Series costumers, filmmakers are advocates for S.C. TV, film industry

Karen (front left) and Keva Keyes celebrate the wrap of principal photography on their film 'Letters From Home' with (from left) Eric Luling, Dan Jones, lead actor Wyatt Belton, Alan Newcomb, Sebastian Mazzola and Todd Hergott.

Photo by Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier

Keva Keyes (left) and Karen Keyes, both costumers for the Lifetime TV show 'Army Wives,' also have written, directed and produced a short film titled 'Letters From Home.' The nine-minute short focuses on soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.

As extras on the set of the TV miniseries "Scarlett," Karen and Keva Keyes were awed by the table of free food.

The then-college students would shove the snacks in their backpacks, which was allowed but felt sinful all the same. At home, they'd empty out their stashes to compare, just like they did as children on Halloween night.

Today, they make a living as costumers on the TV series "Army Wives." They have written, directed and produced an award-winning short film. And they are outspoken advocates for the film and television industry in South Carolina.

Although they see more positives to the industry than the free food, Keva's face lit up last week when a co-worker delivered a cupcake to her in the wardrobe truck, and Karen smuggled a piece of pizza home between paper plates.

The sisters grew up as Army brats, a fact that contributed to both their ability to adapt and their close friendship.

After moving to a new place, they would have a day to settle in before their dad forced them to leave the house to make friends.

They grew up mostly in Germany (Karen was born there and Keva in Charleston), and the family vacationed in places such as Paris and Amsterdam. As a young girl, Karen thought "tourist" was a profession and hoped to be one when she grew up.

In 1986, William Keyes retired as an Army sergeant first class and brought his family home to Goose Creek, where Karen and Keva's paternal and maternal grandparents lived within a mile of each other.

The young women were attending Charleston Southern University when they became involved in the film industry.

Karen double-majored in business administration and speech and communications. She was planning to double-major in business and Spanish until she took a radio and television class. Around the same time, a Piggly Wiggly commercial was being filmed, and Karen was chosen to play a cashier.

It was her first time on a set, and she loved the "organized confusion" of the crew running around.

"When it all came together, it was wonderful," she said.

Her next gig was in "Scarlett," the 1994 sequel to "Gone With the Wind," and Keva was cast, too. Keva fondly recalls the table of snacks on-set, or "craft services," as it's known in the business.

"I just remember being in college, and they were like, 'You can have whatever you want on that table.' I was like, 'You mean I can have whatever I want? This is cool!' "

Their multiple jobs as extras helped them eventually transition into costumers.

"All through college, we were extras, on everything from 'Die Hard' to 'Ace Ventura,' " Keva said. "We would meet a lot of the crew members and tell them, 'Hey, when we graduate, will you hire me?' And that's basically what happened."

Karen has worked closely with actors such as Kevin Costner and Liv Tyler. Today, the 39-year-old is a set costumer on "Army Wives" and a wardrobe stylist.

Keva, 37, is the key costumer for the Lifetime show.

While those jobs are their livelihood, the sisters are working on something closer to their hearts.

They have created their first film: "Letters From Home." The nine-minute short about soldiers in Afghanistan has been shown at festivals across the country. It won Best Short Film at the 2010 Charleston Film Festival, was a nominated finalist at four festivals and was an Official Selection at 20 festivals or screenings.

Keva wrote and directed the piece, and Karen produced it.

Karen's dream is to produce more films. She hopes to eventually make enough money to be a philanthropist and to travel the world.

Keva would like to write and direct more and have more of her films produced.

"I feel that I've been blessed to write inspirational stories, that those are a gift from God," Keva said. "I would like to be able to share that with the world through film."

Film is a powerful medium, she says. It can change lives.

Karen and Keva are actively working to advocate for the South Carolina film industry, which is constantly on the budgetary cutting board.

Recently, they created a video plea to FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn for her support in strengthening the language set forth to govern the Open Internet Order.

They have traveled to Columbia to talk with Gov. Mark Sanford and legislators and to Greenville to testify before the Senate Finance Committee's Film Incentives Study Committee.

The sisters say they will continue their letters, e-mails, faxes and telephone calls to legislators as long as it takes.

They speak with students about the industry, whether in the radio and television class at Charleston Southern or on the set of "Army Wives," and are mentoring an Ashley Hall School student working on a short film.

They also are members of the Trident Technical College Film Advisory Board, IATSE Local 491 Studio Mechanics Union, and Carolina Film Alliance.

Keva and Karen have left the state to find work in the past -- including to work on "One Tree Hill" in Wilmington, N.C., -- but returned because of work opportunities here.

Karen lives with her parents and her Chihuahua, Gizmo, in their original Goose Creek house, and Keva lives eight-tenths of a mile down the road. Their mom, Johnnie Mae, works in the circulation department at Charleston Southern University.

The sisters are glad to be home.

"Gone are the days when one had to move to Hollywood to pursue a career in the movie industry," Karen said. "We're examples that you can have that dream and create motion pictures right here in your own backyard."