By Stefanie Jackson – Cape Charles set the stage last week for an independent filmmaker who has the Sundance Film Festival in her sights.
Her upcoming film “Don’t Tell the Children” is a work of fiction based on real events, presented as a documentary.
“We want to be bigger than ‘Tiger King,’” said C.J., who asked that her real name not be used.
She wishes to keep her identity a secret until the production’s release and to protect the children whose stories are told in the film.
“Don’t Tell the Children” is about her recent experience living in an “intentional community,” a term used to refer to a small, planned, community, often similar to a commune.
The story is set in the fictional community Frog Union and centers on a scandal that shatters the dreams of a family who leaves within a couple months of moving where they thought they would live peacefully for the rest of their days.
The husband and father of three is named Indigo, a healer portrayed by Michael S. Walls, an actor who lives in New York City but owns a home in Cape Charles.
C.J. filmed his documentary-style interview in a historic, 1930s home near Cape Charles Beach, on Bay Avenue. The home is owned by Walls’ sister and brother-in-law, Anne Marie and Mark Guevarra.
C.J. is based in Virginia Beach and hadn’t planned any filming in Cape Charles, but she heard of the town from Walls, who has spent much time there during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Things were getting really scary in New York” in March as COVID-19 cases surged, Walls remembered.
He and his partner were stuck in their apartment for two weeks and couldn’t get groceries or supplies delivered; they had to rely on restaurant takeout for every meal.
“The tension was palpable,” Walls said. When the hospital tents went up, Walls called his sister and he and his partner left the city.
Even though work slowed during the pandemic, he has stayed busy since he moved to New York to become an actor about a year and a half ago.
Walls, with a bright smile and a head full of silver-gray hair, has been successful snagging roles without hiring an agent. He says there are actually a lot of parts for middle-aged men in the industry that appears to be youth-driven.
It probably doesn’t hurt that Walls is willing to take on a variety of jobs. He’s appeared in short films, TV series, podcasts, and has done voice-over work. Walls plays two or three roles every week and is thankful that he doesn’t need to wait tables to make ends meet.
This is his second career as a performing artist. Walls spent 30 years making a living playing the harp – including the electric harp – touring and recording albums.
When boy bands were popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Walls was right there in the middle of it all in Orlando, Fla., where the trend started.
His latest work includes a 2020 episode of “Evil Lives Here,” a true-crime series on the Investigation Discovery network. Walls plays Bill Layne, a man who physically abuses his wife.
Walls’ role in “Don’t Tell the Children” is the exact opposite. His character, Indigo, is a New-Age-style healer who wants nothing more than to forgive and mend the relationships that were broken after his stepdaughter was involved in a scandal with a boy from another family in their community.
Another scene with Indigo was filmed at Walls’ Cape Charles home, on Washington Avenue, in which he plays the harp. Indigo strums a delicate tune and explains how he uses music therapy to heal his clients.
Walls was drawn to the role of Indigo because he relates to the sense of living in a “controlled society” – not because of any place he has called home but because of his religious upbringing.
His childhood experience with religion may have been “controlled” but a positive influence also came from it. Walls became interested in the harp because a woman in his church played one. He began learning the instrument at age 11.
C.J. wasn’t always involved in filmmaking either. She was a teacher in California who had a friend in the film industry.
One day, the stress of the job led C.J. to imagine writing a screenplay about a teacher who kills her students. C.J. ended up moving to Los Angeles and studying at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) to become a film producer.
C.J. still teaches to pay the bills but filmmaking is her passion. She’s not in the business to make money but to tell stories.
C.J. said if she and her cast and crew “make it big” with “Don’t Tell the Children” she will share the profits equally with them. She appreciates how much work they have done, especially the actors, who have risen to the challenge of giving unscripted performances.
There is much attention to detail despite limited resources.
C.J.’s son, J.P., spends more time setting up a scene than filming it (with a Canon digital camera) so that the lighting and sound are just right.
She asks Walls to move his laptop so he avoids subconsciously glancing in the direction of his notes and gives the scene a greater sense of realism.
C.J.’s main concerns are storytelling, using the film to examine group dynamics and how “groupthink” works, and getting the audience to react.
If the film makes the audience angry, she has been successful, C.J. said.
She wants “Don’t Tell the Children” to provoke a strong audience reaction like the Netflix documentary “Tiger King,” a show whose popularity she still doesn’t understand aside from serving as a distraction from the real-life chaos of the coronavirus pandemic.
The story C.J. tells happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, in June 2020, and made a personal impact that she felt compelled to share.
She’s having a tough time editing the film together because the actors have given her so much good material to use, and she only has permission from the Screen Actors Guild to make a short film, no more than 40 minutes.
C.J. has to get the film done by summer if she intends to submit it for next year’s Sundance Film Festival, which begins in January.
The Sundance Film Festival, held annually in Salt Lake City, is the largest independent film festival in the United States. It is also a competition, and awards are given for the best independent films, including both dramas and documentaries and feature-length and short films.
But more important than any film festival is the kids. C.J.’s “bottom line” with her film “Don’t Tell the Children” is asking the question, “How do you protect kids?”
“They didn’t have a voice,” she said.
But film is one outlet that can give a voice to the voiceless.