Sean Riley has great memories of going to the video store with his dad and grabbing several movies.
“I would watch anything I could get my hands on,” he said.
Riley’s love of film dogged him through an 11-year career as a teacher in Oak Grove and Petal until he couldn’t ignore it anymore.
In 2014, he moved to the Coast, and by last year he had directed his first feature film, “Fighting Belle.”
“It’s about a sassy Southern belle who is jilted at the altar by her fighter fiance, so she decides to pick up the boxing gloves to get her revenge,” Riley said. “It’s ‘Legally Blonde’ meets ‘Rocky.’”
Riley, 40, filmed the movie entirely in Ocean Springs, Gulfport and Pass Christian — all near St. Martin, where he lives with his wife, Candy, and 16-year-old son, Kiernan.
“When we moved here, all the pieces came together,” he said. “They had the boxing location in Gulfport. They had the Southern mansion in Pass Christian. Everything fit.”
The film premiered in March in Ocean Springs and had a run in May in Waveland. It is now available for rent or purchase on Amazon.
Hattiesburg actress Jeanne Stegall-Keene played the fighter fiance’s mother — a red-dress wearing, spray-tanned, hair-extensioned momma.
“I absolutely loved ‘Fighting Belle,’” she said. “Not only was it filmed in a beautiful mansion, but I played an over-the-top character — a trailer-trash woman who inherits a lot of money.
“I say inappropriate things. I tried to make it funny enough that everybody would remember that part of the movie.”
It gives me hope for Mississippi — seeing artists doing what they love (in this state), instead of moving out of state, and it gives me a chance to work in my industry in Mississippi.
Sean Riley, director
Stegall-Keene, 48, had appeared in TV and film before, including “The George Lopez Show” and in Ethan Hawke’s new movie “Blaze,” but she said she loved working in Mississippi.
“I had filmed on the Coast before, but it was such a beautiful setting,” she said. “I wish there were more films made in Mississippi.”
Riley said he spent a lot of time trying to write the perfect screenplay, but knew he had a winner when he saw the script online for “Fighting Belle.”
“The characters were colorful,” he said. “It had a concept that was very marketable. It had a story that was fun and easy to follow.
“I thought it would appeal to a lot of people. It had a setting and characters that I knew very well.”
Before “Fighting Belle,” the 2001 Southern Miss radio, television and film grad had another venture into film with a subject he knew a lot about. He wrote and directed the short film “Past Tense,” about a teacher with a secret who reveals an even bigger secret. The movie was an official selection at several film expos, including 2016’s FestivalSouth.
“That gave me the confidence to move forward (on a feature),” Riley said.
But Riley didn’t give up his education career. He directed “Fighting Belle” on the weekends while working as an alternative education coordinator in the George County School District.
“I had three of my students appear in the film, and one of them had a speaking role,” he said. “It was nice to be able to offer that to them.”
Also appearing in the movie was Southern Miss theater major Ella Embrey, 20. She played a shopper in a boutique and was also in the crowd in the fight scene.
“Everything we were doing was Mississippi-based,” she said. “It was really special.
“It gives me hope for Mississippi — seeing artists doing what they love (in this state), instead of moving out of state, and it gives me a chance to work in my industry in Mississippi.”
Riley directed the movie on the weekends while working as an alternative education coordinator in the George County School District
Embrey said her character was known as the “boutique eye-roller” because she has a reaction when the main character punches a cardboard cutout of her fiance.
“(There’s) the other boutique eye-roller and that split-second where we’re just looking at each other,” she said. “My favorite was the boutique scene because we got to spend the whole day meeting cast and crew and talking to Sean.”
Riley’s experience making “Fighting Belle” might lead to a little advice for young actors like Embrey.
“(I learned) persistence and endurance,” he said. “You have to be ready for the long haul.
“If you stick around long enough, you can reach what you want and things will happen for you.”
Riley plans on taking it easy for the near future and seeing how his movie fares on Amazon.
Stegall-Keene predicts it will fare quite well.
“If you want a feel-good, happy romantic comedy, you should see it,” she said. “I don’t see how you could walk away without smiling.”