The call came in midmorning on May 6. Joel McNeal excitedly announced that he was on set, shooting a Western film on the old Garamendi ranch.
What began as a cynical trip to Mokelumne Hill, soon became a revelation: Movie magic was being conjured in the Mother Lode.
McNeal met me at the base of the ranch and offered to drive me up the hill. He spoke excitedly about the film, premise, production and his history. He also spoke of his personal experience, which includes 25 years in law enforcement, and now, as a retired officer who still works part time for the Federal Protective Services, among other agencies. He said he also consults for films, music videos and TV as a weapons and time-period expert. He is also dabbling in producing and directing films. His eyes shined and his energy was contagious as he executed the curves up the long hill to the top of the ranch.
When we arrived on scene, there was not a single person present. My apprehension was soon eradicated as I saw a mass of figures in the distance, walking through the foot-tall, late-spring grass with production equipment, just beyond a bloody casket.
The sun shone on the green and amber waves covering the ranch. Mindful of snakes that could be basking in the warmth, I kept my eyes to the ground, rather than looking up at the rolling hills and picturesque landscape.
The year was seemingly 2019, but on this warm spring day in Mokelumne Hill, the year was 1854.
“In our film, father and son venture out in search of gold, only to find gold – and have their horses stolen in the middle of the night. It becomes, very quickly, a story of survival, and a journey home – an epic journey,” said Jared Zabel, director of the film, entitled “Wayward Son.”
Zabel said he and Andrew Weiler, his main collaborator on the film, have been working on the project for a little over three years.
“(It is) very exciting to be here. We’ve gotten much farther than I ever thought we would get on this project,” Zabel said. “The idea first came to me back when I was attending the Telluride Film Festival – the idea that a character could have all the money in the world, but no way of spending it.”
Michael Town, an award-winning producer and writer, has taken on the main role of the father, William Teller, and Christopher Gerse, who has had roles in “Westworld,” “Days of Our Lives,” "Ironside," and “Malcolm in the Middle,” is the son, William Teller.
“They’ve crafted such an awesome world, between the writing, the story and then the vision behind it – and then coming out here to Calaveras to shoot,” Gerse said. “And with the props and the wardrobe, it’s made it really easy to just dive into the world. It’s really unreal; never experienced anything like it.”
Town was also taken with the area the filmmakers chose to use as their backdrop.
“I cannot believe it hasn’t been seen in movies more, because – we are capturing images. I see John Ford Westerns all the time and you see Monument Valley, and you see other people then go to Monument Valley and also shoot there. I’m seeing images here, and I’m thinking, ‘Why haven’t they shot this before?’” Town said. “Really incredible … the valleys go on forever. I say it looks like the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ It’s like you’re looking at the Emerald City, and it just goes on and on and on.”
Gerse added to that by saying Calaveras County adds an extra layer of authenticity. “It’s very exciting,” he said.
The other two costars are horses, generously donated by Murphys resident and owner of Grounds and Firewood, River Klass and his wife. Klass is a stuntman in the movie for a galloping scene.
Between takes, one of the horses tries to nibble his tether off a California oak.
“Now we know what happened to the horses,” is heard from the group, followed by an eruption of laughter.
Among the Hollywood cast are also locals. Gail Camenzind, a makeup artist, was located by the group through GoCalaveras.com and the historic society. She is working with both agencies to source and market local talent.
Angela Matulich, owner of Columbia Clothiers & Emporium in Tuolumne County, is working as the costume consultant, and has donated her time and materials for the film.
“I think the most amazing thing – because I had no idea what was going on with this project when I came into it – to me, the most amazing thing is a million-dollar look off a (micro) budget. It’s blown me away,” Matulich said, who had met the production team only two months prior when they happened to walk into her store in Columbia.
“(She has) really set the time period well and done her research, which has really helped everybody else in their areas,” McNeal said.
“What we’re trying to do is to create the highest production quality we can for the least dollars in. The way you do that is you set two characters in the wilderness, with period clothing and horses, and gold and guns – that kind of fun stuff. Beautiful landscape,” Zabel said.
The cast members received many of their local connections through Judith Marvin, the innkeeper of the Pioneer hotel, including introducing them to the Garamendis.
“And I’m sure everybody in Calaveras County knows, but the Garamendis are the nicest family – so hospitable, so amazing,” Town said. The Garamendi family donated space on the old Garamendi ranch to shoot on and helped them make other local connections.
The other actors who are featured in the film are Megan Ward, known from her appearances on"General Hospital," "Dark Skies," and "Melrose Place," Olivia Olson, known for her voice roles in “Phineas and Ferb” and “Adventure Time," Michael Bolus, known from “Dolemite is My Name,” “NCIS” and “How to Get Away With Murder," and Galyn Gorg, who is known from her appearances in "RoboCop2," "MANTIS," and "Fresh Prince of Bel Air."
“It’s gorgeous, especially this time of year. It’s one of my favorite things – normally you see a Western, and it’s all dust. You rarely get to see green grass, where it’s lush. We caught this at the right time,” Town said.
McNeal invites anyone who is interested in getting involved to find out more. Since the budget of the film is tight, a Gofundme page has been created to help finance it. Each of the staff members are wearing multiple hats and contributing in many different ways, he said. McNeal also said film opportunities like this are a great way for local college students to get experience as a production assistant, or for anyone who is interested to gain experience in any area of film production.
McNeal himself has even been behind the camera on this set, which is an area of filmmaking he hopes to experience more of. The staff has worked 16 hour days for two weeks, and is focused and dedicated to the film being a success.
The filmmakers are hoping for an early 2020 release, and there has been discussion about the premier being held in the Angels Camp movie theater.
This story has been updated with the actor's TV credits and name corrections.