‘A Coalfield Christmas’ to be filmed in Madisonville and Sturgis

The short film is based on a cherished holiday memory for writer Julia Maddox, who grew up in Madisonville and Murray.
by Constance Alexander |

It happens all the time. Julia Maddox writes a screenplay that explores some aspect of rural life, shares it with a class at City College of New York where she is working on an MFA in Film, and gets the weirdest reactions. For example, there was the reading when all of her classmates kept mispronouncing one character’s name, apparently mystified by a “foreign” term.

Constance Alexander

As she retells the story, Julia’s tone reflects exasperation and amusement.

“Mamaw!” She blurts the mysterious word. “God bless these Yankee people.”

Born in Madisonville, Maddox moved to Murray as a teenager. She graduated from Murray State University, was active at Playhouse in the Park, made lots of friends, and put down roots in the community.

In 1999, she went to New York to be an actor. Like so many who pursue that dream, she found that the handiest way to make a living was by getting close to the theatre world however she could.

“I was an intermission bartender at Broadway shows. ‘Les Mis,’ ‘Phantom,’ ‘Miss Saigon,’” she says, listing some all-time favorite musicals.

Over time she realized that the life of a theatre actor was not her calling, so she transitioned to a job as a corporate training manager. She got burnt out on that routine and bought a high-definition camera. Still exploring career options, she taught herself how to edit and even did a cooking show for Queens Park TV.

The turning point was a screenwriting class at Primary Stages, an off-Broadway theatre company. When the class read her 10-page script aloud, the lights went on for Maddox.

“When they read your work, they lean forward if they’re engaged, wanting to know what happens next,” she explained.

Since then, she has taken classes and written several scripts that have fared well on the festival circuit. Her feature film script, “The Coward of Hickory County,” was a finalist for the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival Screenwriting Competition and the UPike Media Arts Festival in Kentucky. Other recognition was forthcoming from Blue Cat Screenwriting, the Big Apple Film Festival and Screencraft Drama Script Competition.

Shorter scripts have also earned the limelight. “Death Comes for Danny” and “El Velorio” (The Wake) were featured at other festivals in New York and Texas.

“A Coalfield Christmas” is Maddox’s focus right now. It is a tribute to her grandparents, Harlan “Red” Maddox and Oma Maddox. Her granddaddy was a coal miner for 40 years and Mamaw not only raised six kids but was a founding member of The Lighthouse Pentecostal Church, just on the outskirts of Madisonville.

“It’s a sweet story based on a memory I had with my Mamaw on Christmas Eve of 1987, a year after my Granddaddy passed away,” Julia said.

She’d expected they would spend the day cleaning the house and preparing for the big family dinner. Instead, they ended up at the cemetery.

“Through her interactions with a grieving widow,” Julia went on, “she taught me a big lesson on how to manage grief and compassion during the holidays that I’ve never forgotten.”

Julia Maddox learns a lot from reflections like those she describes in “A Coalfield Christmas.” Her frequent posts on Facebook, like the image at the beginning of this column, are city scenes reflected in water or windows. In her post on Fineartamerica, she admits to being a “lover of the unique and the reflective. Puddles and window reflections are my thing. Overly perfect photos are not my thing,” she declares.

“A Coalfield Christmas” is Julia’s thesis short film for her MFA. She will be filming it in Madisonville and the Sturgis area during Thanksgiving week this year. Folks from Murray will have a hand in the process. Julia’s former middle school English teacher, Carol Niswonger, will be Mamaw, and recent Murray High grad Ella Brown Terry is slated to play the part of Michelle, loosely based on Julia.

The rest of the cast is a family affair, with sister Melissa Parker as the widow, Ella Parker as her daughter, and Dick Maddox, Julia’s father, as the ghost of the grandfather. A cousin, Scott Oldham portrays another ghost. MSU grad and professional storyteller Mark Lamb is co-producing with Maddox.

Besides wanting to tell “a compelling story about our people and how we live our lives,” Julia Maddox is determined that the tale will not be filtered through reflections of actors who do not understand the rural dynamics.

“I’m always disappointed in how Hollywood portrays us,” Julia said, “so this is my opportunity to do it the right way.”

Follow Julia Maddox on Instagram @juliamaddox.

‘A Coalfield Christmas’ to be filmed in Madisonville and Sturgis


The NKyTribune is a nonprofit news outlet and a publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. It is a nonpartisan, independent news organization that produces indepth, informative journalism in the public interest.