In a dimly lit production studio in Emsworth, Ron Russell prepared to shoot a scene as Sheriff Ben Cade for the upcoming movie “Croaker.” A retired film and television actor who lives in Philadelphia, Russell hasn’t acted in at least 15 years. Still, his surroundings felt familiar.
“It smells the same,” Russell said, buttoning the shirt of his sheriff's uniform. “Studios have a weird smell about them. It's not what I'm used to ... it's small, it's intimate, but it's also indie. And I feel that everybody has a right to make a film.”
Russell's sentiment reflects that of “Croaker's” writer, director and producer, Fred Terling. A Canonsburg native, Terling, 49, is fulfilling a childhood dream by making his first feature film in his home borough, which served as inspiration for the film.
“I went down to Canonsburg and all the different places I'd spent time in growing up on the river, fishing in the creek,” Terling said. “All of these memories started to coalesce and swirled around me and I got this idea of doing this film that involved those things.”
He describes the film as a love story set against the backdrop of a thriller, a throwback to the horror genre of the 1970s. Based on the myth of a 16th-century Polish monster, the Vodnik, the film centers on four childhood friends and a curse placed on the lead character's family hundreds of years ago. Terling updated the monster to the “creature,” which resides in a Canonsburg pipe.
But he also combined this mythology with real-life events. For years, Canonsburg residents were exposed to low levels of radiation resulting from waste piles that were buried in the Canonsburg Industrial Park by Standard Chemical, earning Canonsburg the nickname “the most radiological town in America.”
“We played in that field,” Terling said. “At that time the government had not intervened yet, but there was a lot of talk around town, there was a lot of buzz that this background gamma radiation was really high from this plant.”
While Terling calls filmmaking a lifelong passion, he took a winding path to the directing chair. A former Marine, he worked briefly in politics when he managed Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's first mayoral campaign. Since 2011 he's worked exclusively in film, splitting time between “Croaker” and his Internet horror show “Barnabus Bailey and the Greatest Show Unearthed.”
Independently produced, the cast and crew of “Croaker” have relied on social media and crowd funding sites such as Indiegogo to raise money. Despite a cast and crew of 51, everyone working on the film gets paid, Terling said. Distribution deals have already been secured with iTunes, Amazon and Netflix. So far, they have raised $10,000 of the $25,000 budget.
Incorporating local businesses and working intimately with the borough's government, Terling calls the film ``a town event.''
“It brings a lot of excitement to the community,” Canonsburg Mayor Dave Rhome said. “You have a lot of buzz around the town. ‘What was going on at the borough building? Oh, they're shooting a film.’”
And it didn't hurt that Terling's family goes back generations in the town, a place where he says, “everybody knows everybody.”
“We're not that big. Not that many people want to make movies here,” Canonsburg police chief R.T. Bell said. “But he's a hometown person and any way he wants us to help him we would.”
Shooting locations include Sunny Jim's Tavern in Kilbuck and the Canonsburg Municipal Building, which serves as a backdrop for the film.
With filming scheduled to finish in August, Terling said he's feeling the pressure that comes with a town's excitement.
“I'm exhausted,” he said. “Now it's on my shoulders. I need to make a good film because everybody is waiting to see this thing and we'll see how it works out.”
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