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Casting Calls: The Tri-State's Emerging Filmmaking Movement

by Jeffrey B. Roth + photos by Chris Jackson


The tri-state area's diverse settings and culture spurs an emerging filmmaking movement.

Hollywood, California, is 2,582 miles from Hagerstown, Maryland, but that doesn't stop filmmakers from using northern Maryland, eastern West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania as locations to make movies. From bloodcurdling horror to poignant documentaries, a wide-range of movie genres are taking advantage of the area's natural beauty and rural atmosphere.

Neon Reel

Matt Matzen of the Hagerstown-based production company Neon Reel Entertainment was born in Rochester, Minn., but spent his childhood in Arizona, Iowa and Maryland. Since 2004, Matt has been an independent producer specializing in “all things horror, sci-fi, suspense, and dark comedy.” Their short film “The Darkness and Tom Markos” took home the fan favorite award at the HorrorFind Weekend in Gettysburg. And they also had their short “Awake” presented at the Maryland International Film Festival last year.

Matt, who has now spent a large portion of his life in Hagerstown says, “Although it has its faults, I love this town. I know it’s called Hub City for other reasons, but it is a hub for filmmakers. We are close to everything we need.” If the historic buildings in Hagerstown do not fit filmmakers' needs, there are always Gettysburg, Sharpsburg and other historic locations nearby to choose from, he says. Also, Washington County is intersected by major highways and is within a few hours of major metropolitan centers as well.

“Although I am not from New York or California, I have known a few people who have come out this way to make a film,” Matt says. “Based on my conversations with them, most commonly they tell me it’s because of the historic nature of the area and it’s been easy to work with most of the historical societies to make their film believable without breaking the bank.”

Typically, Neon Reel Entertainment budgets range from $5,000 to $20,000, Matt says — a far cry from the ballooned sums of money required for a typical Hollywood production. Access to digital cameras — which are much cheaper to shoot with than traditional film cameras — is paramount to being able to make independent films. Matt and his crew already bear the brunt of production and post-production to cut down on costs, so saving money on film and film development is paramount to being able to continue to realize their visions.

Putch Films

Chambersburg-raised John Putch — son of the late William Putch, director of the Totem Pole Playhouse and Jean Stapleton of “All in the Family” fame — along with his sister, Pam, were exposed to theatre and film all of their lives. It's not a surprise that John, who has acted in TV and movies, as well as on the stage, is compelled to make movies.

“When my mom was hired for ‘All in the Family,’ we moved to Los Angeles for the winter months and the school year, then we returned to Pennsylvania in the summer for the season at Totem Pole,” John says. When he was 12, his father handed him a Super-8 camera and told him to grab some friends and go make movies on the weekends. He’s been at it ever since.

“I’m 52 now, and I still make movies on weekends and in my spare time,” John says. “Albeit on a much bigger and more polished scale. But I will say, some of the Super-8 comedies I made back in high school still stand as some of the funniest movies I’ve made.”

Although he lives on the West Coast for work — he made his television debut in 1973, and has been acting or directing with consistency since the 80s — it’s evident he still gets homesick from time to time. “The reason I come back home to film is because when I go to movies or watch TV, I never see interesting and beautiful locations like the ones in central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland,” John says. “We are constantly fed images of cities we know too well.

Evening Star

Documentary filmmaker Mari-Lynn Evans, who is also owner and producer of Evening Star Productions, based in Akron, Ohio, was raised in Bulltown, a small town located in the coal mining area of West Virginia. “I worked in television for probably 10 years, and the three-part PBS film series, “The Appalachians” was my first documentary film, and Random House produced a companion book,” Mari-Lynn says.

“I was finishing a TV series with Naomi Judd and we were talking about what we should do next. I said somebody should make a documentary film about Appalachia because I'm sick and tired of being called inbred. I raised $2.3 million to make “The Appalachians,” which is one of the most successful PBS series ever.” Mari-Lynn has gone on to make “Coal Country,” a critically acclaimed documentary about the impact of the coal mining industry on the people, the land and the culture of West Virginia.

Currently, she is producing “Blood on the Mountain,” which she says documents the true 150-year history of West Virginia. “It depicts what happens when corporations and government allow the coal mining industry to be completely unregulated. It truly is a battle of citizens against corporations.” 

“I'm donating all of the interviews to the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College for a free educational license,” Mari-Lynn says. “It is important for the film to be commercially successful, because there are only private sources of funding available to produce social and environmental documentary films.”

For Mari-Lynn, the battle between those who live in West Virginia and those who exploit it for financial gain became personal at 17, after the Army Corps of Engineers took her grandfather's nine-generation, 2,000-acre farm. After that incident, Mari-Lynn vowed never to return to the state “because it hurt so damn bad,” she says. “West Virginia is the canary in the coal mine for what is going to happen if we don't take back our rights.”

Peter Tomas Entertainment

Hagerstown and the surrounding area is also home and a film set for members of Peter Tomas Entertainment. The production company co-owners Peter Arizmendi, Thomas Sanchez, and Walter Puryear, are in the midst of producing a fantasy film titled “The Ruwach: Quest for Truth.” The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world were a small group wage war against an immortal villain and features an original fusion of breakdancing and martial arts. The project is the first to be filmed in Hagerstown in years, and has commanded the participation of several prominent dancers. Intended as a parable, the theme of the film is to represent mankind’s search for meaning, while instilling respect for other cultures by using the performing arts as a vehicle.

“We have been planning locations here and around Hagerstown,” Peter says. “A movie trailer/teaser, was shot here on Mulberry Street. It's not easy, but we are pushing to inspire people.” For some, inspiration came in the form of first-person participation, as local dancers and martial artists have also been called on to join the cast. After utilizing the array of different settings and the talents of local artists, Peter believes the tri-state area will continue to attract filmmakers because of its beauty, its history, its economy and its people.