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December 3, 2012

How two locals followed their dreams and made it big

VALDOSTA — When you have big dreams in a small city, you can feel like a whale stuck in a fish bowl. More times than not, the sad reality of those dreams never leaves the fruition of one’s own imagination. However, for Matt Maddox and Dana Merwin, those dreams are now just life. A once upon a time story that transforms into mythic proportions to those who dare to dream.

Maddox, the son of Bill Maddox and Annie Laurie McElroy, is a good ol’ hometown boy from Valdosta. Taking in the best of both worlds, he attended Lowndes High School his freshman and sophomore years, where he marched as a famed Georgia Bridgeman, before moving to Valdosta High School where he graduated in 1996.

Merwin, the daughter of Charlie and Pam Merwin, is from Adel.

“Cook High, home of the Hornets!” Merwin jokingly said.

Maddox went to Fullsail University to study film and Merwin attended the University of Georgia to study advertising, though she also had a love of film.

Living only miles apart growing up, they were introduced in college through mutual best friends, now married, Zach and Amy Cowart.

They first met on spring break in 1998 when, with their mutual friends, they went to Walt Disney World in Orlando.

“We ended up having a mutual affection for film and books and Woody Allen,” said Merwin.

The two were both in relationships at the time, but kept in touch through email.

In 2000, Maddox graduated from Fullsail and found that after studying film, it was pretty difficult to find a job.

“I felt like it was important to make something,” said Maddox.

Needing a calling card, Maddox decided that he would make a documentary.

Maddox had always been intrigued by the documentaries from the 1960’s that were this raw sort of naturalistic representation of reality.

Falling back on his Bridgeman roots, Maddox decided to do a documentary on marching bands.

“I marched Alpha sax under Billy Martin and Billy Mannerd,” said Maddox.

Band kids were these hidden athletic outsiders that led this underground intensity of competitiveness. They weren’t just dorks in silly outfits at halftime on the football field, they were champions that breathed music as if it were oxygen and Maddox felt compelled to capture this spirit on film.

Maddox spent a year writing a proposal and raising the funds to make the documentary. He then began reaching out to the marching band community.

“I contacted the people who ran Bands of America,” said Maddox. “They put on a national contest every November in Indianapolis.”

Eventually, he found his way to a high school band in Broken Arrow, Okla.

“They were called the Pride of Broken Arrow,” said Maddox.

With a band and story set, Maddox still needed a sound crew.

While Merwin’s degree in advertising didn’t quite qualify her to run sound on a documentary, her love of movies and eventually, Maddox, made her the perfect partner.

Together, the two went off to Oklahoma.

“We shot for three to four months,” said Maddox.

The documentary’s style was raw and natural. There were no interviews —Maddox and Merwin merely acted as flies on the wall.

“They were into it,” said Maddox. “Being real.”

The band had roughly 200 kids and they came from the largest high school in Oklahoma.

“In and around Oklahoma are the top four bands in the country,” said Maddox. “They all live within 20 miles of each other.”

Aside from their size and reputation, they were having a tough year.

“They lost their color guard instructor and that was a challenge,” said Maddox.

At the end, they had hours of footage that took an entire year to edit. “The Pride of Broken Arrow” was born, but, what is a film without an audience?

Maddox and Merwin reached out to Ray McKinnon.

“He was a character actor,” said Merwin.

Though McKinnon lived in Los Angeles, Ca., he was originally from Adel like Merwin. That was their “in”.

But how do you get in touch with a man who was punched by George Clooney in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and has his own production company? Well, Google of course.

“That’s the only person I knew,” said Merwin.

She called him up, sent him the film, and like a fairy tale come true, he loved it.

“He said, ‘You did a really good job,’” said Merwin.

Sure, Maddox and Merwin may not have won any fancy awards for their documentary, but that was never its intention. It was meant to be a calling card, and fortunately for them, it was the best calling card they could have ever made.

McKinnon was making a feature film in Arkansas with Billy Bob Thornton called “Chrystal”, which he wrote and directed. After he won the Oscar in 2002 for best short film for “The Accountant”, things were just really falling into place for him and in turn, were falling into place for Maddox and Merwin as well, as McKinnon asked them both to work on the movie.

Maddox and Merwin headed to Arkansas for one month. Merwin was the sound assistant and Maddox just drove a lot and moved around gear.

“I did a lot of the grunt work,” said Maddox.

“It was not glamorous,” said Merwin.

After “Chrystal”, the producers offered Maddox and Merwin jobs.

“We moved to Los Angeles,” said Maddox.

That was nine years ago and now Maddox and Merwin have made a successful life for themselves.

“Now, I’m an editor,” said Maddox.

Maddox has worked on “Paranormal Activity 2”, “Killers”, “He’s Just Not That Into You”, “Hope Springs” and more.

He’s a member of the Editor’s Guild and has been able to work with people such as Tom Hanks and Glynn Close.

“Now, I’m doing this movie called “Look of Love”,” said Maddox, adding that it is due to come out next year.

Merwin is now the director of operations for Jupiter Entertainment.

“It’s overseeing post-production,” said Merwin. “I oversee the West Coast office.”

Merwin delivers shows to Discovery, Animal Planet and TLC. She has worked on projects such as “Let’s Go to Prison”, “No Impact Man”, “The Hammer”, “Surfwise” and more.

So the advice of two hometown kids who have done well in Hollywood —know at least one person, or at the very least, have a working understanding of Google. You won’t believe how far it can take you.

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