TIMES TRIBUNE (CORBIN, Ky.)
By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
It started as a story about a young man, his triumphs and tragedies, and his resolve to overcome obstacles from his blindness.
The story tied his resiliency to the game of football. And over a period of several years, that story eventually became a screenplay for a motion picture.
In March and April of last year, the production company did a casting call for roles in the movie, and shooting was done on location in Corbin.
Now, the full-length feature movie “23 Blast” — loosely based on the life of former Corbin High School Redhound football player Travis Freeman — is completed, and ready to be shown.
The Corbin “Sneak Peek” of the film is set for Thursday, Sept. 19, at the Tri-County Cineplex on the Cumberland Falls Highway.
A Corbin version of the “Red Carpet” ceremony will start at 6 p.m., with the showing of the movie around 7 p.m.
Theater 1 at the cineplex will show “23 Blast” for what the film’s producer, Gary Donatelli said were “The VIP’s — those people who helped out in the movie’s production.”
For those with VIP invitations, a check-in will be set up at Theater 1 that night.
But the public can get a look at the movie, too.
In an email statement Thursday, he noted the owners of the Tri-County Cineplex has offered as many theaters as the production company would need, to show the film free to the general public.
“There has been some confusion concerning the Corbin Sneak Peak of the film. ... Initially the event was to be by invitation only, designed to thank the people of Corbin who helped our production while filming last year, by having a screening of ‘23 Blast’ in town. As we gathered the hundreds of names of people who helped, we realized there was a good chance of unintentionally excluding someone, and that the list had already almost filled the main theater. In true Corbin fashion, the owners of the (Tri-County) Cineplex offered us as many theaters as we would need, so it was decided to expand the event to include the public as well, free of charge. That hopefully takes the worry out of excluding someone. We will still have the Red Carpet at 6 p.m. Theater 1 will be for the ‘VIP’s’ that helped us out, along with the Freeman family. The other theaters will hopefully take care of the rest of the crowd. We apologize for any misinformation that circulated prior to this decision, hope that people understand that the change came from us and not the Freeman family or anyone else in town, and that everyone will have a good time sharing our film based on the true story of a local hero,” said Donatelli.
In a phone interview from his Ringwood, New Jersey home on Aug. 31, he mentioned several former football players from Corbin High School, Union College and the University of the Cumberlands — some of whom appear as characters in the movie — would be highlighted at the sneak peek.
Donatelli, who has directed several television daytime dramas through the years, including the soap opera “One Life To Live,” said those who produced the movie wanted to have the film shown in Corbin first.
“It’s because we owe it to the town. We’ve got to show it to Kentucky before we show it to Tennessee, and it’s a payback to the people of Corbin. It’s a good way to kick off a big weekend. From the mayor to his people on down, to the Pee Wee Football teams, the high school, the cheerleaders, the people who turned on the lights at the stadium when we shot at night, the churches, and the people who were extras, the town really stepped up in a big way,” he pointed out.
“23 Blast” marks Donatelli’s debut as a film producer. It also marks the first movie directed by Dylan Baker, who was in Corbin during last year’s filming.
“I feel like we’ve got where we’ve got, and it’s interesting. Now, each viewer’s got to see if they’ve got a connection with the movie. I have to say it’s a good film. It’s family entertainment and a message of hope and faith fulfilled,” Baker said in a phone interview from New York City last Monday.
The movie follows the lives of two boys growing up in Corbin — Travis Freeman and Jerry Baker.
“It’s an idealized script and is based on what Travis and Jerry did during those early days of their youth. In our movie, they meet in the Pee Wee League. They both have an affinity for football, and they meet in many ways. Football is big in Corbin, and that brings them together. Their Pee Wee coach was their school coach, and the football play ‘23 Blast’ is a very influential play to them. The coach will have the play held up on the sideline. He’ll tell them, ‘Here’s the play we’ll run.’ He’ll grab the quarterback and says, ‘Call 23 Blast.’ That football play helps tie the script, and the movie, together. …We chose the title ‘23 Blast’ because it’s one of the plays the coach calls for,” Baker said in a Times-Tribune interview in March 2012.
Now 32, and a professor at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Freeman said Tuesday he’s looking forward to the film’s sneak peek.
“I’m really excited to see the final product, but I’m also extremely nervous, because I’m wondering how people will receive the movie. They have to realize it’s not a documentary, that it’s not ‘The Travis Freeman Story,’ This is a movie that is loosely based on my life. I will be there for the showing,” he stated.
While most movies are released by major film companies such as Paramount, Universal, Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox, “23 Blast” is an independent film. With limited funds, the producers counted on cooperation from people in Corbin — and they got plenty of it.
“We had such a small budget, we decided to film it there. Because Travis Freeman was such a good guy, we made a film on a quality level. We scoped out the town and once we met the people and the co-operation we got, there was no place else to go. The color ‘red’ was a character in the film, because it’s everywhere. On Friday nights, they put on red and cheer for the Redhounds. The red unites the town,” said Donatelli.
Baker commented, “The city of Corbin is a character in this movie, and the town really made this film happen. I think the first night Travis Freeman and his family came to the set was a special moment. They kept coming back.”
“This all started with Toni Hoover (who wrote the screenplay for the film). She came to my family and I several years ago and wanted to write a screenplay, and we didn’t think much about a film based on my life at first. But then a few years later, she came to us with Dylan and Gary and that got the ball rolling. The first time I sat down with Toni, Dylan and Gary was in the fall of 2011. I was very honored to them to do a movie about my life,” noted Freeman.
Toni Hoover’s son, Bram, has a part in the movie as Jerry Baker, and there were other people from Corbin and nearby communities who had small roles, or served as “extras” in the film. Dylan Baker said the use of local and regional talent complimented with the actors he knew who stepped up to the line of scrimmage to put “23 Blast” together.
“The whole thing was a learning process. Some things just fell together. Timothy Busfield (best known for his role in the TV series “thirtysomething” and the movie “Field of Dreams) coming to the film was a big plus. He jumped in headfirst and it was a miracle to have him there. It helped to make lemonade out of lemons. From the top to bottom, the casting was good. The smaller parts were played by people from Corbin, Lexington, Knoxville and Bowling Green. A film can live or die depending on the supporting players, and we had a very good supporting cast,” Baker mentioned.
Freeman recalled, “It was a surreal experience. I remember being overwhelmed by the filming experience. The staff, the actors and the crew treated me great. The main actors, Mark Hapka (who plays Travis Freeman in the movie), Max Adler (who plays Cameron Marshall), Crystal Hunt (who plays Molly), Alexa Vega (who plays Ashley), and obviously Dylan (Dylan Baker, who played Larry Freeman) and his wife, Becky (Kentucky native Becky Ann Baker, who plays Patty Wheatley, Travis’ physical therapist), and Timothy Busfield (who plays Duncan) were wonderful. It was also a story about the town, and how Corbin rallied around me during my illness and recovery. I think they have captured the spirit of the movie, but until I actually see the finished product, I won’t really know.”
While Freeman teaches at the University of the Cumberlands, he’ll be going to a nearby college next Tuesday to discuss the movie with Baker, Hoover and Donatelli, who are all co-producers of “23 Blast.” The question-and-answer session with students will be held at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee on Tuesday, Sept. 17.
Donatelli said another sneak preview of “23 Blast” will be shown at the Knoxville Film Festival on Sunday, Sept. 22 at 5 p.m. at the Regal Downtown West Cinema 8. You can go to www.knoxvillefilmfestival.com for more information.
The movie will officially premiere to paying customers at the Heartland Festival in Indianapolis next month. The festival runs Oct. 17-26.
Since the production crew left Corbin last spring after the filming on location, a good many wondered when “23 Blast” would be completed. For some, the first word of the sneak preview in Corbin came from Donatelli, who appeared on the statewide radio talk show “Kentucky Sports Radio” on Aug. 27, announcing the Corbin preview.
“Actually Travis (Freeman) suggested me to go on the show, because it’s heard in two-thirds of the state,” Donatelli said.
Based in Louisville, the weekday morning sports talk program is heard live or delayed on 24 stations in Kentucky, including WFTG-AM in London.
For Freeman, the movie will be one memorable moment of many in his life.
Some of them haven’t been pleasant.
He was 13 years old when he suffered a severe sinus infection which resulted from bacterial meningitis. The disease interrupted his life and his playing football. It also caused him to lose his sight.
But Freeman’s determination to conquer those difficulties brought him back to the front line as a starter for the Redhounds from 1996 to 1999.
And he continues to overcome obstacles today.
“It (the movie) hasn’t changed me, or who I am, or what I do with my life. Even if there wasn’t a movie made, I’m moving forward,” Freeman said, sipping a latte at a Corbin restaurant.
His story is an inspiring one, and for those that made “23 Blast,” they hope moviegoers will agree.
The countdown to kickoff now begins. For Corbin, showtime is ten days away.
“I’m excited about folks seeing it, and we want to make sure it’s a film the whole family would want to see,” said Baker.
Donatelli added, “I’m really glad that a bunch of idealistic dreamers, Toni Hoover, Dylan Baker and myself, got together to tell a nice story, but had the good luck to shoot the movie in Corbin, and the good fortune to meet with and work with the people of Corbin.”