Local author Connelly makes directorial film debut with ‘The Suspect'

Stuart Connelly (center) provides direction to Mekhi Phifer (left) and Derek RochÈ (right) during a blocking rehearsal in French Creek State Park during shooting of The Suspect. Photo by Sherry McCracken; copyright 2012 Modoc Spring.

Author Stuart Connelly, a resident of West Nantmeal, has recently finished directing his debut feature film ‘The Suspect’.

The film is a character-based psychological thriller that dramatically explores issues of race, greed and the danger of stereotyping, and filming took place locally from June through September of 2012. Now in post-production (where music, special effects, titles, and more are added), Connelly said that the project is on track to be completed by the end of 2012.

“This was written to play to my strengths,” said Connelly. “In my history as a writer I have dealt with race issues, which made it a reasonable project to bring to investors.” Connelly wrote the book Behind the Dream: The Making of The Speech That Transformed a Nation, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington. “The most fundamental thing that I can say about the film is that it is about people, their assumptions of others based on their perception, and how wrong they can be.”

The geography of Midland, the town in Connelly’s story, is partly based on Elverson - though the setting is not even Pennsylvania. “The idea was to create a town that could exist almost anywhere in America and in almost any era.”

“I’m interested in the idea that people can look at something, like the town of Elverson, and automatically think that they know what the people are like. People are incredibly unique, and ‘The Suspect’ addresses that -- everyone can surprise you.”

He said that tapping into the realm of assumption was behind the crafting of some of his characters.

“The audience will think that they know a character, but then we give them the unexpected. We are able to do that because we have characters that are well-written with real histories and personalities. They are not flat, and if they at first may seem to be, there’s a deliberate reason for that.”

Among the 25-plus sites where filming took place: Berks Homes’ Springhill Village in Elverson, Morgantown’s Red Carpet Inn, a vacant branch of Susquehanna Bank in West Chester, the West Nantmeal Township Building, Saint Mary of Providence, Joanna’s General Store, Elverson Borough Hall, Morgantown Re-Uzit Shoppe, and French Creek State Park, and even at Connelly’s own West Nantmeal home. Additionally, the production rented a warehouse in Honey Brook that functioned as a soundstage where three major sets were built.

“Everywhere we went people were wonderful to us,” he said. “People like Randy Miller, with Caernarvon Township, who was very helpful in getting us the local support we needed. Chief Stoltz even let us use his police vehicles.”

He offered thanks to the Twin Valley Fire Department, which he named as being “invaluable.”

“They were there to help with a shoot involving fire, and they also let us use the station as ‘talent holding’ (dressing rooms), because we didn’t have trailers our talent. The actors and firemen ate together, shot pool, told stories. It was terrific because one of the actors, James McCaffery, was in the television series Rescue Me, which was about firefighters, so they really enjoyed getting to meet him.”

In addition, local businesses (like Ethosource and Twin Valley Coffee company) supported the production by sharing generous discounts on their products. Others provided moral support and invaluable guidance. Elverson businessman Merle Stotlzfus and West Nantmeal Township’s Nelson Beam and Gary Elston were praised for supporting the film.

“When Nelson, as hardworking a farmer as I’ve met, commented on how hard we were working I took that as the highest compliment. We were out working fourteen, fifteen, sometimes sixteen hour days.”

Connelly added that there were many individuals that let the production film on their property as well, including private roads that double as state roads in the film.

“With how great people have been, I plan to make films in this area as long as I possibly can,” he said.

Though Connelly primarily writes books, he began The Suspect as an original screenplay while in West Nantmeal in 2008. He had recently made friends with an actor, and with a newfound respect for his friend’s craft he wanted to develop a complex screen character. By the time he was shooting years later, Connelly’s script was able to garner the attention of such acting talent as Mekhi Phifer (Clockers, 8 Mile, and the TV hospital drama ER), William Sadler (Die Hard 2, The Shawshank Redemption, and the TV series Roswell), James McCaffrey (known for his roles in the TV shows Law & Order, New York Undercover, and Revenge) and Sterling Brown (Our Idiot Brother and the TV series Army Wives).

As a first-time director dealing with veteran actors, he knew that he needed to be very purposeful and decisive.

“They’re taking a chance. Just because you wrote something doesn’t mean you’re a filmmaker. You have to make them comfortable beyond the script. Rehearsal can do that, but we couldn’t afford the time to rehearse, we had to hit the ground running. So the alternative is to show them you have a clear vision. That through leadership, you’re going to get the film you see in your head. This put the cast at ease, like this was worth their effort, and that feeling trickled down to the crew.”

An independent filmmaker gets funding from private investors – it is a risk, and the investors need to feel either that the cards are stacked in their favor with a proven director or they need to be convinced that their investment will be worthwhile some other way. With no films under his belt, Connelly fell into the latter category and found that passion was a worthy substitute for experience.

“You need to have something interesting to say, and you to be very passionate about it. You have to be clear-eyed about your budget and your approach toward the schedule. You have to have done your homework about the risks and potential rewards. Then you can find some people willing to take a leap of faith.”

Often the case is that once a film is funded, a location is chosen and the script’s settings are recreated. For The Suspect, however, it was important to Connelly to keep the production close to home.

“The trick (was) to get the talent to come out here so that we (could) pull off the film. It is a lot easier to hire actors in Hollywood, where they can sleep at home every night. To drag them out here, though? That takes a lot of trust.”

He also wisely drew from regional talent pools, such as those in Philadelphia.

“We have received a lot of support from the Greater Philadelphia Film Office and have even been awarded tax credit by the Pennsylvania Film Office for hiring locally,” said Connelly.

Rebecca Creskoff, one of the stars of the TV series Hung, happens to live in the area and took on a crucial role. Many of the crew came from nearby places, some including Coatesville and Honey Brook. In a humorous twist of events, Connelly even came across a talented art department staff member as a result of a plumbing issue he had in his own home.

“It was a stroke of luck. While talking to the plumber about my work he reminded me that his grandson worked in the film industry in California. He was originally from this area and recently moved back, so he became an important part (of the art department).”

For now, Connelly and his team are being hush-hush about The Suspect until it is revealed at upcoming film festivals.

“We’ve already submitted The Suspect to some festivals such as Sundance, South by Southwest, and will continue to enter more.” In fact, the Berlin Film Festival is next on the list. Connelly said he doesn’t want too much information about his film out quite yet, and is particularly careful not to let much detail out onto the Internet. “The idea is to fly under the radar for now and then when it’s all set, let people think, ‘Where did this movie come from?’”

In the meantime, those interested in staying up to date with the information Connelly is willing to offer on The Suspect should visit his website at www.StuartConnelly.com.

(Editor’s note: Mary Jo Barthmaier, producer for ‘the Suspect’, contributed content to this article)

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