Willapa oystering life celebrated by new documentary

Keith Cox brings his local connections, affection and knowledge to the now-available first segment of a seven-part project series on “Willapa Bay Oysters: More Than an Oyster, It’s a Quality of Life.”

WILLAPA BAY — Keith Cox knows what he wants and clearly knows how to get it. Last year it was announced that Cox, a filmmaker who has rubbed elbows with  the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow and Macaulay Culkin and has been on “Survivor” shoots in the Amazonian jungles, was returning to the Willapa Bay for a “documentary project about his personal passion.” 

Cox has just completed the first segment of this seven-part project series on “Willapa Bay Oysters: More Than an Oyster, It’s a Quality of Life.”

Cox took time out from his life in L.A. to conduct “over 60 interviews with oystermen, most of which were ‘in action’ as the oystermen were working.”

“I shot more than 160 hours of footage,” he continued, “over a period of six weeks spread out over 10 months, then I began the process of editing this down to a 25-minute segment. 

Home boy comes home

Cox has worked in the film industry for more than 10 years but his family was not initially excited about his career of choice. “I come from a long line of pharmacists,” said Cox. “My dad didn’t think this was a great career choice at first. He wanted something stable for me. He said ‘Keith, there’s no money in broadcast stuff.’

“But that’s why we laugh about it now. I probably make more money doing this. And what I do is definitely stable or even more stable because I’ve been able to carve out a niche for myself in the film industry. He’s very supportive of me now.

“But no one in my family loves the fact that I’m living in L.A.,” he added.

Cox was born in South Bend, moved to Seaview where he attended Long Beach Elementary School and eventually ended up back in South Bend where he graduated from high school in 1995. Cox has two sets of grandparents living on the Peninsula: Don and Marge Cox in Ilwaco; and Martha and Dick Murfin in Seaview. His father, David Cox, is the owner of South Bend Pharmacy. 

Keith attributes his love of film to a video course he took at South Bend High School, taught after it was launched by teacher Kevin Hughes. “I just took to it immediately. Then I went off to WSU and initially studied architecture — so I was using CAD programs [computer aided design] but I was still making films with friends on the side.” Soon Cox realized that he needed to pursue what he loved, and he graduated with a degree in broadcast production in 1998.

“My buddies had a dream that we’d all go off to L.A. after we graduated. But none of them did it. Finally after spending some time in my dad’s backyard in a tree house I said to my girlfriend, now wife, Rachel [Evans], let’s just go. So we did.” 

Willapa Bay series

The first part of the seven-part bay series was shown at the recent Marine Resources Conference. The 25-minute segment illustrates in sound and sense just what it’s like to be an oysterman or woman on the bay.

Cox explains the inspiration for doing shorter segments. “Rather than doing one longer feature, I decided to split it up into episodes so that I could focus on different topics within the oyster industry. That way I could discover more information and take a little more time to research each of these topics.”

“In October of 2009, I was going for a run in Sherman Oaks where I live in L.A. I am always in search of things that inspire me and I was doing a ton of work for the studios and was totally drained and my mind said, ‘You’ve got to find something that really inspires you, that is really what you want to do.’”

“I decided to give myself a year,” he continued, “I decided by that next October (2010), I would commit myself to a personal project. To me this series just seemed like the next logical step topic because I know so many folks who are oystermen — Dave Nisbet, Phil Olsen — who I grew up with duck hunting together. It just fell into place.”

Local voices and families

Because Cox knows the area and the oystering families, making connections wasn’t as hard as it might have been for an outsider to the community. But even so, Jim Neva, Ilwaco harbor manager, said, “We wondered initially if this would just be another one of those oyster tours.”

In fact, it turned out to be much more than that. As Cox said, “The series was inspired by the idea of doing a project that would give back to the communities I grew up in, by preserving the stories as history, in this case, of the oyster growers of Willapa Bay.”

We hear the stories of a group of families who have been working and living on the bay for generations. Included are Brian and Dick Sheldon; Kathleen and David Nisbet; Steve and Andi Shotwell; Don Gillies; Pete Heckes; Phil Stamp; Austin Docter; Scott Madsen; Phil Olsen; John, Roy and Annie Herrold; Brian and Jim Kemmer; Eric and Nick Jambor; Jimmy Moreno; Hector Meliton; Leonard Bennett; Ken Weigardt; Dennis Tufts; Dan Driscoll; Dick Wilson; and Tim Morris.

Cox is financing this project with his own funds so he has been working for the most part as a one-man crew. “Since it’s a self -financed project for the most part, I can’t afford a crew, so I am doing everything from writing the scripts, doing the interviews while shooting all the footage, coordinating everyone’s schedules which are all driven by the tides.”  

“I’m even doing all the post production work. Shooting for hours and hours on boats out on the water, many times in weather that is sunny one second, then raining the next, as well as trudging through the mud. But through it all I’ve strived to capture images that make you feel like you are in the action,” said Cox.

Video available online or locally

The video documentary “Willapa Bay Oysters” is available for free viewing at www.WillapaBayDocs.com, but if you’d like to own a copy of it or the upcoming episodes, they are available in a seven-disc collection.  The complete series is $50 and can be purchased in the form of a subscription.

Videos are also available at South Bend Pharmacy or Pacific Art & Office Supply in Ilwaco. You can also contact Keith Cox directly at keith@WillapaBayDocs.com

Cox has turned his filmmaker’s eye on to the beauty of Willapa Bay. The fact that he grew up with this landscape as his boyhood backdrop shows in the sensuousness and sensitivity of the film. 

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