Patricia Heaton, the Emmy Award-winning actress from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and her husband, David Hunt, an actor whose credits range from episodes of “Falcon’s Crest” to “Monk,” are making the move into film producing.
They are serving as producers on Walden Media’s “Amazing Grace,” which wrapped principal photography two weeks go. Directed by Michael Apted, the film focuses on the 19th century British abolitionist William Wilberforce. And their FourBoys Films production company has also completed a documentary, “The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania,” which has begun playing the festival circuit.
In “Coal Queens,” Hollywood actress Sarah Rush returns to Carmichaels, Pa., (population 556) for the 50th anniversary of the Coal Queen Pageant, over which she reigned in 1972.
The movie is a result of a lunch Heaton had in summer 2003 with Rush and other friends. When Rush mentioned her reunion plans, Heaton says she immediately informed her husband of her desire to send a film crew to shoot a little documentary on the event.
Three weeks later, a crew of six professionals that included Hunt as director, along with a couple of interns, accompanied Rush to her celebration that coincided with the annual pageant activities.
In the docu, Hunt weaves interviews with the former queens (and in one case, the husband of one of them: 1950s heartthrob Fabian) with the performances of current contestants.
Heaton and Hunt are just now negotiating theatrical distribution, DVD and cable TV rights and they also hope to mount a musical stage play based on the movie. The film recently was featured at the American Film Renaissance Festival in Hollywood, where it was enthusiastically received.
Its entertainment value mostly stems from the eccentricities of some of the pageant participants, most notably the stage manager, who seems to delight in making teenage girls weep. Example: “They can’t hear my taps,” complains a contestant whose talent is, what else, tap dancing. “I’m not going to dumb things down,” retorts the stage manager. “This is professional theater!”
The stage manager has since been fired, since Carmichaels and the surrounding coal communities take the pageant very seriously, and, the film argues, viewers should as well.
“This place was rich in immigrant history, which appealed to me, being a modern-day immigrant,” said Hunt, a native of Great Britain. “I knew on the plane home that something happened in that place, that this could be a real sweet and funny movie.”
The film goes beyond the beauty pageant into the surrounding community. Hunt takes his crew 750 feet below the Earth’s surface, seven miles from the nearest elevator shaft, to show some of the former queens for the first time where their fathers and their fathers’ fathers toiled. Among Hunt’s interviews are those who lost family and friends in mining accidents and in picket-line violence.
The couple budgeted $45,000 for the film but ended up spending $350,000, mostly because of music licensing fees associated with the many snippets from the pageant’s talent competition.
“It’s a side of America people don’t get to see,” Heaton says. “It sounds cliche, but it is the kind of people that make this country great.”
Says Hunt: “What I found in this community reminded me of why I wanted to become an American citizen in the first place, this combination of can-do spirit and a community ideal that is so easy to forget in a big urban environment like Hollywood.”