Bright Lights, Big City

Meet five Chattanoogans who’ve combined hard work with creative talent to carve out careers in Hollywood.

 

by Alexandra Hruz

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It’s been said that when you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. For those who follow their passion and grit their teeth to make it in a competitive industry, it’s possible for each day on the job to be better than the one before.

So it goes for the men and women profiled here – five Chattanoogans who left the Tennessee foothills to pursue their dreams of working in entertainment. From composing movie scores to operating lighting equipment to writing television scripts, these industry pros have worked hard to make a passion into a career. And while their Hollywood jobs might be extremely diverse, they share a common bond: the Scenic City is the place they can always call home.

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Harold Skinner, Gaffer & Cinematographer (above)
Baylor School, Class of ‘87

You might compare Harold Skinner’s line of work to that of a military leader. As part of the film crew for huge blockbuster movies like Fight Club, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Interstellar (in theatres this month!), his working days consist of preparing for the battle that is a movie production.

“It’s really kind of a grueling profession. There’s a huge amount of preparation involved, and you’re shooting something that could be costing $10,000 a minute,” Skinner says. “You don’t want to be the guy who’s holding up production. You want to be lit and ready, to know what the next shot is going to be and have that ready. It’s like staging a battle. You have to get all your armaments in the right place at the right time.”

Skinner, a Baylor School grad, now calls Chattanooga home once again, after leaving the West Coast behind to be back with family. He commutes to L.A. and other locations to work on sets, often for months at a time.

Getting his start in the theater department at Baylor, Skinner worked behind-the-scenes, learning the ropes of the lighting crew. He went on to study at the University of South Carolina, where he was fortunate enough to work on movies that were being filmed in the area, including the first feature he worked on, The Program, starring James Caan and Halle Berry. As a gaffer and now a cinematographer, Skinner knows how vital both kinds of work are to a film’s success (“It’s all about visual storytelling”), and with his challenging and strenuous work life, he keeps a basic principle in mind.

“It’s important to do something you love. Otherwise you’re not going to be able to muster the energy or stamina to make it,” he says.

 

BrightLights5George Clinton, TV & Film Composer
Brainerd High School, Class of ‘65

Not many people can say that Cheech and Chong had a direct impact on launching their career. But for George Clinton, working for the infamous comedic duo was his first opportunity to score music for a film—a break that would lead to a prolific career.

Clinton’s early life in Chattanooga prepared him for a career in music. His mother was an organist at the original Baptist church in town, his father played the trumpet, his grandfather was a bugler for the Shriners, and his grandmother played piano. At Brainerd High School, Clinton played in the marching band, jammed with friends in a rock band, and dabbled in acting. In 1969, after finishing college at MTSU, he made the exodus west to L.A.

His first 10 years in California were spent mainly as a recording artist and songwriter. He crafted tunes for Michael Jackson and Joe Cocker and then began composing scores for films, starting with Cheech and Chong’s Still Smokin.

Since then, Clinton has composed music for a plethora of projects, including HBO’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the Austin Powers movies, and Mortal Kombat, racking up credits for more than 100 films. He attributes much of his success to his Tennessee background.

“It’s all because of my upbringing in Chattanooga,” Clinton says. “Growing up in the South, especially in the time that I did, music was such a huge part of everything.”

With music running through his veins, it’s not surprising that Clinton rises to the challenge of scoring films. The job is a meticulous one, as Clinton must work with the director to fine tune the exact places where music is needed before spending weeks composing. The music is then recorded before all the sound for the movie (including dialogue) is woven together in a finely balanced arrangement.

Clinton is now Chair of Film Scoring at Berklee College of Music in Boston, but he continues to compose. And even when he’s far from his hometown, he keeps his Tennessee roots close, serving as a member of the board of the Chattanooga Symphony and visiting the area as often as possible.

 

BrightLights4Mary Alice Haney, Celebrity Stylist & Fashion Designer
Girls Preparatory School, Class of ‘89 

When styling celebrities for red-carpet moments or sketching out design ideas for her own fashion collection, Mary Alice Haney continues to draw inspiration from her hometown and the women in her family from whom she was gifted her fashion genes.

“I’ve always loved fashion and art and design in general,” Haney says. “My grandmother was a real fashionista, and my great-grandmother was known in Chattanooga as being very fashionable. She even created her own small line.”

The Lookout Mountain native capitalized on her passion for design and love for the Hollywood life by completing a master’s degree in film before moving to Paris to work at Harper’s Bazaar. Following that stint in Europe, she moved back to the States, where she became the West Coast editor of Allure and then spent time at Marie Claire, GQ, and Domino magazines before beginning a styling career.

Haney is now at the helm of her own line that strives to bring glamorous, wearable evening styles to everyday women. She’s made such an impact that an article in the Wall Street Journal was prompted to call the line “the new face of evening wear.”

With promising reviews from national media outlets, a strong supporter in high fashion retailer Net-a-Porter, as well as a host of celebrities (from Jane Fonda to Reese Witherspoon) wearing her clothes, Haney continues to balance promoting her collection with her professional and personal life. “I think the Tennessee background really grounds me in a great way,” Haney says. “I love where I’m from. I’m very proud of my heritage.”

 

BrightLights3Leslie Jordan, Actor & Playwright
Brainerd High School, Class of ‘73

Like many born and raised Southerners, Leslie Jordan spent the first few decades of his life yearning to see other places. The celebrated playwright and Emmy-winning actor took his talents to the West Coast more than 30 years ago, but his Chattanooga connections are still strong.

“I think I spent the first 30 years of my life desperate to get out. I just wanted to get out of the South and away from Chattanooga,” he says. “But the last three years of my life, I’ve been desperate for any chance to come home.”

It’s hard to imagine Jordan in any business but entertainment. Before he discovered his calling, however, he had different career aspirations—he wanted to be a racehorse jockey. At just 4’11, he had the size, and he even worked as an exercise rider for years at tracks in New York, Florida, and Kentucky before heading back to Tennessee to study journalism at UTC. And although writing was a major part of his life, taking an introductory theater class changed his college study decisions—and his life path.

“I had done some plays in high school, and I’d always been a show-off,” he says. “But being funny up till then was usually about keeping the bullies at bay, so when I took that class it hit me like a drug.”

From that revelatory moment, Jordan changed his major to theater and started making career plans to be an actor. He decided to move to either New York or L.A., and when he chose California as his destination (“I thought, ‘If I’m going to starve, I’m going to starve with a tan!’”), he arranged a night of comedy at the restaurant where he worked. He begged for money and ended up earning $1,200—a small fortune in the early ‘80s—to fund his trip west.

Without knowing anyone in a town as merciless as Hollywood, Jordan was fortunate to become a nearly overnight success. He found his way into TV commercials and then into roles on hit shows like Murphy Brown and Boston Legal. He won an Emmy in 2006 for his role on Will and Grace and has been on a host of popular shows, worked on major Hollywood films, written plays, and starred in his own one-man show.

 

BrightLights2Marcie Ulin, Writer & TV Producer
Girls Preparatory School, Class of ‘98

Life in L.A. can be as different from life in East Tennessee as day is to night. But luckily for Marcie Ulin, her career as a writer and producer on the West Coast has brought her back to her roots—in the form of the hit ABC show, Nashville.

The GPS alum (who also touts a history degree from Harvard) has forged a successful career in TV production and script writing, and now serves as co-executive producer on Nashville. And while Ulin’s time in Chattanooga may be limited now, that doesn’t mean the Volunteer State, or the lessons she learned there, are far from her mind.

“I feel very lucky that I got to grow up in Chattanooga, and I still think of the South as ‘home,’” Ulin says. “I went to GPS, and I will be forever grateful for the education I received there. I love that I have a strong writing partnership with one of my best friends because I learned early on how much women can accomplish when they work together instead of against each other.”

Ulin has loved the entertainment world since she was a child, citing old movies—from black-and white screwball comedies to westerns from the 1970s—as a major influence on her life and a portend for her future career aspirations.

“I love working in a job that forces me to think on my feet every day,” she says. “When I start a new job, I get to learn about an entirely new world and explore different careers through the characters I write. As a TV writer-producer, I get to be involved with every step of the creative process, which is both challenging and immensely rewarding.”