Cut! – A Look into Kentucky’s Film Scene

Despite being over 2,000 miles away from Hollywood, young filmmakers in Kentucky can find careers close to home.

Danielle Bartley, a 28-year-old director of photography, entered her first day on set, anxiously looking for people she recognized. Her eyes darted around as the buzzing crew members searched for people and set up equipment.

Bartley, a Western Kentucky University (WKU) graduate, was far from Hollywood — she was in the South End of Louisville, setting up lights for “In the Radiant City,” a production by a small film studio called Candlewood Entertainment, when a woman walked over to
talk to her.

On March 22, equipment and props lay all over the set of “Whisper,” a horror movie filmed in Warsaw, Ky. by WKU junior Anna Raker. Photo credit: MIA BREITENSTEIN

The woman was Rachel Lambert, the film’s director, and after a few minutes of talking, both realized they grew up right down the street from each other.

“Kentucky girls are strong, huh?” Lambert said.

“Yeah, we’re freaking tough,” Bartley said, a confident grin spreading across her face.

Bartley recalled how there was little fighting or arguing on set. Instead of wasting time bickering, she said the crew was able to focus and dive deep into the project. Through their passion for filmmaking, the ensemble of strangers became like a family. This group has remained close ever since, hanging out every time Bartley comes into town.

When the movie was finally finished, the crew submitted it to multiple film festivals, including Toronto International Film Festival. From script to screen, this entire project started in Kentucky, along with many others.

But why Kentucky? Why now? Well, Kentucky has some very generous tax incentives for filmmakers — this means they can get a return on certain expenses when coming to Kentucky to shoot movies, like labor, sets, equipment, location, and much more. These benefits attract all types of productions, but the expense does attract criticism.

Gov. Matt Bevin, worried about Kentucky’s ability to pay all the companies, suspended new applications and set a deadline for February 1. In response, companies desperately submitted applications for the tax incentives before the deadline. Kentucky approved over $428 million for an unusually large amount of projects. In April, the legislature continued the film tax incentives program with a $100 million dollar cap to avoid this type of over budgeting again. Still, in the future, filmmakers can still save money by making a movie in Kentucky. As the Lexington Herald-Leader reported, from 2009-2017, over 150 projects had been approved to be subsidized by the tax incentives.

“I’ve worked on movies that have come into town just for this,” Bartley stated, “It’s a great deal. Any movie that I’ve been on in Kentucky has taken advantage of the tax incentives.”

While the tax incentives can help those in the industry save money, Kentucky’s close connections can lead to countless opportunities for younger professionals entering into the industry after college. Kentucky isn’t nearly as large and as busy as Hollywood, making it much easier to form relationships that can advance a filmmaker’s career. These connections can be widely useful, from getting jobs to finding crews.

“I know everybody that works in the industry here in Kentucky; it’s a small-knit family,” Bartley said.

She first encountered filmmaking in her photography class at duPont Manual High School, but didn’t know the extent of her passion until shortly after graduating from WKU.

“It was my first time ever being on a film set. Just being in the environment made me realize this is what I want to do,” she recalled.

The attitudes and passion on the set of a film can determine how well a piece turns out. In the same way, the location of a film can affect the entire mood of a project. The natural landscapes of our rural areas and the busy cities of Louisville and Lexington give filmmakers a wide range of settings. Films from all genres have been made in Kentucky; everything from “Stripes,” a wacky army movie starring Bill Murray, to “Secretariat,” the 2010 movie about the legendary horse that won the Triple Crown.

Although Kentucky has been the setting for many of the films Bartley has worked on, her next projects probably won’t be filmed in the Bluegrass State. She has decided to take her talents to Los Angeles, the film capital of the world. Though Bartley made her start in a state primarily known for basketball, bourbon, and horse racing, Kentucky has given her experiences that can open doors elsewhere.

Anna Raker, a current junior in the WKU film program, is another filmmaker trying to make her mark on our old Kentucky home. Raker has had a passion for filmmaking ever since high school when she attended The Underground Academy of Cinematic Arts camp in Ohio, where she learned how to make a film from start to finish. After that, her mind was set on being in the film industry. She has written, directed, and produced multiple films for herself and friends.

Since being enrolled in film classes, Raker has noticed a significant increase in the quality of her films, which are largely horror films — her favorite genre.

“I did a teen film challenge three years ago and a lot of it was blurry. I was just facepalming the entire time,” Raker said. “Seeing from high school to where it’s brought me to my sophomore year of college, it’s great. It’s amazing how much has changed and how much more I know.”

Hannah Fitzpatrick, a 19-year-old crew member, uses a lighting technique to mimic the appearance of night time on the set of “Whispers.” Photo credit: MIA BREITENSTEIN


Two crew members check on their camera settings after filming a scene for “Whispers.”

Raker and Bartley alike have shown the passion for film that can be found in Kentucky. But with its reputation for bluegrass, college basketball, and thoroughbreds, Kentucky’s diverse locations and tax incentives are crucial in bringing the film industry home. For Raker and Bartley, these incentives are necessary in remedying the notion that Kentucky doesn’t impact the film industry — and jump-starting their careers.

“When I tell people I’m a filmmaker they are like ‘oh that’s really unique,’” Raker said. “No one expects to find a filmmaker in Kentucky. They think it’s all outsourced to LA or New York or places like that.” 

And Scene
A group of WKU students prepare to shoot the first scene of their film, “Whispers,” on March 22. Photo by MIA BREITENSTEIN.