts.

A book that still resonates with me … The first time I read One Writer's Beginnings, Eudora Welty's autobiography, I was probably 35. In the book, she wrote that when she was a kid, she always thought: I can't wait until the grownups start talking. When I read that, it resonated with me because as a child, I felt exactly the same way.

The most frustrating part about filming documentaries … You interview people, and you wind up with 10 or 12 hours of interviews, two thousand stills, and you think, <<My God, I've got to winnow all this down to 56 minutes and 45 seconds>>, which is a PBS hour.

Growing up, we always had … black maids. I was particularly close to Alice Bailey, who raised me until she died when I was five years old. When I was eight, Mary Washington became like a mother to me. I still run into her when I'm in Rolling Fork. I got more spankings from the maids than I did my mother!

My second documentary … was in 1998 for Dixon Gallery. They had an exhibition called Visualizing the Blues. They asked me to do a 30-minute film on some concepts related to the exhibit. That was the first documentary I had on WKNO.

From my father, I got … my love for reading. He read all the time, and I can't imagine not reading every day. He ran the parts department at the International Harvester dealership in Rolling Fork. Later, I learned that he and others were some of the prime innovators on getting the mechanical cotton picker to work. He always went up to Memphis to the foundry.

From my mother, I got … my love of people, my love of stories, my zest for life, and my kindness.

I do much of my writing and film editing … at a home I own in Rolling Fork, one block from the house where I grew up. I walk by that house every day and have a jillion memories.

If I could spend an hour with any one person … William Faulkner.

Overall, my upbringing was … fairly typical — middle class — although later on it blew up. My father was an alcoholic, and he and my mother divorced in the mid '60s when I was 14. Divorce during those times was incredibly unusual; it just wasn't done. It was a big, traumatic deal for everyone, but it was something my mother had to do. And although having divorced parents was a stigma growing up, so was having an alcoholic father.

When my mom started dating again … I was happy for her. She remarried when I was 17. Joe Trigleth was a wonderful, kind person and was a real father to me. After she remarried, we then had what I term a "classic family."

I have never … been bored.

The Civil Rights Movement … When James Meredith entered Ole Miss, I was 12. There was a KKK rally just outside of Rolling Fork when the white school there was getting ready to be integrated. My mother told us, "You boys stay away from that white trash." We saw the rightness of the movement. Once somebody said it out loud, racial equality made all the sense in the world. Before that, we just didn't think about it because that's just the way life was around us. Afterward, we saw how wrong we were.

My first thought when I was awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award in the Creative and Performing Arts in 2011 … I was really thankful, and I was happy to have been recognized. Humbled, certainly, but appreciative that my hard work had been noticed and validated.

The number of movies I watch … I go to the movies six to eight times per month, and I watch movies on TV <<all>> the time.

The biggest investment I've made … was in myself. I paid for many of my projects out of my own pocket because I wanted to learn and be the best I could be. Show people what you can do, and then the money will come, believe me.

Early on I learned … that the gift of gab was a good thing to have. It would take you far and maybe diffuse situations. My mother told me that my brother Jeff would always stop talking when I started talking. He'd always say, "Get Willy to tell it." I spoke for both of us!

In school, I got in trouble for … talking!

Some people might be surprised to learn that I … am also a quiet person. I know most people don't think of me as quiet, but I spend most of my days here by myself, and I like that alone time. A lot of my work is thinking and writing, and I like to work alone.

Religion … My father was Episcopalian, and my mother was Baptist. We went mainly to the Baptist church, but for special events, we went to the Episcopal church. That was a source of confusion for me the whole time I was growing up because I didn't know who was right — they each said they were right. The big thing with the Baptists back then was no dancing. Dancing was right up there with killing somebody. With the Episcopalians, they'd have a glass of wine and love to dance. At the Baptist summer camp, the boys and girls never did anything together. At the Episcopal camp, every activity was coed. Did I dance with the girls at the Episcopal camp? Oh, gosh, yes! Absolutely! I moved away from organized religion and today, I have a personal relationship directly with God with nothing standing between us.

One of my guilty pleasures … is watching pro football on TV. I have so many teams I follow that I have to DVR many of them!

My interest in writing began … in the sixth grade when I discovered my love for books. I realized there were people who wrote those books and people who thought up those stories, and I was fascinated. I started thinking that maybe someday I'd like to do something like that.

The number of Facebook friends I have … 2,600, and that's too many!

My first real job … was in a grocery store owned by the Jabours, who were Syrian immigrants. The Delta is full of such a wide, diverse array of people. I knew Italians, Greeks, Lebanese, Jews — I knew all of these people because they lived in my town. I always assumed that everybody grew up in such a rich, multicultural soup.

The idea for the Legacy Project came about … We were filming The View from Adam's Avenue in 2007, and we had complete access to the Victorian Village homes. I had used so many images, books, and resources from of the Memphis Room at the public library and the special collections at the University of Memphis, and it hit me: Who is putting things back in? Who is documenting Memphis today? Nobody! The librarians confirmed that, and it really hit me. So I started creating a contemporary archive, and so far, we've put about 7,000 images back into the library.

An important lesson I learned … I played football in high school — defensive end and center — and even though I wasn't crazy about playing, it taught me that sometimes you have a responsibility. We were the smallest school in the conference, and if everybody didn't play, we wouldn't have had a team.

The school subjects I did poorly in … math and science. I never saw much use in them, so I didn't try my best in those subjects. But I always tried my best in English and writing.

My third documentary … was in 2000. I knew Overton Park was turning 100 years old in 2001, so I told WKNO I was doing one on that. Then I did one on Elmwood Cemetery, then Memphis garage bands, and it snowballed from there.

One thing I am not curious about is … organized religion.

One of the things I collect … maps. I have a wonderful love for maps, and I've got a huge collection. I can sit and look at a map of anywhere. As such, I have a good sense of what the Earth looks like and where countries are — I've always enjoyed that.

I'll never forget … getting slapped down in a cotton field by this little black girl named Shirley Stewart! I see Shirley all the time in Rolling Fork now. She always says, "You'd better watch it, Willy Bearden, or I'll slap you down again!"

I've never been afraid of … my fellow man. I used to hitchhike everywhere — probably 25,000 miles from 1969 to 1973.

The public's biggest misperception about filmmaking … is that it's glamorous. It's very lonely at times. It's stressful and very hard to do right. It's easy to romanticize it. It's not one big wrap-up party like you see on TV.

I met my wife … on a blind date. We went to some friends' house and played Trivial Pursuit. I was impressed with how smart she was, and that pretty much did it for me! Cheryl and I married in 1987.

My children … My eldest daughter, Savannah, is a writer, actor, and filmmaker. My son, Matt, is a musician and songwriter — he's the songwriter I wish I could have been. My youngest daughter, Maggie, is a model and makeup artist.

I try to live … boldly. I've only seen that good things have come from doing so.

Many people don't know that I … became casual friends with Shelby Foote in 1998 after my Visualizing the Blues aired. His father and grandfather were from Rolling Fork, so we had that bond. He asked me one time, "Are you a poet?" I said, "Yeah!" He said, "We all were." I said, "I'm a bad poet." He said, "We all were!"

Most people don't know that Shelby Foote … religiously watched As the World Turns for decades! But of course he did! Like me, he loved a good story!

Writing poetry taught me … the economy of language.

An important responsibility is … to share your experiences with kids and others. I never turn down any opportunity to talk to groups of people, from the Cub Scouts to the Rotary Club.

Much of my success is due to … my steadiness. So many people in the situations I'm in choke in the clutch. When you're about to pull that trigger, and you've got a huge room of people, and all these things have got to happen — I don't choke. Plus I keep good people around me.

My biggest disappointment … I can't think of any. I have made my own way, done my own thing, paddled my own canoe, and lived boldly.

Next up in life … more movies, and I'm writing a novel. Fiction. I didn't know what to write about until my friend David Tankersley suggested, "Write the life you didn't live." Wow!

My final 2 cents … The thing that resonates with me is that it doesn't mean anything today if I take a picture of, say, the YMCA or the Redbirds' stadium. But I tell you, in 25, 50, 100 years, it's going to blow somebody's mind, and I just love to be — and want to be — a big part of that.