Tennessee’s old state prison — known as ‘The Castle’ and often a backdrop in Hollywood films — is in the spotlight again. This time, state corrections officials enlisted a Nashville filmmaker to fly his drone-mounted cameras throughout the complex that housed inmates from 1898 to 1992. That's when a federal court decision forced the state to move them to a less-crowded and more humane facility.
The resulting short film is meant to satisfy curiosity, keep trespassers away and entice the public to learn more about the Department of Corrections.
And yet officials insist that the production, slick and edgy, is not an effort to entice a new tenant or a buyer. While Metro officials have been urging the sale of the prison, and a preservation-minded redevelopment, corrections spokeswoman Neysa Taylor said there are “no plans” for TDOC to leave the site.
“We know that there’s so much interest in it, we know this will drive interest in the department,” she said. “People can have a sense of what it’s all about without actually trying to come onto the property.”
The man behind the camera was Brian Siskind, aka “Those Drones,” a musician and filmmaker known for his aerial footage of Nashville's historical properties and other oddities.
Siskind said he’s had eyes on the property for years, intrigued by its epic size and ornate Romanesque architecture.
“You see it from the road and you think, ‘Wow that looks huge, but then you’re behind the walls and you feel the sheer scale of it,’ ” he said.
Siskind takes interest in preservation — of the structures at the compound and of the complicated history of a penitentiary that opened in 1898 along the Cumberland River’s Cockrill Bend.
“Important places don’t have to be made entirely only of warm, fuzzy memories,” he said.
Sunrise To Sunset
Siskind initially failed to find a way document the state prison. He exhausted his contacts.
One day, the phone rang. The Department of Corrections sought him out for the kind of project he’d already been envisioning.
With a contract and plenty of guidelines — including site maps and a hazard book to steer clear of dangers — TDOC gave Siskind one day to film.
He began before sunrise.
“I think you’re immediately conflicted with how darkly beautiful it is, with the contrast of the good and the bad that happened there,” Siskind said. “It felt a bit like being in Rome or Pompeii. To me, if felt like you were in this magnificent ruin that still carried a lot of power and had a lot of visual impact.”
The resulting 17-minute video flies through broken windows and roams across stone textures and along the shadows cast by peeling paint. The ambient film score is also Siskind’s, and includes his own field recordings from Rome and Pompeii. In addition to the film, Siskind has created a website to house additional images and materials related to the property.
Yet for the dilapidation he captured, Siskind said he wasn’t going for a horror film feel.
“I felt a responsibility in the way that I captured it to not exploit or be overly morbid and to try balance the light and dark of things that occurred there,” he said.
And Taylor, the corrections spokeswoman, emphasizes that some work still goes on at the 150-acre campus.
“That’s a living breathing property,” she said. “Because of that, we don’t offer many tours of the space.”
Other than rare circumstances, the grounds are open to visitors just one day a year — and that’s for a Big Brothers Big Sisters fundraiser 5K race.
In the meantime, Metro officials have taken preliminary steps toward a new future for the prison grounds.
“I’m still waiting for the state to agree to sell it,” said Councilwoman Mary Carolyn Roberts, whose district includes that parcel. “Eventually, everyone I’ve talked to says, ‘Yes, this is the right thing to do.’ But when it comes to putting it for sale, you know with government, it’s slow-going.”
Roberts says the prime location has investors “lined up” for a redevelopment, although she guesses the price tag would be eye-popping, perhaps as much as $500 million. She uses the model of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in East Tennessee, where plans now call for a museum, distillery and music festival.
In preparation for such a project, Roberts and the Metro Council rezoned surrounding properties this spring to ward off heavy industrial uses.
She also qualified the property as a neighborhood landmark.
“I think people are more than eager to do it, but we have to somehow, someway convince the state that it’s time to sell it,” Roberts said.