Piggott native stars in The River Within

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

When filmmaker Zac Heath thought about a filming location for his first movie, his native home of Paragould seemed like a perfect fit. From filming at First United Methodist Church in Paragould, the church he attended as a child, to filming at a small grocery store in Rector, Heath found inspiration in the natural beauty of Northeast Arkansas and its people.

The River Within, which also was shot on location along the beautiful Spring River in Hardy, explores the idea that everyone's life has a purpose, whether he or she knows it or not. It opens Friday, April 3, at the Paragould Cinema.

Among the stars is Piggott native Craig Morris.

"The River Within came about very quickly," said Heath. "While various parts of the story had been floating around in my head for a couple of years, they didn't come together until February 2008 as I was sitting in the theatre watching the premiere of a friend's movie. I walked out of that theatre knowing it was time to put this story together and put it on paper."

Jason, the film's main character who is played by Josh Odor, is haunted by the question "What am I doing here?" ever since he heard his dad utter it prior to his death several years ago. Now, fresh out of law school, and with an upcoming bar exam to prepare for, the highly motivated and strictly disciplined Jason returns to the small Southern town he grew up in to spend the summer studying.

Jason reconnects with Paul (Craig Luttrell), a "shoulda been" actor who has just returned from Los Angeles, and Layla (Jaclyn Friedlander), an old friend whose childhood crush on Jason returns with his sudden reemergence, sending her engagement into a tailspin.

But it is a chance encounter with David (Morris), a pastor at a local church, that changes his life forever. David offers Jason a part-time summer job as a youth director and he reluctantly accepts it, caving in to the pressure from Layla and the need for some extra summer cash. But as he gets to know the kids and their individual struggles, he gradually discovers a passion he didn't know existed within him -- and he soon realizes his dad's life-long question now has become his own.

Heath said the film is fictional, but notes he did draw on experience from his own days as a youth pastor in writing about Jason's journey. Once he started writing the story, it literally poured out onto the page. Two weeks after deciding to make the film, the first draft was completed and within six months the film was screen ready, a time span that is almost unheard of in Hollywood.

"One reason for such a fast turnaround time was necessity," said Heath. "We shot this movie on a shoestring budget, which forced us to be with our shooting schedule."

With their $40,000 budget, Heath and his crew could afford to rent camera equipment for only three weeks, which meant a 17-day shoot giving Sundays off.

Heath and his crew also found other creative ways to stretch their budget.

"When it came time to eat, we decided not to go with a caterer and instead ate meals prepared by my mom," said Heath. "After making three meals a day for three weeks, she's already made it clear that for my next film, the first thing I am to put into the budget is catering."

In order to save money on hotels, most of the cast and crew slept in guest rooms or pool houses that belonged to people in Paragould.

"Wherever we could cut corners on the budget, we did," Heath said.

Heath said it was the wonderful cast and crew of the film that made things run smoothly.

"Everyone helped everyone else," he said. "There was very little time spent standing around and waiting. We were always on the move. We were very excited to be a part of this project, and that enthusiasm translated to hard work even over long hours and often less than favorable working conditions. Complaining and arguing was not a part of this production. We believed in the message of the movie, and we all love making movies. As many of the cast and crew have said to me since, it was like being at camp for three weeks."

Heath said he felt many of the challenges of the film were a growing experience that made the movie even better in the end.

"There were numerous events that happened early on, and a couple towards the end, that could have derailed this film," Heath said. "But I believe God is always at work in the world around us. And while I don't believe He magically dragged us through this process to make this movie, I do believe He was there every step of the way providing strength, peace, confidence and inspiration."

Heath said he and the crew were able to push past those potentially disastrous events.

"Whenever we faced those events, we were able to do it with confidence as we felt we were right where we were supposed to be," he said. "Sure enough, doors would always open that allowed us to continue, often times in ways that actually made the movie better. It is that sense of peace and purpose I hope audiences will take from The River Within."

Morris lived in Piggott as a child but later moved to Greene County and graduated from Paragould High School. He attended Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock before moving to Nashville in 1981 to pursue a career in songwriting.

Morris has written songs recorded by Ray Charles, Reba McEntire, Andy Williams, The Oak Ridge Boys, John Conlee and Gene Watson, among others. He toured as pianist and harmony singer with Ronnie McDowell, Pam Tillis, Dobie Gray, Donny and Marie Osmond and Craig Morgan and currently tours with Loretta Lynn.

He was a staff singer on The Nashville Network's "Nashville Now" country variety show hosted by Ralph Emery and the lead singer for the country quartet, 4Runner, which toured with Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Kenny Rogers and others. With 4Runner, Morris was nominated for the Academy of Country Music's "Best Vocal Group" and was a featured musical guest on NBC's Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Morris also wrote the soundtrack for "The River Within."

About Zac Heath

Heath, who now lives in Malibu, Calif., has taken a very atypical path to Hollywood. He began his career as a professional actor right out of college, performing in various shows at regional theatres across the country and appearing in two films.

When the actors/writer's strike of 2001 threatened to halt movie productions, Heath went back to school -- to seminary. He worked as a theatre director as he got his Master's degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. It was in seminary that Heath met Craig Luttrell (Paul), the only two seminary students who, instead of going to a church after graduation, moved to Hollywood.

Rather than going to film school to become a film director, Heath decided to learn hands-on by working on as many films as he could as a crew member in various positions. Over the next two years, he worked on six feature films including Dreamer, War Eagle, Love's Unfolding Dream and Love's Unending Legacy.

For more information about the film and its cast, or to watch a trailer for the movie, visit the film's website at www.theriverwithinmovie.com.

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