The stretch of Illinois Route 3 running past the nudie bars of Sauget might not seem like an ideal setting for a movie — at least not one aiming for something other than an X-rating. Even more implausible, perhaps, is that a low-budget flick shot along this seedy patch of road could attract Hollywood talent. But that's just what happened last week with the filming of the independent film 23 Minutes to Sunrise.
"My wife read the script and handed it off to me saying, 'You have got to take this role,'" recalls actor Eric Roberts as he flosses his teeth before a shot inside the Route 3 Diner. Famous for his performances in Runaway Train, The Pope of Greenwich Village and dozens of other titles spanning his 33-year career, Roberts says he read the screenplay and soon agreed with his wife: "I'm at the stage of my career where I don't need to prove myself. I do movies I like, and this is definitely one."
Roberts plays a Grim Reaper character in 23 Minutes who agrees to meet a young woman on whom he's bestowed the gift (or curse, as it may be) of eternal life. The woman, played by St. Louisan Haley Busch (yes, of that Busch family), no longer wants to live forever. Roberts offers her a deal: If she can find someone in the restaurant where they're meeting to take her place before the sun comes up, she can once again become mortal.
But there's so much more to 23 Minutes than that, says director Jay Kanzler. A St. Louis attorney, Episcopal priest and burgeoning filmmaker, whose St. Benedict's Rule, a documentary about a massacre at a Missouri monastery, won him an armload of awards and accolades when it debuted in 2009.
"What drew me to 23 Seconds is that it's a film about relationships," says Kanzler. "There are three other couples in the restaurant that night, and they're all going through their own issues."
One of those couples is played by standup comic Bob Zany and actress Nia Peeples, best known for her television roles on Walker, Texas Ranger and The Young and the Restless. Peeples says that 23 Minutes allows her to play a different character than she is accustomed to.
"She's needy, she's insecure, clinging to the past and a bit of a cougar," says Peeples.
The actress doesn't find it at all odd that she's landed in East St. Louis to shoot what Hollywood considers to be an "ultra-low budget" movie, with a total cost of less than $600,000.
"The industry is upside-down right now, with fewer people willing to provide financing and so many more channels and outlets competing for those dollars," says Peeples. "But as an actor you have to keep moving forward with your craft, especially when you have an opportunity to work with good people and a good script."
23 Minutes is writer Pat Pinkston's second screenplay to be turned into a movie — not a bad feat considering he's been penning scripts for just two years. "I'm an old dog practicing new tricks," says the 57-year-old Florissant resident. Pinkston found his director when he heard Kanzler speak at a film festival panel and pitched him the screenplay for 23 Minutes.
Pinkston drew inspiration for 23 Minutes from Edward Hopper's famous painting Nighthawks and composer Franz Schubert's song "Death and the Maiden." "Both of those pieces of artworks were rattling around my brain, and I thought to myself: 'Hmm,'" says Pinkston. "The film is really a melding of those two pieces."
Also involved in the project is Judee Sauget, whose connections in Sauget — which bears her family's name — proved extremely beneficial during filming. Sauget, a producer for the film, was able to summon her son (the town's mayor) to provide a police car and other props. Moreover, the Sauget family also owns the diner where most of the film takes place, and Judee Sauget's daughter, Jilanne Klaus, plays a waitress.
St. Louis cinematographer Chris Benson serves as the film's director of photography. Gayle Gallagher, with the St. Charles-based Pirate Pictures, operates as another producer to the film. Other notables include actor Dingani Beza of Jefferson City, who appears as a paralegal in NBC's Harry's Law and is filming a new series for BET, and Tom Sandoval, an actor from St. Louis currently living in Los Angeles.
Kanzler says he hopes to get the film a limited theatrical release next year and then onto a film network such as Showtime, HBO or Cinemax before release on DVD.
He also hopes that the success of 23 Minutes will have him one day shooting a big-budget film in St. Louis.
"That's the goal," says Kanzler. "You've got to start small and build your way up."