Tim O’Leary, left, and actor and producer Ted Trent play Willie and Neila, an unlikely duo, in the new film “Belleville,” shot locally and released through Circa 87 and Ted Trent Studios.
BELLEVILLE — Just as “Fargo” is not a documentary about Fargo, N.D., people who expect “Belleville” to be a history lesson will be surprised when they see the film.
“The movie is about a farmer (played by Tim O’Leary) who has become isolated unto himself,” writer and director Dan Steadman says. “He lost his wife at a very young age, and he’s become secluded. Most of us have faced this at some point in our adult lives — the option of retreating away from society — but this movie is about rediscovering the hope that can be found in his community.
“It was a message I really wanted to address. It’s so universal.”
“Belleville,” a feature film shot independently last October through Circa 87 and Ted Trent Studios, has been creating a stir in the industry and among moviegoers for its humor (mixed with a little heart-tugging).
Filmmakers said the community of Belleville and the surrounding areas bent over backward to accommodate the film, blocking off streets, offering technical assistance, and throwing in creative input.
So why, in all of the possible locations in the world, did the filmmakers choose the Belleville area? Ask Ted Trent, the star and producer; he grew up in Belleville, went to high school in O’Fallon, Ill., and attended Illinois State before moving to L.A. to embark on his career. Trent heads up Ted Trent Studios in California.
“That’s why we chose it,” Steadman says. “It was his dream to make a movie here. We ended up shooting all over Illinois — Freeburg, O’Fallon, Belleville, Millstadt, New Athens, just to name a few of the many cities.”
As the movie poster says, “Sometimes hope comes from far, far away.” In this case, Trent decided although his hometown may be “far, far away” from the otherworldly feel of L.A., it provided the perfect setting and vibe for his work.
“I came home to make movies because I saw an opportunity in L.A. for Midwestern films that make a difference,” Trent says. “I am wanting to capture our stories because I feel a lot of the lessons I’ve learned in the Midwest help me navigate difficult situations on the West Coast. So in a sense, I’m trying to bottle up the medicine and give it to as many people as possible.”
And “Belleville” is proving to be Trent’s newest prescription.
“I got to talking about my upbringing in Belleville,” he says. “I challenged Dan to go back to my hometown and write a fictional tale of loss and hopelessness that eventually leads to redemption and joy that can be found in community.”
“I wanted to write about it in a fun way,” Steadman adds. “Willie, the farmer, is visited by a man from far away (another world, perhaps?). I let the audience interpret that for themselves.
“’Neila’ (played by Trent) doesn’t know where he’s from, but he falls in love with the Midwest. He and Willie form a friendship that begins Willie’s healing process.”
While the prospect of filming the project was exhilarating and inspirational, Steadman says the shoot was less than ideal, including a farm in Freeburg without running water, electricity, or bathrooms.
“We were wet, smelly rats,” he says, laughing. “We got rained on for 12 days (beginning) on our first day of shooting, which was great. I mean, we were miserable, but it made the movie look epic and big. The raindrops even showed up on screen; you can tell it’s really dumping on us!”
Early buzz for the independent film has been overwhelming for the creators, and glowing reviews have helped spread the word about the “little indie film that could.”
Steadman has been in show business for more than 25 years, working on such hit shows as “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Whoopi,” and “That 70s Show.”
“I grew up in Michigan and got my start in public access TV in 1987, hence the name Circa 87 for my production company,” he says. “(When) I turned 35, that meant I was too old to work in sitcoms … Hollywood is a tough town! So I shifted my focus toward feature films. For the past five years, that’s what I’ve been doing; five films in five years.”
Steadman also is finishing the editing process on a holiday film, “Expect Delays,” filmed in Southern Illinois and St. Louis. He says to keep an ear out for news regarding that film later this fall.
In the past couple of weeks, “Belleville” has been shown at private screenings, both locally and across the nation, and Steadman says the exposure was a success, paving the way for wider release.
“We outperformed most Hollywood movies in many of the theaters last weekend,” he says proudly. “That is exciting, to say the least.”
Look for a cameo in the film from Steve Potter, local NPR affiliate radio personality who makes his home in Alton. Potter plays one-half of a couple that reaches out to Willie following tragedy.
“Belleville” will be shown at the Lincoln Theatre in Belleville at 1 p.m. and 7:05 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. and 5:25 p.m. on Sunday. For additional showings and to purchase tickets, visit www.lincolntheatre-belleville.com. More about Belleville native Trent’s movie projects is available at www.tedtrentstudios.com.