|A cast of villains and heartthrobs leaves its mark on the Capital City|
The year is 1982; the place is Baton Rouge. An undercover police officer nabs the biggest criminal of his career and turns him into an informant in an effort to close several unsolved cases.
That's the hook behind Whiskey Bay, a dramatic thriller that wrapped production in Baton Rouge in September. The film, inspired by true events that unfolded in the Capital City 30 years ago, began as an idea in the mind of local renaissance man Don Yesso, whose career has included such varied gigs as high-school football coach, Hollywood actor and exercise studio founder. But this latest role as executive producer, actor and unwavering cheerleader of Whiskey Bay is his most exciting yet.
Now in the editing room, the film is scheduled for a spring 2013 release, just in time for a possible screening at the Cannes Film Festival. The word “Oscar” is even being whispered. Yesso takes it all in stride, saying he just hopes to be able to premiere the film in his own city. “I have numerous requests for tickets already,” he says with a laugh.
To learn more, inRegister asked Yesso to spill a few insider secrets about how an all-star cast including three Oscar nominees found its way to Baton Rouge for an indie film that once seemed would never reach the big screen.
inRegister: How did you get involved with this project? Tell us more about the journey to getting the film produced.
Yesso: It started back in 1982, when I read an intriguing article about a criminal who was arrested. In the article, a cop, who happened to be a friend of mine named Mike Barnett, was quoted as saying, “If there was a Rambo in Baton Rouge, this would be the guy.” Fast-forward to the year 2000, when I was having lunch with Mike and asked what happened to the guy from that old shootout on Airline Highway. After a 20-minute dissertation, everybody at the table said it sounded like a hell of a movie idea, and that's when the light bulb went on in my head. I called Hugh Wilson, an old friend and a big-time director, and pitched him the idea. He jumped on a plane, and we met with Mike and fellow officer Donald “Bud” Connor to get more details. Hugh and I hired a writer, but a year later, the project was dead in the water.
I wasn't ready to give up, though. While I lived in Los Angeles, I had met and developed a friendship with a very talented man by the name of Chris Brinker. I called Chris and asked if he would come aboard. It was the smartest move I ever made.
After two years of pitching a revised script to numerous directors, we tried going out to talent, and we had some big names attached, but still nothing happened. Then about two years ago, Chris decided that if this thing was going to happen, he would have to direct it.
When we offered the role of Bud Connor to Matt Dillon, Matt asked if he could play the criminal instead. Next, Chris flew to London to meet with Willem Dafoe, who was so impressed that he signed on a week later. With Willem and Matt in our hip pocket and a great script, it became easier to get other big talent on board—as evidenced by a cast list that also includes Tom Berenger, Amy Smart, Chris Marquette, Bill Duke and Neal McDonough.
What were some of the locations at which you filmed around the Baton Rouge area? Was it challenging to gain access?
We shot a lot in downtown Baton Rouge, but the majority of the film was shot at Angola Prison. It was very hard to get permission to shoot there, but the warden liked the script and, with the help of Mike Barnett and Bud Connor, we made it possible.
Tell us about your own role in the film. How hard was it to juggle acting and executive-producing responsibilities?
I play Mike Barnett, who is Willem Dafoe's character's boss. As far as producing, I used a lot of my favors around town. For example, my friend Scott Folse allowed us to use his welding yard, where Matt Dillon learned to weld in order to appear proficient when cracking safes with a torch. Those are the types of things I did on a daily basis to keep costs down. But when it comes from passion, it's not hard, and I don't consider it work.
Can you share any especially memorable moments from the filming?
It was so much fun to hear Willem and Tom tell stories about filming Platoon in the Philippines; it was the first time they had worked together since then. Another time, at a midnight shoot at Greenwood Plantation in St. Francisville, I guaranteed Tom that he was going to win the Emmy for best supporting actor in a miniseries this year. He told me I was going to jinx it, and I told him I didn't believe in that. Of course, he did win [for Hatfields & McCoys]!
Did any of the other cast or crew members have Louisiana connections?
Mike and Bud are the obvious ones because the movie is actually about them; they also served as executive producers. My son Dylan, who's 20, made his acting debut as Spider, one of Matt Dillon's character's lackeys. I also had numerous friends who worked for free as extras.
Now that filming is complete, what's next?
Post-production is being done in L.A., where Chris is working with the former editor of the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. He commented that this is the best-acted film top to bottom that he's worked on since that one. Chris and I are looking forward to doing more projects together; presently, we're pursuing a Lifetime movie that's also inspired by true events. But I'm patiently waiting to see what happens with Whiskey Bay before I make any other big plans.
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