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Movie crew films in Erwin

Above, director of photography Doug E. Bischoff checks angles during a seen from “Ghosts of Cumberland Gap.” Director AJ Rose and crew have been filming scenes from the movie in Unicoi County. (Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

The Town of Erwin has joined several other areas in the region as a backdrop for the filming of a movie.

Underfoot Films and Entertainment is currently filmting a horror/drama film titled “Ghosts of Cumberland Gap” in the region.

“‘Ghosts of Cumberland Gap’ is the latest picture from Underfoot Films and Entertainment, which has been producing radio and TV commercials since 2007, and doing feature films and short films since 2011,” director A.J. Rose said. “Our last film, ‘Break-In on Bell Street,’ premiered last year at Knoxville’s CreepyCon and received a standing ovation.”

According to Rose, the story takes place in the early 1900s.

“In the winter of 1901, newly-orphaned Sydney Applewood arrives with her loyal caretaker Hester in tow,” Rose said. “Sydney has never met her wealthy cold-hearted Aunt Grace, whose care she will now be under; but she quickly learns the rules of Never Go Out After Dark, Never Speak of Music, Never Talk to Children, and most importantly, Never Unlock the East Wing. Together, Sydney and Hester attempt to discover the secrets behind Cumberland Manor, and the haunted land it sits on: the Cumberland Gap.”

For Rose, who also wrote the script, the story is deeper than a typical ghost story.

“It’s about a lonely young girl who loses everything and moves to the middle of nowhere, with only servants and her gruff aunt for company,” Rose said. “She’s told over and over that no one her age is near. But she meets a shy little girl, a little girl that never leaves footprints. Is it all in her head? Is she going mad? You’ll have to watch to find out.”

According to Rose, this project has brought together a diverse and talented cast crew.

“A lot of people have pulled together and taken on multiple roles, just pitching in wherever they were needed most,” Rose said. “Not to mention that we also had family members of the younger crewmembers, and they have been assisting with catering, cleaning, transportation, and more.”

The cast consists of veteran actors and actresses.

“Wendy Potter plays Aunt Grace. She is an incredible talent who’s worked on ‘The Walking Dead,’ among other things and she is our set designer, because if anyone knows about details of the past, it’s her,” Rose said. “She plays the duchess in the Appalachian Renaissance Faire; her whole life is history. She has this commanding presence where you fear her a little, but you’re also in awe of her. Anna Swiney plays Grace as a young girl. The orphan girl, Sydney, is played by Kendall Arnold, a student at Sullivan East; this is her first feature. Danielle Smith, Tim Story, Christy Peters, Tina Radtke, and myself play the loyal servants of Cumberland Manor. I also have my mother Anita Rose and my brother John Rose appearing as a scullery maid and a butler, respectively. Ashleigh Radtke, Samuel Campbell, Jordan Overman, Alejandro Odom, Rowan Sylvia, Wyatt Peters, and Faith Kestner round out the rest of the cast, telling you much about their characters would spoil the mystery.”

The cast pulls double duty, when they aren’t acting they are working with the crew.

“Every last one of these actors was also part of the crew in some vital way, especially Jordan, our head gaffer,” Rose said. “Anna Swiney and Wyatt Peters are my ‘Mini-Mes,’ they serve as assistant director and assistant camera. It’s hard to believe they’re only teenagers because they have been so essential, and I hope they remember me in their future Oscar speeches.”

The director of cinematography for the project is Douglas E. Bischoff.

The  rest of the crew consists of Ajibah Swiney, Angel Ledford, James Trivette, Jesse Heaton, Tim Arnold, Stephanie Arnold, Michael Jones, Buffy Black, Timothy Gilbert, Ashley Cochran, Jed Clark, Wendy Swiney, Nick Mullins, Chelsea Mullins, Reannan Baker and Adien Turnbull,” Rose said. “Angela Caito, Ellie Rose, Denise Ballard, Florence Fracarossi, Daniel Shew and Monica Renae-Halsey Shew all were invaluable in helping us put together the mysterious and incredible Cumberland Manor with locations that have historical significance, such as Pleasant Hill and Darkwood Hill in Bristol, both of which are places where you can rent a stay in the actual location.”

According to Rose, every character is important in this production.

“The characters are talking about actual ghosts, yes, but this story is also about how the ghosts of your past mistakes can haunt you forever if you let them,” Rose said. “We’ll see the past through the eyes of the servants, and we’ll see how their choices have made them who they are.”

When searching for filming locations, Rose, who also serves as production coordinator for Underfoot Films and Entertainment, knew that Erwin would be included in the project.

“I had to include Erwin, because Erwin embraced me when I first came here in my 20s,” Rose said. “It really feels like home, and that’s the kind of feeling I want for this film. It definitely won’t be the last time we film in beautiful Unicoi County.”

Filming in this region was critical to the authenticity of the project.

“A great deal of films with stories that actually take place in this area are filmed elsewhere,” Rose said. “Most of ‘Cold Mountain’ was filmed in Romania, but it’s a story about North Carolina. A big part of ‘Django Unchained’ is supposed to take place in Gatlinburg, but those scenes were filmed in California. ‘Pearl Harbor’ is about two soldiers growing up in Tennessee but all those scenes were filmed in California too. All three versions of ‘Inherit The Wind,’ all of which take place in Tennessee, all three were filmed in California. The remake of ‘Walking Tall,’ which is about a Tennessee sheriff in a Tennessee town, was filmed entirely in Canada. This robs the Appalachian people of potential jobs and tourism. Not only is this area rich in history, resources, and breathtaking natural beauty, we have hundreds of talented actors and crew here.”

For Rose, being able to bring awareness to mental illness was a driving force in writing this story.

“A lot of this story deals with mental illness, and how things like that were dealt with back in the 1800s and 1900s,” Rose said. “There are so many true stories from that era where it’s very clear that a person was suffering from an untreated mental illness and so much tragedy could have been avoided if only we hadn’t kept it a shameful secret.”

According to Rose, the inspiration to take on this project comes from a personal hero of hers. “As a former journalist myself, I was greatly inspired by the story of Nellie Bly, the first female investigative journalist, who faked insanity to get inside an insane asylum in 1887,” Rose said. “Nellie Bly exposed how horrible mental patients were being treated, and she changed the world with her words. When she wrote anonymously, she signed her work ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’ and that was the start of me writing this script, about a lonely orphan girl learning a terrible secret. Last year I got to meet the actress Christina Ricci, who had just starred in a movie about Nellie Bly. She gave me some very good tips on going back to that time period, and how it was so important that women be prim and proper – anything unusual was shoved away. Christina knew some Nellie Bly stories that even I didn’t know. Plus she grew up being famous as ‘Wednesday Adams,’ so she knows very well how to scare the dickens out of people.”

Rose has been working in theatre and film productions for years and is excited to bring her experience to this project.

“I did a lot of stage stuff when I was a kid, mostly singing,” Rose said. “My mom and I were professional Judds impersonators. Then when I was 17 I started working as a voice actor for cartoons, worked with Disney and Nickelodeon, then came home to Tennessee and went into radio shows and radio journalism, and ended up producing over 1,000 commercials over the years. I always loved the microphone. I did a show in Erwin called ‘Gospel Trax,’ and that took me to writing, and performing in Jonesborough’s Story Slams. My tales seemed to resonate with people. I made a short silly cartoon series with stick figures and it was so popular on YouTube that I was able to sell the rights to it, and that got me involved with people who make actual TV shows and movies. It takes a special combination of selfishness and selflessness to be a director, and I’ve found I have just enough of both.”

“Ghosts of Cumberland Gap,” is being developed by Underfoot Films and Entertainment, Ceridwen Productions and Salty Sloth Productions and filming in Erwin will resume in late March. You can follow Underfoot Films and Entertainment at underfootfilms.com or Facebook and Twitter at underfootfilms. 

If you are interested in helping fund the local project, funds can be sent to the GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/f/ghosts-of-cumberland-gap. If any area restaurants would be interested in partnering with the production, they can reach Rose at [email protected]