Sometimes, without even trying, you find yourself becoming a part of history.
That is true for Gainesville native Terrance N. Shelton, who recently found himself working on the set of the biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement called “Selma.” The film is now playing in theaters everywhere.
After graduating from Gainesville High School in 1987 and later earning his bachelor’s degree in media management from Clark Atlanta University, Shelton started a career in the retail industry. But when the economy took a turn, Shelton stumbled into the film industry by chance and ended up on the set of history.
As a props assistant on “Selma,” Shelton was responsible for purchasing, acquiring and/or manufacturing any props needed for a production. But working on the set also meant he was also a part of a feature film whose subject matter, while set in 1965, couldn’t be more timely in 2014. He spoke with The Times about his experience.
Question: How did you get into the film industry?
Answer: I was one of the many people (who) found themselves displaced and without a job after the downturn of the economy. So after being a buyer in retail for 16 years I basically had to reinvent myself. I had been doing wardrobe on short films and small productions for PBS and so forth, because that was what I was familiar with. While I was doing those things, I met a prop master named Bill Butler who just kind of casually asked me if I would be interested in coming to assist him at some point if he got a gig.
Q: What are some of the projects you worked on before you got hired on “Selma”?
A: I stayed in contact with (Bill Butler) and he eventually called me because he was given a BET show called “The Game.” That was their highest-grossing show. It was actually on another network and it was canceled. But due to a groundswell of support, BET picked them up, so we were the very first thing to film in the new Screen Gems facility that took the place of the old Lakewood facility. I’ve done a few television shows, kind of cut my teeth over at BET and did some made-for-TV movies. (“Selma”) was my first feature film.
Q: What was it like working on a film whose subject matter carries such historical significance?
A: It was obviously important that this message be told, and I think the thing I keep hearing said about (“Selma”) is it’s so timely. How something that took place in 1965 still has relevance, particularly right now with all of the events in Ferguson and so forth. It’s a message that still needs to be told. It’s funny though — I think we’ve seen this depiction before. We’ve seen the atrocities of the Civil Rights era. But this story really focused more on the dialogue between Dr. King and LBJ, behind the scenes and essentially all of the things that led up to kind of forcing LBJ’s hand to enact legislation for (The Voter Rights Act of 1965). It’s a very important story still to be told in this day and time.
Q: What’s your favorite memory from your time on set?
A: Honestly, it was probably meeting the director herself, Ava DuVernay. The protocol for working on “Selma” was when you were hired your first day you came in and filled out paperwork and whatever else they needed you to do, but the protocol was you had to meet (DuVernay). They would insist that you stop whatever you were doing and meet her. It is such a rarity I think that in other films and other television shows that I’ve worked on, it just so much the rigor of the business that you’ll never have a director be quite as engaged and as approachable as (DuVernay) was. She would often take time on set to explain the significance of the scene that you were shooting and why it was important. It was just a finesse about the way that she conducted her set. I feel as if it is an experience in my career that will not be duplicated, because she’s just a very special director.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I just finished (working on) a show called “Complications,” which will air on USA in the spring or summer. “Complications” is another show by a gentleman named Matt Nix. Nix is the creator of a show called “Burn Notice.” This is his interpretation of a medical drama. We finished filming that right before the holidays. Now it’s just onward and upward. I’m hoping to go back onto a show that I worked last year called “The Rickey Smiley Show,” which airs on TV One. You just never know what’s around the corner.