Comedian Roy Wood Jr. came home to Birmingham to produce a television show but ended up playing the part of Nick Fury in the Avengers movies … sort of.
“Organizing the infrastructure needed to make sure a television show could happen here in terms of finding all of the resources – you knew they were here but you had to find them,” Wood said. “It was like Samuel L. Jackson in the Avengers movies going around from hero to hero to form the Avengers. You had to go to Iron Man, ‘Hey, do you have a camera? Cool.’ You had to go to Captain America, ‘Hey, do you have a truck with stuff in it? Cool.’ Then you’ve got to go over to the Hulk, ‘Hey, Hulk, we’re trying to shoot a TV show. Do you have lights? Do you have a building where we can put the camera and the truck stuff? Cool.’ ‘Hey, Comedy Central, these guys have trucks, lights, cameras and it’s just as affordable as Atlanta. Can I do my show?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Thank you.’”
It took Wood 18 months to assemble the pieces needed to produce a television show pilot in Birmingham and show Comedy Central he could do it at a cost that compared to Atlanta.
“It was worth it because at the end of the day we were able to shoot the pilot for ‘Jefferson County: Probation’ here in the state,” Wood said.
Roy Wood Jr. talks filming Comedy Central pilot in Birmingham, growing film industry in Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.
He did so with a 90-person crew, 60 of them Alabamians and many of them minorities.
“It was a very inclusive crew and staff and that’s something that I’m very, very proud of,” Wood said. “Because, ultimately, where film and television are concerned, if you’re trying to grow an industry, there has to be opportunities to work and so many people look past Alabama. To be from here and have an opportunity to shoot a project and to not fight first for Alabama to be a place, I would be remiss if I didn’t do that.”
The pilot for “Jefferson County: Probation” is still in development at Comedy Central.
“We’re looking at maybe reshooting a scene or two and maybe reworking some of the script,” Wood said. “I still maintain a great relationship with Comedy Central, lots of projects in the hopper. ‘JeffCo’ is just one of those that’s taking a little longer to get done.”
Wood hopes that the show gets picked up and he intends to shoot it and some of his other ideas for shows in Alabama.
Alabama has had some success getting movies to shoot here.
The Alabama Film Office reported 20 film and TV productions qualified for state incentives in 2019 and spent nearly $72 million while in Alabama, up from $63.5 million during the previous year.
“Film productions have a huge economic impact when they come to a community,” Kathy Faulk of the Alabama Film Office said in a recent story. “Many local behind-the-scenes crew, such as carpenters, electricians, painters, technicians, make-up artists and extras are hired. Creating jobs is what this is all about.”.
While such one-off projects are important, Wood said a television show can be even more significant.
“Film is very important to things working in a place, but I honestly believe that TV can help sustain a market,” he said. “You need a television show that shoots regularly, and not just reality shows. I know that there are reality shows that shoot in the state and they are viable and they are important, but if you have a scripted show, that is shooting 10 to 13 episodes on a regular revolving door.”
Wood joked that just like Chicago has a growing list of shows with “Chicago” in their names, he doesn’t see why the same couldn’t happen for Birmingham.
“’Chicago Med,’ ‘Chicago Fire,’ ‘Chicago Pizza,’ ‘Chicago Truck,’ ‘Chicago Hospital,’ ‘Chicago Police,’ like, that’s what I dream for, but in the short term, we just hope that the pilot comes together and that Comedy Central gives us the green light,” Wood said. “In the meantime, we continue to develop the show. And that’s not the only project. The more stuff that I write, the things that I create, I think there are ways to do things around here that are just as on point as anywhere else in the country.”
“Jefferson County: Probation” was inspired by Wood’s own brush with the law as a teenager when he was able to avoid jail and serve time on probation for attempting to use a stolen credit card to buy some blue jeans. The experience taught him how great of a role probation officers play in helping people go straight.
“What I discovered was how much of the system is based on just whether or not someone cares,” he said. “This is a television show about what would happen to recidivism if more people cared and also if the people on probation always did the right thing.”
It’s a different part of the criminal justice system than we’re used to seeing on television, Wood said.
“I think it’s a story about an honest piece of America that’s rarely discussed,” he said. “When you generally discuss law enforcement and entertainment, it’s either catch the crook, court with the crook or the crook in jail. There’s never a conversation about what it looks like to re-enter society as a different person or maybe you didn’t change. Either way it’s about the men and women that work day in, day out to interact with these people to help give them the opportunities to rebuild their lives after making bad mistakes.
“The job of probation (officer) is considered law enforcement, but I think it’s probably 70% social work,” he said.
Expanding an industry
Wood would like to see it easier for other movies and television shows to be produced in the state.
“There were so many problems that I had to solve first, before even making the proposal to Comedy Central,” he said. “When I talk about that, I’m talking about things like just making sure that there’s just the infrastructure of just having the proper grip trucks that you need – the things that you need just in terms of making sure that you have trained crew.”
He wants to be involved in finding the solution.
“I think doing what I can to build film and TV in Alabama is very important,” Wood said. “This isn’t something that’s exclusive to Birmingham. There are great vistas down in Mobile. Mobile has a very strong production crew. Huntsville is making noise. To me, this is about the state of Alabama and if I have an opportunity to bring my projects here that are ‘bona fide’ by the (West) Coast, then it helps to bonify the state. That’s not a bad thing and I think that’s a very fair contribution.”
Wood grew up in Birmingham and he said he learned to appreciate the city and the state after he left it. Wood said he soon learned that building up the image of Alabama was more important than trying to build up the image of Birmingham.
“I think that Alabama stands to gain as a group,” he said. “The reason why building Alabama is important is because when you leave your respective city in Alabama, nobody cares about your city, they just say, ‘You’re from Alabama’ and then they crack jokes or they make assumptions on you based on the state you’re from, not the city. So, whether you like it or not, when you leave Birmingham, when you leave Huntsville, when you leave Tuscaloosa, to the rest of the world, you’re just from Alabama. They ain’t got time to separate us because they think we’re all dumb. So, to me, it’s important to uplift the state and talk about the state as a whole because once those perceptions change, then I think that’s where you can have a lot more growth.”
Not that Wood is interested in taking on everyone who has something negative to say about the state.
“In the meantime, we can’t be worried about what the outside thinks about us, we have to rebuild and repair from within,” he said. “I think that Alabama’s a very resilient place. I think it’s a place that is very focused on growth. There are a lot of people in this state that I believe don’t do things that benefit this state. There are a lot of people in positions, in elected positions in this state that I truly don’t believe are for this state. But in spite of that, we’ve still got to work and pull your bootstraps up because if there’s one thing that’s clear, there’s nobody on the outside gonna help us.”
Wood’s father worked in radio and, after going to Florida for college, Wood would return to Birmingham where he got a job at 95.7 JAMZ in 2001. His comedy skits on the radio and his work on his stand-up comedy career earned him recognition at Comedy Central and a regular spot on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.”
These days, Wood very much wants to use his standing with the network to help make his home state better. He’s become an ambassador for Birmingham and Alabama to his friends in Hollywood and New York and when he brings them to town he takes them to places like Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, Niki’s West, Green Acres, Milo’s and Yo’ Mama’s.
“When I’m home, I’m trying to get all of the stuff I can’t get when I’m somewhere else,” Wood said. “If I come home and my friend wants to go to Applebee’s, I’ll curse them out. No disrespect to Applebee’s, but I can get that other places. When I’m home, you can’t get Niki’s West in New York City.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)