(originally published in Avenue magazine, August 2005)
By Dave Ryder
What do photography, tennis, filmmaking, philanthropy, kickboxing and real estate have in common? Ask local filmmaker Rex Miller. He’s the owner of a new creative studio on 4th Street in downtown Wilmington. Though he is somewhat guarded when it comes to revealing long-term plans Rex is very vocal about the possibilities that lay ahead of his latest venture.
The son of a magazine writer and editor, Miller was born and raised in Queens, NY. After cavorting the five boroughs throughout his youth he finally settled in Brooklyn. An avid tennis player since the age of two, Rex climbed the ranks playing Division 1 tennis in college in upstate NY, ultimately turning pro. He would give lessons on the side to make ends meet. But it was in his college years that he discovered his love of photography which resulted in a ten year hiatus from the courts.
“I did magazine photography for ten years, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. In 1990 his stint as a hired gun led Rex to Sports Illustrated, where he would be sent to Bangkok to cover a story on kick-boxing. The article would never be published but the experience resonated. After returning to the States Rex would devote a great deal of time studying the sport, eventually becoming the sparring partner of Edge Brown, World Kickboxing Champion.
Rex later opened his own studio and began to teach kickboxing. It was a fulfilling venture. Between lessons photography continued to consume him. During travels as a hired writer and photographer Rex realized that his true calling was not sport or journalism, it was storytelling.
“I was writing more. It was an evolution,” Rex says, “After taking photos for other people for ten years you want to tell the story yourself.”
Rex would soon after travel south to research the history of blues music. His travels would lead him to a Mississippi prison that he would tour extensively, taking photographs and recording interviews. After returning to New York he formed a small production company (RexPix Media) and produced an album with an accompanying photo book documenting the musicians he met. The experience helped Rex realize that he wanted to explore new mediums to reach a broader audience. The obvious succession was to create a feature length documentary. He decided to return to Mississippi.
I’m Walking was Rex’s first serious foray into motion picture photography and the experience was riveting. After returning to NYC Rex decided it was time for a change of venue.
“My lease was up. It felt like a good time to take an extended road-trip,” he says. “I finished the documentary…and editing a video I shot at CBGB’s. The next morning I got in my car with my cat and headed for Savannah, Georgia. I stopped off in Wilmington for lunch. That was eighteen months ago.”
Fate had its chance on that day. Fresh off his first documentary effort Rex was ready to give the movie industry a go.
“Using motion picture photography is a logical step from what I was doing in Mississippi,” he explains, “I love the medium of film. That’s the next step.”
Being a prime location for film opportunities Rex has decided to make Wilmington his home base. The building at the end of Fourth Street is on the north side of downtown Wilmington, adjacent to the plot of land that used to be Taylor Homes. The structure itself was somewhat neglected when he found it. Though it had recently been fitted with a new roof and air-conditioning unit the exposed brick walls were ripe with growth and the carpet was musty and unkempt.
With a bit of elbow-grease on the part of Rex and his supporters the facility has been cleaned up and readied for occupation and Rex believes it will make a great production house. Which is not to say that he has given up on other endeavors. This past year Rex’s photographic work has taken him to Miami, Utah, Arizona, London, Jamaica, Uganda and back to New York City. And, of course, he needs space to plan his first cinematic feature-length drama.
The building could be a stand-alone production house and nothing more than a place to get work done, but Rex has bigger plans. He envisions a Warhol-type “factory” in the near future. Space will be available for rent and the venue will offer an opportunity for local artists to be exposed to new ideas in different mediums. Rex’s philosophy is that creativity comes in many forms and he’d like to share ideas with other artists, which is why filmmaking is only one aspect of his plan.
Also, Rex still teaches tennis from time to time. He’d like to have a venue where he can teach kickboxing as well. He plans on building a medium-scale boxing ring and installing heavy bags to facilitate his training. Other portions of the building could possibly house a digital editing suite as well as office and meeting space for group brain-storming. And, of course, Rex will have his state of the art photography studio. When asked if this is a commercial venture Rex responds carefully.
“I’ve always had to mix art and commerce,” says Rex, “Some people just do it to be commercial. Not me. I have been fortunate to work on projects where art and commerce have been happily married.”ex uses his excursion to Uganda as a prime example of an opportunity to create art and tell stories without having to procure his own funding. Last year he was enlisted by the Full Belly Project, a Wilmington charitable foundation that is striving to revolutionize the agricultural system in war-torn Uganda. He lived in the country for a month, shooting stills and digital video illustrating the plight of the subsistence farmers in some of the poorest sections of the countryside. Though the organization couldn’t pay Rex a commission they were able to give him an opportunity to work in a place that he may have never been able to explore on his own.
“Uganda wasn’t about money, it was about the experience,” he says.
Rex is confident that his new workspace will lead to more opportunities in Wilmington. When pressed to describe his long-term goals in North Carolina he seems optimistic but somewhat vague.
“In five years I see myself making my second feature,” he claims. About what, he won’t say. It’s a bold statement, but one that he assures me he will pursue adamantly. Now that he has the facilities to work and collaborate with others Rex looks forward to focusing on the creative process of filmmaking, which ironically may include slowing down from the metropolitan pace that he associates with his native New York City. After all, this is still an extended road-trip, and the path to creative success must include a bit of R&R.
As Rex explains, “I’ve always had a lot of interests and I’ve had a place before where I could do everything under one roof, just never by the beach.” He pauses for a moment.
“My friends in New York are going to make fun of me when they read that,” he says.