6 months ago

Alabama native bringing VR production to Sidewalk, looking to make feature film in the state

Meredith Riley Stewart has found a new home in Hollywood, but lately the Phenix City native is feeling a pull back to her home state.

Whether it’s showcasing her virtual reality (VR) short film at this week’s Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham or scouting locations in the Chattahoochee Valley for a new feature film, Riley Stewart is finding her way back to the South.

After living life as a dancer in Philadelphia and as an actor in New York, she has found living in Los Angeles is not such a far cry from Alabama.

“I feel like L.A. is sort of the perfect blend of more of the charm and connection to nature that Southerners have with the grind and hustle of New York,” Riley Stewart said. “It’s kind of the perfect combination for me. I feel at home there. And there are so many Southerners in L.A. It’s always my tell, that I will say ‘y’all’ in some room and they’re like, ‘Wait a second, you’re not from L.A. Where are you from?’”

The University of Alabama graduate has even found that a well-placed “Roll Tide!” can lead to connections in Hollywood.

“In my resume under ‘education’ I just squeeze in a little ‘Roll Tide!’ and I can’t tell you how many casting directors I’ve had conversations with about SEC football because that’s on there,” she said. “It’s been a smart little addition. We can have a conversation that makes me more human. It’s not about the story. It’s not about the character. It’s about something totally different.”

It keeps rolling when she’s at home.

“I am married to an Alabama boy as well,” she said. “We literally just changed cable packages because we were with somebody who dropped CBS and he was like, ‘What? We can’t … no, no … I have to …’ Our life sort of revolves around football in the South. He’s counting down how many days until the opening game.”

Riley Stewart is counting down the days until her immersive VR experience “SEE ME” is shown at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival this weekend. Alabama Power is a sponsor of this year’s festival.

“’SEE ME’ is a short-form, experimental VR experience that invites the audience to step inside the subconscious mind of a woman, invites you to sort of experience what daily life is like for many women, including the constant barrage of commentary that happens for them in our society,” Riley Stewart said.

Other than being shown for friends and family, “SEE ME” has been shown publicly only at last week’s Macon Film Festival in Georgia. Based on the reactions there, Riley Stewart said viewers should come in expecting something intense.

“They should know that it challenges the male gaze,” she said. “VR is a unique concept for that because of the headset aspect of it. Not only are you feeling the experience of a woman, but you are potentially stepping into a male gaze on these women. That idea of challenging the male gaze – because it can be uncomfortable, especially in VR where your eyes are covered, your ears are covered, you’re sitting in a chair – and when these women approach you, because it looks like they’re coming right at you, some people wanted to hide, you kind of can’t get away. It requires people to be ready to confront it.”

In Macon, women would take off their headsets with tears in their eyes and the men felt uncomfortable and shared what they felt in a conversation with the filmmakers after the showing. At Sidewalk, the film will have multiple showings at the Lyric Theatre Aug. 24-25.

“We hope they can get through it and then they can take a breath and either realize what many women go through or so many women watch it and say, ‘Yes, that’s what happens.’ For us to be able to add a voice to their experience is powerful,” Riley Stewart said.

“That’s really the point, is to have that eye-opening empathy,” she added. “Really it’s about how our society objectifies women, and women finally finding a voice and the strength – whether that’s physical or of character – to speak up and demand to be seen as an equal human.”

A friend Riley Stewart made in Hollywood, Celine Tricart, is a leader in VR filmmaking and directed the acclaimed “The Sun Ladies” documentary about women soldiers in the Afghanistan army.

Riley Stewart wanted to make something impactful to address the objectification of women, and began working on “SEE ME” just as the #MeToo movement was beginning.

“That’s something I’m always trying to do with things I decide to spend my energy on now,” she said. “Media is such an influential culture shaper. There is such an opportunity there to create change in our society and that’s what I want to do with the media that I create.”

It is part of an evolution Riley Stewart has gone through since graduating from the University of Alabama with degrees in dance and biology and then dancing professionally in Philadelphia. Hosting on QVC and shooting commercials gave her the acting bug. She took professional classes and earned a role as a dancer on the first season of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which gave her a Screen Actors Guild card and allowed her to pursue other acting roles.

She’s had roles on ABC’s “Scandal,”NBC’s “Days of Our Lives,” Lifetime’s “Devious Maids” and Martin Scorsese’s movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Riley Stewart co-produced “Flip The Script,” the first digital series by Women in Film. She created “AutocorrectFU,” that features funny, over-the-top reenactments of autocorrected text conversations. Her “Southern Dish” digital series is about a Southern belle in the Big Apple, embracing the culture clash instead of fighting it.

She has become known for her Southern charm and wise-cracking personality in various pursuits in Hollywood. The production she is looking to film in the Phenix City-Columbus, Georgia, area is in keeping with that.

“The Inheritance” is a faith-based family comedy with Hollywood’s Mustard Seed Entertainment.

As soon as Riley Stewart read the script, she envisioned it taking place back home.

“I just thought, ‘This is so perfect to bring back to my hometown,’” she said. “It’s a beautiful story about family.”

Family and home were important touch points for Riley Stewart.

“In the past 10 years I have lost both of my parents and my aunt who was like my second mother,” she said. “I’m young to have gone through all of that already, but it really gave me a deeper understanding of what’s important about your family and life. While this is a comedy, it kind of centers around the unique place of where people go when it’s time to claim inheritance. It’s this weird thing that happens. It brings out certain character and shades of character that might not have existed before.”

Riley Stewart noted your family has a way of seeing the real you.

“You think you’ve evolved so much and then you have Thanksgiving dinner with your family and remember who you really are,” she said. “The theme of family and that being an important part of your legacy was really something that connected to me immediately.”

Shooting the film will be easier than other productions because almost all of the story takes place on the grounds of one estate. Riley Stewart said some generous people in the Phenix City-Columbus area contacted her to offer their home to shoot in. Columbus has a film office and infrastructure to support moving productions in the area and the film is expected to create 30 jobs and bring about $500,000 in spending.

“I’m really hoping that that’s going to happen … no, it is going to happen by the end of the year,” Riley Stewart said. “There is so much support here. It’s really wonderful. To be a hometown person bringing this movie back, I’m excited about it.”

A second feature film Riley Stewart is looking to produce is important to her for another reason. It’s a drama about public school teachers and the heavy lifting they do as part of their job.

“That one is really dear to my heart because both of my parents were public educators,” she said. “My mother was the principal of my high school. It tells the story of those unsung heroes, the people who really do shape American culture in the microcosm of schools.”

For now, Riley Stewart is excited to be returning to her home state and making her first visit to Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival. She is planning on spending time with friends from Hollywood who are in the Magic City.

“Now that I’ve been in L.A. for five years, looking at my network of people there, I have probably five friends with pieces in (Sidewalk) that I’m going to see in Birmingham,” she said. “So, it will be really cool to sort of like be able to take them to a restaurant I went to in college or something.”

Riley Stewart loves the freedom that being an actor and a producer allows.

“I’m in the fortunate position of just being able to focus on being a creator,” she said. “As an actor, sure, I can audition any time for other people’s projects. But between those, I do have time to develop my own.”

In it all, she can always find room for a “Roll Tide!”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

29 mins ago

Sessions: Tuberville’s position on trade undermines Trump’s negotiating position

Trade has been at the forefront of public policy discussions in recent days, especially as President Donald Trump has taken a more hawkish approach to the issue in his first term.

That has especially been true with regards to U.S. trade policy regarding China, a nation in which Trump has used tariffs as bargaining tool.

During an interview with Huntsville radio’s WVNN, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a candidate for the Republican nomination for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat up for grabs in November, applauded Trump’s approach. However, he also took a dig at his opponent, former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville, who Sessions said referred to himself as a “100% free trader.”

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“[China] has got to come to the table,” he said. “You have got to use tariffs to bring them to the table. And if we bring them to the table, we’ll be able to begin a real historic change in their behavior and help American manufacturing. That’s one of the reasons I’m running. Both the border and this need to be done within a year or two of taking office.”

Sessions argued Tuberville’s position on trade undermined Trump’s negotiating ability, given the contrast.

“And I’ve got to say — Tommy Tuberville said he is a 100% free trader,” Sessions added. “He said he opposes tariffs. And he even said he didn’t agree with Trump’s China policy. This is cutting his legs out from under him, making it harder for him to negotiate. The last thing we need to be doing is undermining President Trump’s negotiating position. We’re going to win that negotiation, I’m telling you. And we’re going to make this situation better with China, and we’re going to keep winning in the future.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Huntsville’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN.

1 hour ago

Tuberville vows to give salary to veterans’ causes if elected — Tells Bradley Byrne, Jeff Sessions ‘to have some manhood about you’

Former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville’s comments about the Trump administration’s handling of veterans’ issues last August 2019 at the Shoals Republican Club have been a focal point of the contest for the Republican nomination for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat up in November.

“I’m pissed off at Donald Trump that our vets can’t get health care,” Tuberville said, speaking to the group at the time. “And if I ever get to see him, I’m going to tell him that. You said you were going to fix it, and it ain’t fixed. And that’s who we ought to be taking care of — these young men and women.”

During an appearance on Birmingham talk radio’s 99.5 on Thursday, co-hosts Andrea Lindenberg and Matt Murphy asked Tuberville to address those remarks, which have been used by opponents in political advertising against his candidacy.

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Tuberville said he was upset not with just President Donald Trump but everyone, including himself. As a show of his concern, he pledged to donate his U.S. Senate salary to veterans’ causes.

“Everybody is responsible — the president, me, you, out Congress because they have done something nobody else will do, which is protect this country,” he said. “My salary — you know what I’m doing? I’m going to come on your show once every few months, and I’m going to give my salary, a check, to a veteran or a wife that has lost her husband, or their kids to go to school. I’m not taking one dime, and I’m giving it to the veterans. I stand and put up when I talk. I don’t just talk about it. I’m going to do it. So, yes — I’m mad at everybody.”

When asked if he had any regrets about his statement, he reiterated his support of the president but indicated those remarks were an indication of his willingness to “tell it like it is.”

“Listen, I’m 100% behind Donald Trump,” he said. “He’s the best thing to happen to this country since I’ve been on this earth in terms of getting things done. But he knows. He understands. And he is doing as much as he can. It’s kind of like me getting chewed out for losing a football game when our offensive line didn’t block anybody. He’s got people working for him. But who is going to get the blame? The president is going to get the blame. The head coach is going to get the blame. I’m going to tell it like it is, and if folks don’t like the way I tell it — don’t vote for me because I’m going to tell it. I’m not a politician. I’m not one of these career politicians who is just going to go up there and take a paycheck and hide when there’s a tough vote, or there is something tough that needs to be said about somebody. And I’m going to call it out. But I’m telling you right now: Our veterans need help. They need help now. Not next week, not next year.”

Tuberville also used the discussion about his comments as an opportunity to criticize his opponents former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope), who he called on to “have some manhood about you.”

“Listen, I’m not going to be a ‘yes man,'” he said. “The people in Alabama deserve somebody who is going to speak for them. And if I need to say something to the president or the leader of the Senate, or secretary of state, I’m going to speak my voice. I’m not going to go up there as a dang puppet. These guys, as you said — Sessions got fired. He has got no business running for this job because he is not going to be respected when he goes back. Bradley Byrne — he turned on the president before he was even elected. And they’re getting on the knees, crawling now to tell people they’re supporting President Trump. My gosh, have some manhood about you. Speak your piece. What did you do it for? Speak your piece.”

“Jeff Sessions did more to protect Hillary Clinton than he did Donald Trump,” Tuberville added. “You think about that — and it really tees me off.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Huntsville’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN.

1 hour ago

Rocket City Trash Panda’s Toyota Field receives certificate of occupancy

MADISON — On Thursday, Hoar Construction, the City of Madison and BallCorps, LLC announced that Toyota Field, the new home for the Rocket City Trash Pandas, was officially awarded its Certificate of Occupancy, marking the official end of construction of the ballpark and certifying that the facility conforms to local building code requirements.

Hoar Construction, the general contractor on the project, broke ground on the new stadium in November 2018, and have since completed the project on time and within budget according to a release issued by the Trash Pandas.

The Rocket City Trash Pandas, owned by BallCorps, LLC., will serve as the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels.

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(Rocket City Trash Pandas)

Even though the Trash Pandas will not play their inaugural home game against the Mississippi Braves until April 15, the park will see action before then. The University of Alabama-Huntsville and the University of Montevallo will face off in a three-game series that begins on March 20 and ends with a double-header on March 21 in Gulf South Conference play.

Ralph Nelson, managing partner of BallCorps, LLC and CEO of the Rocket City Trash Pandas, applauded Birmingham-based Hoar Construction.

(Rocket City Trash Pandas)

“This is a landmark moment that was made possible through the remarkable commitment and creativity displayed by all of the design and construction professionals who turned our vision into reality,” Nelson said in a statement. “Hoar Construction has been a trusted partner throughout this journey, and we’re pleased to have reached a successful conclusion together. Our fans can now see for themselves that baseball is officially back in North Alabama.”

(Rocket City Trash Pandas)

“The day our team has been waiting for has finally arrived, and it’s extremely gratifying to see the transformation from a dirt field to a top-shelf ballpark in just 14 months,” said Michael Raymond, Assistant Project Manager at Hoar Construction. “BallCorps and the City of Madison have been fantastic to work with and provided the flexibility Hoar and its trade partners needed to successfully execute a very complex construction job. Without question, this is now one of the finest minor league ballparks in America.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Huntsville’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN.

2 hours ago

Jessica Taylor joined on campaign trail by national pro-life advocate Marilyn Musgrave

Jessica Taylor, a candidate for Alabama’s Second Congressional District, campaigned in Dothan on Tuesday alongside Marilyn Musgrave, the vice president of Government Affairs for the Susan B. Anthony List.

After they left their last event, the pair phoned Yellowhammer News for a joint interview to talk about why the voters who go to the polls in less than a week should consider voting for the businesswoman from Prattville.

Musgrave said she wants to see the staunchly pro-life Taylor in Congress so the Alabamian can “lead on the issue and speak in a way that only women can speak on the life issue.”

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The Susan B. Anthony List is one of America’s most prominent pro-life organizations. Musgrave joined the group’s staff after representing Colorado’s fourth district for three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Musgrave detailed to Yellowhammer how in recent years the group has played a major role in communicating public support for conservative judges appointed by President Donald Trump.

According to the former representative, the SBA List also successfully lobbied the Trump administration to lock-in support for retaining the Hyde Amendment which prevents any federal money from being spent on abortions.

“I’m so grateful we have the most pro-life president ever,” added Musgrave.

Taylor said the voters in the Wiregrass had enjoyed their visit with Musgrave. She said they “were thrilled to have somebody from the national stage come down and talk with us.”

The Susan B. Anthony List has also been a public supporter of two other female Republican pro-life leaders in Alabama; Governor Kay Ivey and the person who holds the seat Taylor seeks, Rep. Martha Roby (R-Montgomery).

“We’ve had a friend like in congress like no other with Martha Roby. Jessica will fill those shoes very well,” promised Musgrave.

Taylor’s commitment to pro-life policies began before her run for office. She has been on the board of the River Region Pregnancy Center for multiple years, including recent service as its president.

Taylor spoke proudly of the work she had done helping the center procure an ultrasound machine.

“Now these women can see their babies,” stated Taylor. “It is important to me we teach women that all life is precious, and that abortion should not be an option.”

“What we really want is women who will lead on life … her work at the pregnancy care center speaks volumes. She is pro-life, she is pro-woman,” commented Musgrave.

Yellowhammer asked Taylor what events in her life had led her to committing so strongly to the pro-life movement.

“Certainly the birth of my three children, and getting to hold those precious babies in my hand just really solidified that,” she replied.

“She not only talks the talk, she walks the walk. That is powerful. I love the fact a young, pro-life woman will go to Congress and lead on this issue,” added Musgrave.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

14 hours ago

Ivey announces support for corrections reform bills

Governor Kay Ivey on Thursday announced her support for a major, bipartisan package of bills that have been introduced in the Alabama legislature upon recommendation from the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy.

Ivey established the study group in July 2019, which came after the Department of Justice concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution regarding “cruel and unusual punishment.” Ivey inherited decades-old systemic problems in the state’s prison system upon becoming governor and has been working to improve the Alabama Department of Corrections since taking office. The issue was a major focus of her 2020 State of the State Address.

Upon conclusion of the study group last month, the members presented the governor with their recommendations for comprehensive reform.

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RELATED: Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy yields positive recommendations

“I tasked the Criminal Justice Study Group with the mission of finding data-driven solutions to our longstanding challenges in our prison system,” Ivey said in a statement on Thursday. “I’m not only proud of their efforts, but I’m pleased there were solid recommendations, which came as a result of their hard work. Through these legislative items, we can build upon steps my administration has already begun taking to improve our criminal justice system.

The package of bills she is recommending as follows:

• SB 226, by Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville), will establish a Deputy Commissioner of Rehabilitation within the Department of Corrections (DOC), as well as within the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. This bill will refocus these agencies toward reducing recidivism among those in the state’s custody while promoting public safety.

• SB 244, by Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), will ensure that all inmates coming to the end of their sentences undergo mandatory, pre-release supervision. A 2015 law accomplished this result for offenders sentenced after its enactment; this bill will make that statute retroactive. While reducing burdens on DOC, this bill will also improve public safety by helping inmates successfully re-enter society.

• HB 323, by Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa), will require the Department of Corrections to report more information to the Legislative Prison Oversight Committee. This bill will provide lawmakers with information to make knowledgeable decisions during the appropriation process. It will also update the Oath of Office that is taken by Correctional Officers to reflect the Department’s renewed focus on the rehabilitation of inmates.

• HB 329, by Rep. Jim Hill (R-Moody), will make retroactive the state’s existing “presumptive sentencing guidelines.” Prior to October 1, 2013, offenders were sentenced to lengthy sentences, even life imprisonment, for nonviolent crimes. This bill will allow nonviolent offenders who are currently incarcerated under the previous guidelines to be eligible for resentencing under current, presumptive sentencing guidelines if they have demonstrated acceptable conduct while in prison.

• HB 342, by Rep. Connie Rowe (R-Jasper), will provide former inmates the ability to receive a non-driver photo identification card. One of the greatest barriers of joining the workforce for those coming out of incarceration is a viable form of government identification. This bill will require the DOC and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to work together to assist an inmate in obtaining a Social Security Card, Birth Certificate and Non-Driving Photo ID prior to release from a state facility.

• SJR 25, by Sen. Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro), will establish a study group to address uniformity and increasing access to pre-trial and diversionary programs while also looking at best practices. The study group will be made up of legislators, members of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, counties, district attorneys, judges and legal researchers.

In addition to this package of bills, Ivey is working with the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to grant parolees increased access with their probation officers.

The governor has also made recommendations within both the proposed Education Trust Fund budget and the General Fund budget to further strengthen initiatives aimed at helping inmates.

Those recommendations as follows:

• An increase of $4.2M to expand prison education programs.

• An increase of $1,829,250 to expand the Stepping Up program which is a national initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail. Alabama has a goal of implementing the program in every county by Fiscal Year 2022.

• An increase within DOC’s budget to continue to expand the number of Correctional Officers in order to comply with the federal court order and add 104 mental health professionals within the prison facilities.

The governor also met with legislative leaders on Thursday regarding corrections reform. Speaking to reporters after the chamber adjourned for the week, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) expressed optimism that the corrections reform package is on track to be passed towards the end of the regular session.

“We’re very happy where we are on prison reform,” he remarked.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn