Who could have imagined that tenting an old hotel for termites would serve as the inspiration for a movie? Well, once again, truth proves to be stranger than fiction.
Independent filmmaker Chuck Russell of Roswell, Ga., just wrapped up 12 days of work on his 25-minute narrative film “Saving Isabelle” at the Historic Peninsula Inn on Beach Boulevard in Gulfport.
He’ll be back early next year to film the rest, and the movie should be completed by next summer.
During a break in the work on Tuesday, December 13, Russell explained how the plot mixes some real aspects of the inn’s past with fabricated events. It features the ghost of a fictional World War I nurse who worked at the property when it served as a hospital – which really occurred during WWII, according to the Peninsula Inn’s website — and two children who risk their lives trying to save the ghost decades later.
According to the story line, the nurse died during the 1918 flu epidemic but stayed on, and was reported as haunting the house over subsequent years.
“She died of the flu but was so dedicated to taking care of the soldiers that she never left,” Russell said. “She’s a nice benevolent ghost.”
When two children stay at the inn with their parents in the modern era, the little girl has several encounters with Isabelle while the rest of her family remains skeptical. Then comes the seminal event that inspired the movie: the family is told they will have to go stay elsewhere because the hotel is being tented and fumigated to kill all the bugs.
Russell said the real tenting of the property in June 2016 is what prompted the story. A frequent guest at the inn, he was smitten by the thought of how the three-story building and its four-story tower would look being tented when he first learned of the upcoming event from owner Veronica Champion.
He had his son Jamey, who is also a filmmaker, fly in from Los Angeles to document the tenting with a camera and a drone. With that footage in hand, they then had to come up with a story idea, and the subject of the film is the result.
Back to the plot: The little girl is horrified at the thought of Isabelle’s ghost’s imminent death, and sneaks back to the tented hotel to try to save her before the poison gas is pumped in and the tent is stitched shut. Her brother follows to look out for her, and both children are sealed in just as the gas starts to flow.
Russell won’t say what happens at the end, but is willing to give a hint.
“I like to make films that engage people emotionally, that take them on a ride,” he said. “And when they get off that ride they’re smiling and laughing and saying ‘that was really cool.’”
Champion, who bought the inn in January of this year, said having a film made at there would be a boon in the future.
During the filming “it’s a little disconcerting, there are some challenges working around it in the short-term, but for the long-term I think it’s fantastic,” she said.
Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson, who has tended bar at the inn for three years and says he’s never seen Isabelle’s ghost, is optimistic about the positive effect the film will have on the community.
“This isn’t the first film to be done in Gulfport,” he said via text message, citing “Spring Breakers”, “The Infiltrator” and a dramatization of the 1984 fatal stabbing of resident Karen Gregory, “but to my knowledge it is the first independent short film to be done here. I expect much more attention. Gulfport has somehow been picked up by filmmakers’ radar. I think it’s a good thing for Gulfport.”
Russell, whose company, Occasional Films, generally makes movies for corporate clients, is also optimistic about the film, which he plans to present at film festivals. He’s got about $50,000 for the basic production, which he says “is a pretty good budget.”
Most of the crew working the past 12 days was hired locally, Russell said. The two main actors, Abby Biddar, 9, and Jack Champion, 11, who is not related to hotel owner Veronica Champion, are from Georgia and North Carolina, respectively. Abby takes piano lessons from Russell’s wife, while Jack was found through an agency. Russell said he’s considering an actress from Atlanta to play Isabelle.
The child actors said they’re enjoying being “movie stars.”
“I like it because you get to run around and have a lot of fun,” Abby said.
“I love the story line and my character and hanging around the set,” adds Jack.
So far the film has been shot entirely at the hotel, but next year some scenes will be filmed around town to show it’s taking place in Gulfport, Russell said.
Henderson said he’s invited the filmmaker to screen the movie at the Catherine Hickman Theater when it’s done.
“People are interested in what’s going on,” he said. “I think everybody likes to see some elements of home on the big screen.”