Belleville is ready for its close-up: Director brings Hollywood to hometown

News-DemocratJuly 27, 2013 

— Growing up in Belleville, Ted Trentman said he had the seemingly impossible dream of moving to Los Angeles -- and he did.

But now he wants to bring a part of Los Angeles back home.

After completing a project with filmmaker Dan Ewald, Trentman said he pitched the idea of using Belleville as the setting for their next film.

Ewald replied, "Where's that?"

"The origin of the idea was, I love my hometown. ... I think my childhood was perfect, so hopefully I can come back and capture a piece of it," Trentman said.

They came up with a rough idea of the plot, and Ewald flew in to scout Belleville locations and local talent, as well as write the outline to be used to create the screenplay.

"He sent me here to find the story," Ewald said.

Before his trip, Ewald said he only knew they wanted to make a family-friendly indie film about hope, centering on a farmer who lost his wife and remained reclusive until a mysterious stranger appears on his farm.

"The whole story has unfolded in the last seven days," he said during a recent break between auditions. "If I'm not auditioning or at local businesses looking for locations, I've been at St. Louis Bread Company in Fairview Heights writing the outline like a madman. If that gets too distracting ... then I have to drive over to a park and roll down my windows and try not to die in this humidity. I sit there and stare at the trees. I get a lot of writing done out there."

Though he's still in Los Angeles, Trentman said he looks forward to filming in Belleville because it will allow him to involve his family and utilize their resources, such as his father's farm, which will be featured in the film.

"I'm 43 years old and I wanted to create a reason to come back home and spend time with my family and have something -- a project -- with them to hold onto," he said.

In addition to serving as executive producer for the film, Trentman will play the role of the mysterious stranger. He said this character is representative of the choice people have of whether to help each other.

Ewald said the stranger is loving and warm to the farmer, but he's interesting because he doesn't seem to understand the world.

"So the movie's about trying to figure out who this person is for the audience, but for the farmer, this person sort of restores his hope and his faith in humanity and connects him to the past," Ewald said.

Not unlike the farmer who withdrew from the world, local actor Antonio St. James, from Belleville, said he took a break from his career -- and people, in general -- when he lost his brother in Iraq.

"A friend of mine told me, 'This is what you love. You have to get back into it,'" St. James said.

He decided it would honor his brother's memory to continue following his dream, but it can still be bittersweet going to auditions.

"I can't practice with him like I used to, so it's hard," he said.

St. James auditioned for the film Tuesday and was told he would get some time on screen. Not having the support of his brother is difficult, but St. James said his mother remains his biggest fan.

"You would think she would get tired of hearing that I have a new audition, but she's just as excited as I am," he said. "Everything I do, I do for my mom and my brother."

St. James said he was drawn to the film because it will showcase his hometown, which isn't as well known as the bigger cities in Illinois.

"When I talk to people from like Chicago, they've never heard of Belleville," he said. "I think Belleville has a lot to offer."

The film is tentatively called "Belleville," with the majority of it shot in the local businesses that agreed to be a part of the project, Ewald said.

"It becomes a community effort to tell a story that means something," he said. "I've done this in other states. My films are always about some small town that people haven't heard of, maybe outside of a big city."

Ewald said his effort to showcase small towns, including the businesses and local talent they offer, could be due to the fact that he grew up in the Michigan suburbs.

"I'm a total big-city guy now. I think I like to live in the big city, but then go make movies about small towns," he said.

Ewald said this can benefit the small communities in which he films through an increase in tourism.

"When you name a movie the name of the city, people like to visit the city that's in a movie they like, and they like to visit the locations within the movie," he said.

One location audiences may recognize in the film is a little place in New Athens with a very big banjo.

"We know we're shooting here at the Bluegrass Shack," Ewald said. "This is a big turning point in the film. This is when the visitor actually gets the farmer to engage with people in a public place for the first time. ... He gives him a couple glasses of wine and gets him to actually come out to a concert that he's in."

Bluegrass Shack owner Chris Talley said she knows the location is unique, with a 24-foot-tall banjo out front, but she's still surprised that it will be featured in a movie.

"We didn't really tell anybody because with these kinds of things, you're like, 'I'll believe it when I see it,'" she said. "I kind of joked around about it and he was really serious."

Talley's band, the Chris Talley Trio, will be featured in the film as well, performing on stage at the Bluegrass Shack with the stranger.

"The mysterious visitor just stops in on his own and he basically learns how to play the fiddle or something very complicated in minutes," Ewald said. "That makes us wonder, 'Is he a prodigy? What is he?' He is invited by Chris, she's stunned that he can do this, but he's invited to perform with them in three days."

Before production begins, Ewald and Trentman are encouraging the community to get involved, from businesses to individuals willing to volunteer as extras.

"I really hope people will actively reach out to me and become part of it and not be afraid to do that because what happens is, people hear about how great it was and then they email me after a movie and say, 'If you do another one, let me know. I want to be a part of it because I heard how fun it was.' And I hate to tell people, but there probably won't be another one in your area, so get involved now," Ewald said.

Shooting is planned to begin in the first two weeks of October. Ewald said he will need about 100-200 extras over the course of the movie. Anyone interested in volunteering as an extra can contact director Dan Ewald at dandewald@aol.com. He's asking for volunteers 14 and older.

Contact reporter Lexi Cortes at acortes@bnd.com or 618-239-2535.

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