We've all been told, "Put your money where your mouth is" to prove our sincerity. But few ordinary citizens put up $800,000 to show they're serious about a film, let alone one speaking forcefully with a Christian message.
Physician Eric Troyer of Landis spent that sum to turn his self-published novel into the feature film "Witness Insecurity." Now he's preparing for its local premiere Saturday at the Modern Film Fest in Kannapolis.
Unlike most small indie films shot in the Charlotte region, this has actors you know.
Edward Furlong ("Terminator 2") is Johnny, who is adopted by a gangster (Ed Asner) and groomed to be the mob's accountant. Anthony, his sociopathic adopted brother (Rick Ravanello of "Weeds"), hates Johnny's guts and looks for an excuse to oust or kill him. When a D.A. (Grace Johnston of "Ghostwriter") gets Johnny on her side, his loyalties face a final test.
"It's the story of Moses," says Troyer. "Johnny loses his parents; he's adopted by someone in power but he doesn't belong with them; he kills a man and has to go into exile; when he returns, he has to decide whether to fight for justice.
"My goal was to make a witnessing tool, to cross over to a secular audience and introduce people to faith. But I didn't want to beat them over the head with it."
A long journey
The process from brain to screen has been a slow one for the 48-year-old family practitioner.
He never shot films as a boy in Pleasant Grove, S.C., between Columbia and Myrtle Beach. At Wofford College and the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, he never picked up movie or video cameras. (Though his office is filled with memorabilia used on the "Star Trek" and "Next Generation" TV series, and "Next Gen" actress Gates McFadden taped a personal video describing this lair.)
When Troyer wanted to express himself a few years ago, he thought in words, not images: He wrote "Insecurity," a novel about gangsters breaking into the witness protection program.
Troyer contacted the National Screenwriters Association and found script consultant Heather Hale. She mentored him for 18-plus months, until they had a workable draft. The next step? Target a producer, a director and investors.
"He asked if there was an easier way," Hale says. "I said, 'Well, if you have a million dollars. ...' We ended up budgeting it for $625,000 and spent more than that."
Casting director Valerie McCaffrey (who discovered Ellen Page for "Hard Candy") stretched that budget to cover the familiar likes of Brian Krause (who plays Ravanello's blood brother) and Meat Loaf Aday, who plays a truck driver with a spiritual bent.
Shooting began in May 2010, shortly after Troyer returned from a medical assistance trip to Haiti.
Hale signed on as director, and the production took over the building that now houses Troyer's medical practice. Its rooms became offices and other settings; the crew built an especially nifty interrogation space in the lobby, where cinematographer Jim Orr could send his camera "through" one wall and into the room.
Friendships and chaos
"We used 18 locations in 18 days," says Troyer, who became executive producer. "I learned a lot of things not to do on the next film, if there is one. For one thing, we'll have fewer locations."
"On that kind of schedule, you don't have a minute to stop," says Ravanello, a veteran of 70 films and TV shows who will come to Kannapolis for the screening. "You step in and do it. Not overthinking things can be helpful, and performances can be better for it. Sometimes they'll suffer if a shoot runs on too long."
Ravanello, who hailed the cooperation of local people he met, says he made a lot of friends and has stayed in touch with supportive members of the China Grove police department.
Hard work, good luck
Hale recalls the craziness of the shooting, which led to rewrites on the fly and sudden shifts because of weather or availability of locations and performers.
"It seemed to rain every third day in May and June," she says. "But every time we had a breakdown, we found a way to overcome it.
"We wanted to get Meat Loaf for 14 days of the 18, but we could have him for only six, because he was going on tour. It looked like we'd have to cut him out of the last scene, where we felt his character was crucial.
"But even though we were probably paying him less than the budget for Cokes on his concert tour, he flew himself back to our set at his own expense. He arrived at 8 p.m., worked midnight to 3 a.m., then flew back to his next tour date. And he wrote a song for us on the spot - an a cappella number about redemption - and gave us the rights to it. He's a lovely human being."
Troyer says he has struck a deal with a distributor who will take "Witness" to movie markets to find outlets for it here and overseas.
If this film makes at least a small profit, he'd like to make another with a Christian theme from a novel he's writing.
"I'd like to direct and produce it," he says. "I know I'll want to have final say on how it comes out."