For its East Coast Premiere, “The Way Back Home” found its way back home. Written by and starring Central Florida native Michael H. King, filmed in the Sanford and Orlando areas, and produced by a mostly Central Florida crew, “The Way Back Home” is part of a showcase for local films in the 2006 Florida Film Festival.
Executive producer Ralph Clemente decided to go ahead with the production of this independent film even after one of its stars, Julie Harris, suffered a heart attack, stroke, and serious car accident one right after the other. In fact, Clemente had the script re-written to accommodate the actress.
“I had worked with Julie Harris before on another film, “The First of May,” and knew she was an extremely talented actress,” he says. “Julie requested that we rewrite the character as someone who had survived a stroke. She hadn’t done any acting in a couple of years because of her health, and had been in heavy therapy ever since. Her assistant said that making this movie with us was the best therapy she could have ever received.”
The actress is the most honored performer in Tony history, with 10 nominations, five wins, and a lifetime achievement award. In the film, Harris plays Jo McMillen, a loving grandmother, good friend to Maude (Ruby Dee), and owner of a beautiful house designated as a historical landmark. Nearly a year after her stroke, her grandson Spencer Krane (King) comes to visit her from New York. Heavy emotional baggage accompanies him on the journey.
“We were lucky to get Ruby Dee and Julie Harris,” Clemente says. “The two ladies wanted to work together, so we managed to get them both. It’s the first time they’ve ever worked on a film with each other.”
He says that because of Harris’ medical condition, the crew would often worry about her, sometimes even feeding her lines when she would hesitate or stammer. “She would turn to them and say, ‘I’m acting,'” Clemente says. “Her acting was amazing; it’s no wonder she’s a legend.”
Directing the film is another legend in the business, 75-year-old Reza Badiyi, who was recognized by the Director’s Guild of America for having directed more hours of dramatic television (416) than anyone in the history of television. His many directing credits include “Baretta,” “Mission Impossible,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” So it’s no surprise that “The Way Back Home” feels more like a made-for-TV family drama than an edgy independent film.
Although Clemente concedes that “the film will certainly appeal to the over-60 set,” the central story concerns the grandson’s escape back home to a small town in Florida from his high-pressured attorney job in the big city. After his grandmother’s illness and a family crisis with his Broadway actress wife, he goes home and reacquaints himself with the grandmother who raised him.
“There are younger people in the cast and this should increase the appeal to a younger audience,” Clemente says. “He tries to go back to his roots and refresh his soul although we don’t really find out why until later in the movie.”
King co-produced the film along with Paul Sirmons and Alan Lilly. Post production specialist Oliver Peters worked on the many flashbacks that slowly reveal Spencer’s spiritual conflicts. Deezer D, Danny Nucci, Tessie Santiago, Robert Scott, and Amy Landers appear as the simple, small-town folks he left behind, while Mina Badie plays his troubled wife, Faith.
The lush Florida landscape, including calm lakes, lonely country roads, roaming alligators during mating season, late afternoon thunder showers, and native plants and flowers also play supporting roles in the film.
A joint effort between Back Home Productions, Inc. and Valencia Community College’s Film Production Technology program, “The Way Back Home” had student crews working alongside seasoned professionals.
“The director, producer, D.P., art director, editor, script supervisor, gaffers, and camera operators are all professionals,” according to Clemente, director of the college’s program. “These people essentially become free faculty to my students. There’s a tremendous learning opportunity there that money just can’t buy.”