May 11--CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston attorney-turned-filmmaker Jon Matthews and actress Abby Wathen hope to bring their big-screen dreams home to West Virginia.
The two started a Kickstarter project to raise money online for "Unlovable," a film they want to shoot this fall to take to film festivals in 2014.
"The story is about Shelby, who contracted AIDS when she was 7 years old," Wathen said. "She lives in a small town, where everybody knows everything about everyone, and she's kind of been ignored.
"She's lonely, and then she meets Simon." Wathen smiled. "It's a love story."
To get the film made, Matthews and Wathen need to raise $20,000 through the website in less than 10 days. The clock is ticking, but they believe they have a story worth telling.
For Wathen, who grew up in Hendersonville, Ky., and Huntington, the film is a passion project, something she relates to. She said she has Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), a disorder that affects the nervous system.
"It causes the nervous system to freak out. There's a lot of pain," she said. "I'm in remission, but from the age of 11 to 18, there were lots of hospital visits."
Wathen lives in California, but her mother still works for the West Virginia Library Commission and her sister lives in Teays Valley.
Wathen got into theater young. She was 5 years old when she was cast in a production of "Madeline."
"After that," she said, "there was nothing else for me but to act."
She performed in whatever plays she could get into, but remembers her mother having to take her to do shows in Ashland because there wasn't a big theater program at Fairland High School in Proctorville, Ohio.
In 2001, with her RSD in remission, she left to pursue stardom on the stage and screen.
"It was either New York or Los Angeles," she said. "New York was closer. My goals were to get my SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card, get an agent and get mugged.
"All three happened."
She can laugh about it now.
She also got onto the soap opera "All My Children" for a couple of episodes. Things were looking up for her -- and then 9/11 happened. The city shut down. Soldiers were in the streets and work dried up.
"It was a very scary time," she said. "I got on a Greyhound bus and came home."
A few months later -- against the advice of friends -- she took the train back to New York.
Things were better.
"The city was rebuilding itself, and the funny thing was, TV and film was really taking off," she said. "They'd come back and were everywhere. It was really cool to be part of such a community."
After some nice successes, including a role in the play "Moonchild," a guest appearance on TV's "Third Watch" and a part in the film "The Baxter," she moved to Los Angeles.
"But L.A. didn't embrace me," she said. "I came in with great reviews for 'Moonchild,' a movie in theaters and an agent -- and I didn't work for a year."
She also met Markus Redmond, an actor and writer. Redmond played Raymond Alexander on TV's "Doogie Howser, M.D." and was in a few movies, like "Fight Club" and "The Inkwell."
Wathen eventually was called to do "Bloody Mary," a horror film that was never released.
"Lots of films never get released," she said, "but it changed my course. I was working after that."
Last year, she did four features, including a couple of romantic comedies, at least one of which, "Runaway Hearts," is slated to show at the Cannes Film Festival in France. By December, though, things had taken a bad turn.
"I was going through some personal things," Wathen said, "and I called Markus and told him I needed to work badly."
She got him to send her some of his scripts, among them the unfinished script for "Unlovable."
"I saw it and said, this could be beautiful -- and we could shoot it in West Virginia for next to nothing."
Wathen even knew someone -- sort of -- who might direct: Jon Matthews, from Alum Creek.
"I'm from the Booger Hole," he laughed. "On account of the moonshining, that's what they used to call it. Now it's Whispering Pines, but that's where I'm from."
Matthews grew up with a map of New York City, a mythical place he wanted to see. He might never have moved there if not for film director Spike Lee.
Lee spoke at WVU, while Matthews was a student interested in civil rights and the law. Matthews never forgot how the director talked about the film program at New York University, even after Matthews graduated from the WVU law school and began practicing in Charleston.
In 2008, he left Charleston to become the legal director of the ACLU in Connecticut, but by the time he was 31, Matthews wanted to go to film school -- even though he knew next to nothing about making movies.
So in 2009, Matthews bought a cheap camera at Target, got his then-wife to film him, and made a short film to submit with his application to NYU.
"After we shot it, I took the camera back to Target," he said.
Matthews showed the film to a friend with some film background. "And he said it was bad, real bad."
But he had some advice for Matthews. So, the would-be filmmaker bought the digital camera again and re-shot the short film.
It wasn't great, but it was better. Matthews sent the film with his application to NYU.
"And then I took the camera back to Target again," he said.
NYU accepted Matthews, awarded him a full scholarship and, as luck would have it, Spike Lee was looking for a student assistant.
"I figured I had zero chance if I applied. I'm just this white kid from West Virginia." But he got the job.
"Spike was really into West Virginia," Matthews said. "He knew sports and he's just a really well-read guy. He was kind of fascinated by us."
Matthews worked for Lee and even got a grant from him to help finish a documentary Matthews was working on called "Surviving Cliffside."
While at NYU, he worked with Lee, Whoopi Goldberg, Olivia Wilde and James Franco on Lee's "Black Dog, Red Dog" project.
Living in Brooklyn, he said he got homesick for the mountains. He helped organize gatherings for West Virginia expats.
"We had bands come play," he said. "We sold moonshine and cornbread. If we could have gotten Tudor's biscuits up there, we would have."
In January, Matthews moved to Los Angeles with plans to write for television. Not long after he'd settled in, he got a call from Wathen. Her mother knew his mother and she had a script for a movie she wanted him to see.
"The film was about a trailer park in California," he said. "She asked me if I thought I could adapt the story to West Virginia and, of course, we could. It was a great story for West Virginia."
Matthews said they met and everybody hit it off. Redmond and Wathen would star in the film from Redmond's script and Matthews would direct in West Virginia.
"We want to shoot in the fall, to get the maximum West Virginia fall foliage," Wathen said. "We want this to be a film people can look at and really appreciate what's beautiful here."
Needing someone to help set up the film shoot and put together a crew, Matthews enlisted local filmmaker and West Virginia Public Broadcasting producer Bob Wilkinson, an old acquaintance, to help them get the film off the ground in West Virginia.
Wilkinson's first question to them was: "Do you have any money?"
Matthews laughed. "Because right, we're all talking art and nobody has thought about how we're going to pay for any of this."
So, they talked it over and decided to try "crowd-funding" through Kickstarter, a website that allows artists, entrepreneurs and inventors to take ideas for their projects to an audience and try to convince them to invest in their work.
Supporters pledge online, using their credit or debit card. If the creators involved make their stated goal, accounts are charged. If they don't, nobody is out any money but the project fails -- or at least, that funding stream is closed.
Some of the success stories for the crowd-funding site have been spectacular, but the majority of Kickstarter projects fail.
However, there have been local successes. South Charleston-based comic book creators Jason Pell and Blake Wheeler raised $11,600 to produce and distribute their graphic novel, "Season's End."
Matthews and Wathen are looking for $20,000.
"And we have about 10 days to make this work," Matthews said, shaking his head, a baffled grin on his face. "I would love if we shot my first feature in West Virginia."
It's a lot of money, but if they can pull it off, if they can get people to invest in their little movie, Matthews and Wathen think they can give West Virginia something to be proud of.
"It's a chance to show a kinder side of the state," Wathen said.
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5195.
(c)2013 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)
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