Monticello filmmaker brings Hollywood types to East Central Illinois for latest project
Some California actors are getting a taste of East Central Illinois as they film an action movie in locations including Monticello and DeLand and near Clinton Lake.
And when we say taste, we mean taste.
"You guys have the best burgers. I'm going to have to get new jeans," said Giselle Bonilla of Los Angeles, who has the female lead in "Lowlifes," a production that also features Quinton Aaron, best known for his portrayal of Michael Oher in the Oscar-nominated movie "The Blind Side."
Besides the burgers, Bonilla has been refreshed by the friendly nature of local folk that have helped make this a somewhat relaxing summer in the Midwest despite 13-hour days on the set.
"Everyone is so much nicer here. They actually care to talk to you," said Bonilla, who cut her acting chops on the 2007 movie "Freedom Writers" when she was 12 years old.
Aaron — who is getting used to people addressing him as "Michael" after his iconic portrayal of Oher in the movie that won Sandra Bullock an Academy Award in 2010 — also likes the laid-back nature here. He said it allows him to "chill" while still pursuing his passion for acting.
"I love working. That's when I'm happiest. It's my dream job," said Aaron.
This is the sixth film to be produced by Robin Christian Peters, a St. Louis and Urbana native who has been a Monticello resident for the past 20 years.
The cast and crew of about 160 hope to wrap up filming this month, and Peters hopes for a release in spring 2014.
The plot — by Peters, who is also directing the film —revolves around a group of teens who attempt to foil a terrorist plot involving a nuclear power plant and an attempt to poison the water beneath.
The main characters also attend a para-military, last-chance school in a Midwest town. If that sounds familiar, it is intentional as Peters not only has great respect for the 400-student Lincoln's Challenge Academy in Rantoul, but he is a repeat motivational speaker for the academy and used it as a basis for the teens in "Lowlifes."
Peters said he is amazed that the school has produced 30,000 graduates since its inception, mainly kids with little hope of ever seeing the outside of their gang life, much less the chance to earn a GED.
He even took actors to the school Aug. 2 so they could get a tangible feel for his inspiration.
"I gained a lot of respect for my character from these students' experiences," said actor Eric Steelman after spending a little over two hours with students and Lincoln's Challenge employees. "I like my character more because of this."
He and real-life brother Tyler Steelman, who has acting credits that include the film "Beowulf" and Disney Channel's "The Suite Life of Zach and Cody," play trouble-making brothers in the movie being produced by Dreamscapes LA.
While at Lincoln's Challenge, the team they shadowed happened to have brothers as well.
"It was cool to see two brothers there, just like the movie. It ties in with our characters so well," Tyler Steelman said.
Teens should also recognize Booboo Stewart, whose acting career started at the tender age of 10 and includes the role of Seth in three of the "Twilight" movies. He also portrays a cadet in the film.
"It really helps," Stewart said of the time at Lincoln's Challenge. "As an actor we all want to see what it's really like."
Other actors include Art Bonilla, who has more than 30 credits on his resume, including several films and appearances on television ranging from "Monk" to "Scrubs."
One of Peters' goals with the field trip to Rantoul was to share his appreciation for the work being done at the facility.
"It's such a great program. I haven't run across a program like it. I wanted these guys to see what it was like for the real kids that I based the story on," said Peters, who also produced "So Others May Live" (aka "Sheeba" on Netflix) starring Ed Asner and Judge Reinhold in 2008.
Why Piatt County?
And while "Lowlifes" has its share of star power, Peters prefers filming close to home.
"People really embrace film-making in Piatt and Champaign counties. They think it's unique, whereas where these guys (actors) are from, it's like, 'oh, another movie.'"
Paige Trimble of DeLand enjoyed watching the group film in DeLand two weeks ago. She and her three daughters not only hung around for a couple of hours, but were able to meet actors during a break.
"They took time out of dinner to meet them. They were so kind, and answered questions," Trimble said.
They also got a big hug from the 6-foot-8 Aaron, who spends part of his spare time speaking to youths across the nation in an effort to discourage bullying. That included a 45-day, 66-school tour last year.
After the tour of Lincoln's Challenge, Aaron was also appreciative of the academy's efforts to mold today's youngsters.
"I want to shine a light on programs like that," he said.
Peters hopes his 10 years of filmmaking has given him an eye to make something that theatrical distributors would be crazy not to pick up.
"Kids want to see action, and they want to see people their age who are flawed but can become heroes," he said.