Sept. 07--Within a few weeks of producing his first feature film, Bruce Harrison Smith realized his teaching schedule was under assault.
While his 50-person crew was filming around Monroe County, he was teaching history at Pleasant Valley High School. If his cellphone buzzed with a call, he would often send it straight to voice mail -- even if it was actress Tara Reid on the other end.
Remembering that time five years ago, he said, "I'm always pushing my students to follow your dream. Go take risks. It's OK if you fail."
One of his students then asked: "Well, what about you?"
Smith decided, after a talk with his wife, to scrap lesson plans and focus solely on making movies.
Since then, he has left his teaching job of nearly 15 years and written and produced three feature films. All of them, including a fourth now in production, were made in the Poconos.
Today Smith's directorial debut, a horror film called "Dead.TV," will premiere at the Sherman Theater as part of a benefit for the United Way of Monroe County.
It's the same theater where he grew up nurturing his love for horror movies.
"It's hard work," Smith said about filmmaking. "One of the biggest myths from Hollywood is that you can pick up a camcorder from Best Buy and make a successful movie."
His other movies include "The Fields" (2011) (which featured Reid and longtime television actress Cloris Leachman) and "6 Degrees of Hell" (2012), (starring actor Corey Feldman).
Smith, 43, has completed a movie a year since 2011 and another, starring Billy Zane, is expected for early 2014. According to the Pennsylvania Film Office, his movies were the only feature films shot in the Poconos in the last three years.
"I know the area well. It's a beautiful area, and it allows a lot of different locations," he said.
While he won't reveal how much his investors spent on the films he's made, Smith will only say they were shot for less than $1 million.
Tax credits of 25 percent, given to motion pictures that spend at least 60 percent of their budget in Pennsylvania, totaled $129,992 for "The Fields" and $26,575 for "Degrees," according to the film office.
But all of Smith's work in film didn't happen overnight.
"I didn't get lucky," he said.
As a 20th century history teacher, he was popular with students; he worked on film projects, leading a school filmmaking club and produced some student projects. However, Smith's proclivities for horror and grind house movie images made its way into his classroom. It led to lawsuits by the parents of one student against him and the school district. The court battle lasted nearly five years.
A suit, filed in 2007, held Smith liable in connection with allegedly creating a sexually hostile environment when he showed pictures of Charles Manson family murder victim Sharon Tate and other murder victims. The plaintiffs originally won a $125,000 judgment in 2011 for violating the student's right to protection and creating a hostile environment, but that verdict was later vacated by a judge.
Lawyers for the school district and Smith won a new trial last year. Smith was cleared from that second suit, and only the high school principal, John Gress, and the school district were named in a retaliation claim. In July, a court cleared the district and Gress of any retaliation against the student who originally reported Smith in 2007.
"What happened has nothing to do with why I left teaching," he said about the lawsuits.
His moviemaking efforts started to gain momentum, giving him the confidence to leave his day job.
"What it came down to was that the opportunity for 'The Fields' came up."
That first chance at seeing his characters on screen and his dreams of producing a movie came to fruition after a lot of rejection, Smith said. He had been writing screenplays since his days as a student at Stroudsburg High School.
In his 30s, he took a chance.
A fan of the filmmakers behind the movie "Halloween," directed by John Carpenter in 1978, he reached out one day to the movie's editor and production designer, Tommy Lee Wallace.
"Tommy was looking for an indie film, and I pitched (a screenplay) to his agent," Smith said. Wallace contacted Smith at his home in Kunkletown. That screenplay wasn't produced, but Wallace came on as an associate producer on "The Fields," which helped launch Smith's career.
It also led to a friendship with Wallace, who is best known for moving into directing with such pictures as "Halloween III: Season of the Witch," "It" and "Fright Night Part 2."
Later, support came in the form of private investors who wanted to use Smith's talents to realize their ideas for potential feature movies.
After seeing Smith's first effort, which he wrote and produced, Allentown developer Jeffrey Trainer, who is a partner in the Sands Bethlehem Event Center along with real estate entrepreneur Richard Welkowitz, approached him about a project. Trainer formed a production company that has been backing Smith's recent filmmaking efforts.
The idea for a slasher movie was presented to Smith by his current investors, following the horror movie he made at the old Lake House, now known as The Hotel of Horror in Saylorsburg.
"I wasn't interested in making a Jason Voorhees hacking up teenagers type of movie," Smith said.
Still, he agreed to take a stab at the slasher genre and crafted the script for "Dead.TV," which takes place at a summer camp.
With the proper financial backing, he landed a cast that included Julia Robert's brother, Eric, and two actresses well-known to slasher movie buffs, Danielle Harris and Felissa Rose. He ended up using a location in Effort for the movie.
Keeping his productions local has provided a wealth of benefits for local businesses, including hotels for lodging actors and crew, restaurants, limousine services and places like Meckes Tire in Cherry Valley, which allowed Smith to store his equipment for free at its facility.
The local scenery will also jump out to residents, whether the eerie abandoned Bushkill Park in "The Fields," or Camelback, where parts of "Dead.TV," were shot.
"There are familiar locations, like places down in Kunkletown. It's kind of fun," said Connie Roberts, a producer on Smith's recent films and coordinator of the red carpet event this weekend.
And for Smith, it's a chance to give back to the community that not only raised him, but is the backdrop to the realization of his dream.
Still the teacher, Smith said the feature he's currently shooting about zombies works as a metaphor about chasing your dreams.
"Like the zombies, we've become a nation of conformists. We're afraid all the time. Go out. Take a risk. And try."
IF YOU GO
Today's charity red carpet event benefiting the United Way of Monroe County will feature some of the actors from "Dead.TV." A $50 VIP package includes a catered meal and a chance to meet the actors. Tickets to the premiere are $12. The VIP meet-and-greet begins at 5:30 p.m., and general admission seating starts at 7 p.m. Show starts at 7:30.
Tickets can be purchased at the Sherman Theater box office at 524 Main St. in Stroudsburg. For information, go to deadtvmovie.com.
(c)2013 the Pocono Record, Stroudsburg, Pa.
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