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Jillian Howell began making movies as a grade schooler. The Putnam County native now works in Hollywood, but her passion is telling stories on film about West Virginians who inspire her.
Randy Yohe talked with the Disney production coordinator and documentary filmmaker about her show business start, her latest project and her drive to support Mountain State arts.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Yohe: It seems your passion for filmmaking began in Scott Depot, West Virginia at a young age, with a toy that my sister had as well. Tell me about that.
Howell: When I was seven, Santa Claus brought me a Barbie video camera. I made videos constantly with my dolls, and with my family that recorded straight to VHS. I taught myself stop animation with my brother. I was just constantly making things, and it wasn’t really until YouTube started in 2006, that I really started making things that other people were able to watch. I taught myself how to video edit on my mom’s Windows XP Movie Maker, and was able to start creating things to put on YouTube, and classmates were able to see them. I started entering video contests. In high school, I created Music Video Monday, which was also on our morning announcements that took off on the internet as well. There weren’t a lot of film opportunities for kids my age, there wasn’t a curriculum kind of tailored to it. It started with making my own opportunities.
Yohe: You’re now with Walt Disney Animation Studios in Los Angeles. Tell us about that job.
Howell: I got my first internship through West Virginia connections at Disney Parks internal ad agency, where I interned for a year and a half and then just kept pounding the pavement. I knew I wanted to work in animation production management, and didn’t know when I was in college that was a career path. I’ve been at Disney Animation since 2019. I started as a production assistant on Frozen II, and went on to be a production assistant, or as we call it, a PA, on Raya and the Last Dragon and then a production coordinator on some park attractions, Strange World and I’m now working on Wish.
Yohe: Even though you’re in Los Angeles, it seems your heart remains in West Virginia. You’re ready to debut a three-year-in-the-making documentary on your childhood best friend Zane, and that’s also the title. Tell us about his story.
Howell: I met Zane in fourth grade when he was seated next to me at Scott Teays Elementary School. I had never really had the opportunity to become friends with someone who had special needs and hadn’t really seen anyone fit into the mainstream. I feel like Zane was this bridge that connected what is a self-contained classroom to the mainstream classroom.
Zane is very unabashedly joyful, friendly and hilarious. He can make me laugh. I’ve always enjoyed every moment with him and sharing those stories with my family. I had been thinking about making a character piece on Zane, and decided to kind of just go for it. By the time that we scheduled the first interview, Zane had lost his job that he had for four years at Lowe’s. A very important thing about Zane is that he is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. He loves working. He just lost his job to regular layoffs, it wasn’t anything that he did personally, so I think that made it even harder for him.
A key component in Zane’s story, and in Zane’s success, is his mom Anne. Anne was actually studying special needs before she even knew that Zane was going to be diagnosed with an intellectual disability. She has a doctorate in special education. She is his biggest advocate, and also an advocate for so many folks with special needs. Zane has a huge heart, and a lot of faith. I wanted to capture that really charming character, but also show his mom’s tenacity to be able to continue to move forward in a situation that is really frustrating. Eighty percent of folks with special needs are often unemployed, but they offer so much to the workforce. We just have to really give them a chance, and be willing to make some accommodations for that.
I just want people to fall in love with him. The best way I know how to do that is through film and through sharing his story.
Yohe: West Virginia has recently restored its film office and restored its film tax credit to help make the state globally competitive as a production site. What kind of impact do you think that that will have?
Howell: I think the ripple effect of having a film office in West Virginia is big. When you see West Virginia represented in media, in film, and television, you really become the ambassadors for the state. You are able to show off the state in a way that makes people respect our state and see what we have to offer. I think the more that we open the door to those opportunities, we’ll see our state continue to be respected and grow.
Yohe: Tell us about your online social hub, Shine On WV.
Howell: Once I started realizing there were so many West Virginians working in important, artistic fields, and we just weren’t talking about it, it was just kind of like household chatter. I decided we had to create a database of creative West Virginians, and give them a chance to tell their story and share their work. It’s been really tremendous to just kind of start to see the connections that we can make. I just really want to break down the barrier to that. It is great to have a career in the arts. It takes a lot of passion, a lot of patience, and figuring things out. I’m tired of hearing that art is not a career option. It just takes a lot of creativity to figure out how to pay your bills, and to also sustain that lifestyle.
Yohe: You’ve got a lot of irons in the artistic fire. Going forward, your personal career goals, I imagine will springboard from Zane, to what filmmaking end?
Howell: I think that my dream changes a lot, but I know that it involves producing films. I have several ideas of my own films that I want to make. I’m helping produce an indie feature right now. I have so many different passions that it used to feel impossible for them to all kind of align and come together. I’m starting to realize that I can kind of continue to create those opportunities for myself, even though it’s exhausting. I have set boundaries for myself to really kind of stop and self-analyze, rest and take care of myself. My husband will say I’m not great at it, but I have gotten a lot better at it.