In many ways, Steven Middleton (Class of 2004 and 2008) goes through life observing it and taking it all in just like the rest of us. Thanks to the nature of his profession as a documentary filmmaker and mass communications instructor at Morehead State University, he also sees things very differently.
Before Middleton ever turns on his camera to capture footage, he is observing and on the lookout for a good story in an unexpected place. It may lead him to brutes bashing into each other at a wrestling show in a small-town armory or a legal and bureaucratic border battle over ownership of a large rock.
“I always try to say I don’t like to overly plan for a topic. I like for a topic to find me,” Middleton said. “The good stories are all around you all the time. You just have to learn to listen more and pick up on those things.”
While Middleton grew up on a family farm in Elliott County, he also moved around a lot as a kid thanks to his dad’s construction company and has lived in 12 different states. This helped him pick up a knack for socialization and meeting new people wherever he went. He and his friends would explore their creativity with a VHS camera after seeing the 1994 Tim Burton film “Ed Wood” about the true story of the 1950s low-budget cult filmmaker. This eventually led to Middleton capturing the world and the people around him.
“I always assumed to that point to make a film, you had to have a lot of money,” Middleton said. “I got into making documentaries because I could do that by myself. A crew of one.”
Middleton kept up filmmaking when he could while he attended Morehead State University. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communication in 2004 and a Master of Arts in Applied Communication in 2008. The same year he earned his master’s degree, Middleton was hired by the University as a communications instructor.
A year later, Middleton said one of the first documentaries that he did that got a noticeably positive response from viewers was his second film called “Fire in the Mountains,” a 2009 film that captured a behind-the-scenes look at the athletes and performers of Hazard Championship Wrestling in Hazard. It was the first of several documentaries Middleton would typically film every year in the summers when he wasn’t teaching class. Because of limited time for travel and resources, Middleton would keep the subject matter within Kentucky’s borders.
In 2010, it was about a group of Buddhists in Powell County for 2010’s “Zen Furnace” (the first of several of his documentaries to be accepted to international film festivals). In 2017, his film “Between the Rock and the Commonwealth” chronicled the unusual and surreal 2007 court case between Kentucky and Ohio over which state could claim ownership to the Indian Head Rock pulled from the Ohio River. Other times, his work has been more educational and academic, like when he covered the history of Kentucky tobacco farming in 2011’s “Tobaccolachia” or when he was tasked by MSU with the expansive documentary “Far Above the Rolling Campus: A History of Morehead State University,” which took him two years to complete.
Middleton’s 14 documentary films have actively attempted to capture parts of Kentucky and Appalachia that are more niche and unique than typical.
“It’s easy for you to gravitate until it’s easy for you to gravitate to the giant noise machines on topics,” he said. “Then the more you steer away from the noise machines; fine-tune your listening, your thinking, your reading to a topic that needs to be told, but also people don’t really know a lot about. But you’re doing something different than what everyone else is doing.”
He is still making films and teaching courses covering mass communication, documentary and video production, television production and social media management (he recently became MSU’s social media minor coordinator). He said whether it is getting films shot and edited or making sure they get seen at film festivals or picked up by public broadcasting affiliates, Middleton makes sure he takes his experience and passes it on to his students.
“They walk away with someone who is still actively producing and knows the current standards, current formats, how actual media jobs work, not just a textbook,” Middleton said.
Middleton continued on his yearly clip of documentary filmmaking, more recently completing projects on Kentucky’s drive-in movie theaters (2019’s “The Show Starts at Dark”) and showcasing a long-standing structure just down the road from MSU in Morehead (2020’s “Echoes from the Hallways of the Historic Old Rowan County Courthouse”). When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of last year, it paused his filmmaking until he was contacted by the owners of Mt. Sterling’s Ruth Hunt Candies to create a documentary in the fall of 2020 on the history of the Kentucky candy icon’s 100th anniversary. The finished product, “History of Sweetness: 100 Years of Ruth Hunt Candy,” is currently airing on Kentucky Educational Television (KET) networks all summer.
“It was a hoot,” Middleton said. “I was just honored to have a purpose again. I felt like I was needed. I had something to do.”
As long as Middleton has a camera and a classroom, he said he will always have a purpose if it means telling a story that rarely gets told or using the wealth of knowledge he has earned in the field to help students acquire the intricacies and technical know-how to achieve their filmmaking dreams. If you ask Middleton, there is no learning without getting out there and trying.
“Produce, produce, produce, cause you’re going to learn through your mistakes and you’re going to learn by doing it,” Middleton said. “Just produce. Find your own voice.”
Middleton’s films are available at www.vimeo.com/staterunmediaproductions.
To learn more about MSU’s Department of Communication, Media and Languages programs, visit www.moreheadstate.edu/cml.