The girl in the white Mustang rolls slowly down Peachtree Street, and Marc Jennings’s head turns as she drives by. The young woman is stunning, to be sure, but it’s the car that catches Marc’s eye. His gaze lingers.
And that’s where this particular turn in the story ends. It’s time to move on and capture another moment in time from more than six decades ago for Got Your Back, an independent motion picture filmed in and around Batesburg-Leesville over several days earlier this month.
Based on a true story, Got Your Back chronicles a fateful night in the lives of seven Ohio teenagers when one of the boys performs a selfless and heroic act on behalf of his friends.
For Darce Cruea, a teacher at Batesburg-Leesville High School, shepherding Got Your Back into production has been a labor of love. The hero in the story was her father, Steve Cruea, who passed away four years ago.
“One of his childhood friends had written stories of their adventures,” Ms. Cruea recalled as she sat under pop-up canopy perched on a vacant lot just off Peachtree Street in the Batesburg downtown district. A few yards down the street, a crew from Atlanta-based Water Sign Films was filming the scene with the girl in the white Mustang and “Marc Jennings,” the narrator of Got Your Back. “Marc” is portrayed by teen actor Tyler Cain of Lexington.
The Got Your Back screenplay was adapted from a memoir by the real-life Marc Jennings.
“My son Nico, who was 12 at the time, read this story and afterwards looked at me and said, ‘Mom, this sounds like a movie,’” Ms. Cruea said. “So I emailed it to Mitch (Hudson), the director and writer of the script, and asked him if he’d be interested in writing the film. He did, and for four years, we’ve been waiting for Nico to be old enough to play my dad.”
Nico – a 16-year-old veteran of previous independent films whose stage name is Nico Ford – jumped at the opportunity to portray his grandfather.
“Oh man, it’s pretty serious,” Nico said. “Everybody’s told me I look like him, which is pretty cool. He was everything to me, really. He got me into everything I like doing. Since I know the person, and I know that the story we’re telling is a true story, I have to envision that person I know doing these things. If it was somebody I didn’t know, I’d be essentially making my own character. But I have to remember what he (his grandfather) is like and think about all the things he would have done.”
Got Your Back is set in 1950s Dayton, Ohio, but according the film’s director, Batesburg-Leesville’s timeless quality serves as a more-than-adequate stand-in for the real-life setting.
“This town is absolutely perfect. It’s exactly what I was looking for,” Mr. Hudsson said. “The town feels like it hasn’t changed in 60 years. It has the vintage look of classic America. I love the old storefronts – and everyone has been so helpful. It does feel very Mayberry.”
In addition to filming a street scene on Peachtree, the crew shot at a set constructed on a farm just out of town to simulate the top of the water tower. On several nights, the crew filmed until the wee hours of the morning to simulate the night when the real-life event unfolded.
“The short story that was written was just about how my dad was always the guy they could count on, no matter what,” Ms. Cruea said, tears forming in her eyes. “This particular night, these crazy reckless teens had a little bit too much to drink and decided to climb a water tower and drink more. One of them couldn’t make it back down, so my dad carried him down the ladder. It’s just about how he was the stand-up guy who could be counted on all the time.”
For the film hero’s grandson, “it’s very special to try to replicate what he would’ve done back then,” said Nico, who confessed that he parted with his “beloved mullet” to portray his clean-cut grandfather. “I think people should look at this and see how times have changed. Nowadays, obviously there are solid friend groups, but these guys were brothers. Any one of these would have done the exact same thing. Grandpa just happened to be the one that stepped up.”
The entire project was a decidedly low-budget effort, with the total cost around $16,000. However, the filmmakers were able to secure a number of borrowed classic cars to evoke the story’s era, and Pete’s Welding & Metal Works in Gilbert put together the scaffolding and sheet metal set that simulated the water tower catwalk.
Now that principal photography is completed, Mr. Hudson and his team will edit the footage captured in Batesburg-Leesville into what they’re expecting will be a 15-minute cinematic short. From there, Got Your Back will be entered into film festivals in hopes of capturing a worldwide audience for this coming-of-age tale.
The director is confident that the 15 minutes of screen time enjoyed by Batesburg-Leesville in this project won’t be its last. Between the support of the Town staff and individual residents and businesses, as well as the Mayberry-like aesthetics, our community certainly is conducive to filmmaking.
“If I could’ve had three more weeks here, I would’ve used it,” Mr. Hudson said. “The phrase ‘southern hospitality’ certainly hasn’t lost its meaning here. I’d love to come back and do something else here soon.”