Dozens attend open auditions for Erie film - Local actors try out for parts in the new film "Unearth" during auditions at Porreco College

Josh Lapping spent a few minutes of his Saturday morning sitting at a table with five strangers, pretending they were two neighboring farm families arguing about whether they should sell their land.

They were all actors auditioning for roles in “Unearth,” a new feature film that will be shot in Erie and Crawford counties starting in August. Lapping was one of the dozens of people who attended an open audition Saturday at the Porreco College of Edinboro University.

“It was different because you have a camera sitting in front of you,” said Tapping, a 24-year-old Millcreek Township man who has performed in several local stage productions. “Also, when you audition for a play, you audition solo. Here we auditioned in a group, so we interacted with each other and that kept me on my toes.”

The open audition brought in actors ranging from teenagers to 70-somethings. Some actors traveled from as far away as Buffalo, though most of them were local, with the earliest ones arriving at Porreco College’s main barn an hour before the auditions started.

After signing in and having headshots taken, actors waited in the lobby until groups of six were called into a large classroom to audition together. Most of them had the pages of the scene printed out from the movie’s website, though some rehearsed their lines on smartphones.

John C. Lyons, the film’s writer and director, guided the actors through the auditions. He was looking to fill many of the film’s roles and wanted to see how the actors performed with each other.

“It’s really about showing how actors can work together and play off one another,” Lyons said between auditions. “We’re looking for that natural chemistry, looking for bonds between actors as well.”

Pam Waite, a 56-year-old Waterford resident, tried out after getting cast for a television pilot during a recent trip to California to visit her son. She said Saturday’s audition was quite different from previous ones she has attended. “This was very low key,” said Waite, who is the office manager for her family’s physical therapy office. “They kept us relaxed. I’d like to see things like this come to Erie.”

All the auditions were videotaped and will be shared with the film’s stars, Girard native Marc Blucas and Edinboro native Allison McAtee, who are also among its producers.

Lyons said auditions will also be held in Pittsburgh, New York City and Los Angeles before a cast is hired by July. Filming is set to begin in August.

“Even if I don’t get a (speaking) role, maybe I’ll get a background role or be an extra,” Waite said.

John C. Lyons of Erie-based Lyons Den Productions holds auditions Saturday at the Porreco College of Edinboro University for his film “Unearth,” which will be filmed in Erie and Crawford counties starting in August. At left is casting assistant Jenny Martin. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]



Want to be in a movie? Audition for "Unearth" Saturday

An open casting call will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Porreco College of Edinboro University, 2951 W. 38th St.

The producers of the new feature film "Unearth," which will star two local products in Marc Blucas and Allison McAtee, are searching for actors for a variety of roles.

An open casting call will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Porreco College of Edinboro University, 2951 W. 38th St. The waiting area and registration will be in the main barn on site.

Producers are searching people 18 and older for paid and unpaid roles. There are Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and non-union positions. Those trying out will be assigned a character as they enter the audition area and will be expected to know a specific scene from the film. The scene, as well as additional information on the casting call, is available at

"Unearth" is described as an eco-thriller about two neighboring farm families that are put to the test when one chooses to lease their land to an oil and gas company. In the midst of growing tension between the families, the land is drilled and a menacing entity is revealed. As their world crumbles around them, the families must join together or descend into chaos, according to the film’s synopsis.

The film stars Blucas ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Brawl in Cell Block 99"), who is a Girard native, and McAtee ("Bloomington," "Californication"), an Edinboro native.

John C. Lyons of Erie-based Lyons Den Productions is the writer and director of "Unearth," which will be filmed in Erie and Crawford counties starting in August.

From left: Actor and Girard native Marc Blucas, filmmakers Dorota Swies and John C. Lyons, and Greg Sorce talk following a news conference at the Ambassador Conference Center in Summit Township on April 19. Swies and Lyons’ company, Lyons Den Productions, plans to shoot a movie in the Erie region in August. The film, titled "Unearth," is a thriller that will tell the story of two farm families and what happens when one family is asked to make a mineral rights deal with a gas company. Blucas will have a lead role in the film. Sorce is one of the film’s investors. [CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]



Homegrown Horror - "Unearth" puts Erie on the map for independent cinema

Scary movies are shedding their schlocky reputation these days.

Last year, director Jordan Peele found himself on the receiving end of near-universal acclaim (and an Academy Award) for Get Out, which offered a resonant indictment of white liberal racism through the lens of an old Twilight Zone episode. Two years prior, Robert Eggers' The Witch combined pseudo-satanic thrills with a unique glimpse of New England in the 1600s. Acclaimed arthouse directors like Lars Von Trier, Nicholas Winding Refn, and Claire Denis have all given the horror genre a shot recently. And the genre's momentum is about to come to Erie.

Our city's upcoming contribution to the horror scene is called Unearth, and it's not your typical gore-fest. It tells the story of two families in rural Pennsylvania who find themselves at odds over a local fracking initiative. An ecological nightmare soon ensues, but the film is as concerned with psychology as it is with bloodshed.

John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies, the film's co-directors and producers, have been on an ambitious mission to get Unearth into production for about two years. In 2016, they raised $21,000 through Kickstarter, hired a small team of professionals to shoot some early footage, and began looking for Hollywood talent. The script soon drew the attention of Marc Blucas, a Girard native most famous for his role as Riley Finn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Allison McAtee, an Edinboro native who has appeared on Showtime's Californication and Tyler Perry's The Haves and the Have Nots, quickly signed on as well.

With two recognizable stars on board, Lyons and Swies headed to New York City, where they found support from a film and media incubator called Big Vision Empty Wallet. After attending a series of seminars with distributors and sales agents, they secured a letter of intent from Candy Factory Films.

"The letter of intent states that Candy Factory is interested in releasing our film nationally and internationally. And that letter has a three-year offer," according to Lyons. The company has released dozens of independent features over the past several years, including 2015's The Midnight Swim, which was recently screened at the Erie Art Museum.

After returning from New York, a partnership emerged with Tolin FX to facilitate the practical effects necessary for the project. Lyons describes the company as the "top effects house in Pittsburgh," and the projects on their resume bear that out. Tolin FX has designed physical props for The Dark Knight Rises, the Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, and Netflix's addictive drama series Mindhunter. On a local level, some of the digital effects will be provided by MoreFrames Animation in Erie.

As you might guess, Unearth's budget grew in accordance with its ambitions. Thankfully, a team of twenty local investors have provided 82 percent of the film's total budget — enough to cover shooting costs in full, as well as part of post-production. Better still, stars Blucas and McAtee signed on as producers as well.

Marc Blucas has experience working as a horror producer in the past (on 2011's post-apocalyptic feature The Day) — in addition to the years he spent slaying vampires. I asked him about his work in horror over email: "The genre allows for budgets to be controlled," he replied. "There are limited types of stories you can craft that still have a reasonable financial upside potential for investors. The horror genre generally is inexpensive to produce — or you can at least craft stories that can be made on a much smaller scale, such as people trapped in a house, or in the woods."

Allison McAtee signed on as a producer "to have more creative input into the characters and story." She soon convinced her producing partner in Los Angeles, Kelsey Goldberg, to share her thoughts and her industry perspective. "She, John, and I worked collaboratively in discussing all script details on a weekly call, and then the two of them took turns alternating with writing drafts," says McAtee. This focus on the story is especially important to co-director Dorota Swies, who wants to ensure that "there is a lot of story behind each character," and that "the motivation for each character and their process of thinking" is fundamental to the film's appeal.

McAtee was also able to use her industry connections to attract Lisa Zambetti, along with her team in Los Angeles, to come on board for casting. Zambetti serves as casting director for the long-running television show Criminal Minds, and has worked on big productions like Breaking Bad and Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the past. According to McAtee, "a casting person at her level is uncommon at our budget, so I think it speaks volumes for the story itself."

The search for actors will occur at the national level as well as the local one. For the five most prominent roles, Zambetti and her team will focus primarily on Screen Actors Guild members. But the supporting roles will be sought out in Pennsylvania. "We're going to be announcing soon for casting calls in Erie and Pittsburgh for our supporting roles," says John Lyons. "So stay tuned for that."

"Although much of the film's action will take place on two rural farms, local cinephiles will be able to see some recognizable landmarks in the film." - John C. Lyons

Lyons is especially excited to shoot some footage at the Crawford County Fair: "We're going to film a key conflict scene during the demolition derby." After receiving a warm response to their ideas from the fair's leadership, the scene will literally be shot as the cars begin crashing.

Speaking of shooting, Unearth is set to begin production in late summer and Lyons and Swies are hoping to have the film completed by the end of the year. From there, they hope to shop it around to as many top-tier festivals as possible. The Senior Programmer at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City has already expressed interest in the project. After reading the script for Unearth, author Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame) took to Twitter to praise it. And in February, one of the film's investors managed to get a copy to Karen Lawrence (whose daughter Jennifer has made some films you may have heard of) and she praised the film's well-developed characters.

With some hard work and a lot of luck, Unearth will help put Erie on the map for independent filmmaking. Marc Blucas is excited about the local momentum: "We all shared one common goal—which was to potentially inject a new industry into the area, to create some jobs and some excitement about something new. That if done right, could have some legs to continue beyond just this single film. This wouldn't be happening without them — people who have invested financially, but more importantly, emotionally."

There are still a few kinks to work out on the path to completion. Lyons and Swies are still actively pursuing investors. Some peculiar needs still require fulfillment, like access to a rugged treehouse near Edinboro or Albion. Perhaps you can help?

As I concluded my conversation with the film's two main actors, I asked them what they were looking forward to about returning to the region. Allison McAtee misses the "sweeping rainbows of color through the trees" during fall in Pennsylvania. Marc Blucas is especially excited about Romolo's chocolates: "I have traveled the world, and don't claim to know much, but I'll put Romolo's up against any chocolate, anywhere, anytime — and like my chances."

It's that kind of intimate local connection that makes ambitious projects like Unearth worth supporting.

Through crowdfunding efforts and the film and media incubator Big Vision Empty Wallet, as well as the industry connections of its collaborators, the locally-produced horror film Unearth has the budget and potential for national distribution. Pictured here (from left to right) are co-directors Dorota Swies and John C. Lyons along with actor Marc Blucas. [MAITHAM BASHA-AGHA]



New Feature Film Featuring Girard Graduate to be Produced in Erie - This will be the first production at its level since "The Road" 10 years ago

A new feature film will be produced in Erie County this summer.

The production of "Unearth," which was officially announced Thursday, has been years in the making. The film has already attracted national and global interest.

It's centered around a desperate family who leases its farmland to a gas company, but relationships crumble and a menacing entity is revealed.

Marc Blucas, a Girard High School graduate, is the film's lead actor and producer. John C. Lyons is also involved as a director and producer.

This will be the first production at its level since "The Road" 10 years ago.

Local, private investors are making the film possible. The production will bring talent home, hire local and tap into the Film Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Greater Erie Film Office's growing resources, according to the staff behind the production.



Locals announce new movie to be filmed in Erie featuring "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" actor Marc Blucas

Local filmmakers and others involved in the movie industry in the region gathered Thursday for a press conference announcing their plans to film the majority of a feature flick in Erie. The movie is a "fracking horror" that combines ecological issues with the horror genre.

Marc Blucas, stars in the film. He is a Girard native and actor who has starred in many movies and TV shows, most notably as Riley in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". John C. Lyons wrote the script and pitched it to Blucas. Blucas, seeing where the film was to be made, agreed to lend his talents. He says Erie has great potential for filming almost any scenery, (minus the desert, maybe).

Crews will begin filming in Erie later this year.

The filmmakers are holding auditions for local talent at the Porecco Center. That will happen on Saturday, May 5th.



Girard native Blucas to star in Erie-made movie - Erie filmmaker John C. Lyons wrote script, will direct

Actor and Girard native Marc Blucas has been on television and movie sets all over the world and often thinks, “This could have been made in Erie.”

So when the 46-year-old Blucas was offered the chance to star in a film that will be made here he jumped at the chance.

“It’s mostly exciting to me because it happens in a place that matters,” Blucas said Thursday at the Ambassador Banquet & Conference Center in Summit Township.

Blucas joined local filmmaker John C. Lyons and Stewart Nash, film commissioner for the Greater Erie Film Office, to announce the upcoming production of Lyons’ film “Unearth,” an “eco-thriller” that will be filmed in Erie and Crawford counties in August and October.

“We have a few chances in our life to give back in certain ways,” Blucas said. “My involvement in this was probably a ‘yes’ before I had met the director or read the script, which is career suicide for a lot of people. You usually don’t go there, but it was because it was here.”

The film tells the story of two neighboring families that are put to the test when one chooses to lease their farmland to an oil and gas company, according to a synopsis of the film, which Lyons wrote and will direct. “In the midst of this growing tension, the land is drilled, and a menacing entity is revealed,” the film synopsis says.

Blucas said the Erie region’s diverse landscape makes it an ideal place for filmmakers. He noted that changes in the industry, including declining production costs and the growing use of state tax credit programs, present an opportunity for Erie to play a larger role in the industry.

“The good news is everyone is thinking outside the box now and they’re willing to take chances,” he said.

The movie will premiere in 2019. Lyons and producer/director Dorota Swies will hold local auditions Saturday, May 5 at Porreco College, 2951 W. 38th St.

“The director of programming for the Tribeca Film Festival, which is Robert DeNiro’s film festival in New York, is really interested in seeing the film and they kind of want first-look, which is exciting,” Lyons said. “We also have a letter-of-intent already from a distributor in New York.”

The film will have a cast of 30 actors and 40 crew members — most of them local products.

Blucas was a standout basketball player for Girard, winning two state championships in 1988 and 1990. After a career at Wake Forest University, he played one season professionally overseas.

Blucas’s breakout role as an actor came in 1997 on the television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in which he starred opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar. He’s appeared in dozens of films and TV shows since. Last year, he had a role in the action thriller “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” a film that also featured Vince Vaughn and Don Johnson. He also co-starred in a Hallmark Channel made-for-television Christmas movie “Miss Christmas.”

Starring alongside Blucas in “Unearth” will be Edinboro native Allison McAtee. The 37-year-old actress has had guest roles in episodes of the television series “Californication,” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” among others. Since 2014, McAtee has been a series regular in the soap opera “The Haves and the Have Nots” on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Another Erie native who will play a role in the film will be Nate Dahlkemper, 28, a set designer who’s worked on movies such as “Barbershop: The Next Cut.” Dahlkemper, who now lives in Atlanta, is the son of Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper and Erie businessman Dan Dahlkemper, who are among the local investors in “Unearth.”

The film’s production budget is about 90 percent funded. Filmmakers are still seeking investors for post-production costs.

Lyons has applied for a state Film Tax Credit. Filmmakers that spend 60 percent of a project’s total budget within Pennsylvania are eligible for a 25 percent tax credit and can qualify for an additional 5 percent credit.

Nash, of the Greater Erie Film Office, noted that the nearly 450 films that have been made in Pennsylvania since the inception of the tax credit in 2006. Most of those films have been made in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Nash noted that more than half of those productions have had budgets under $1 million.

“While it’s true that Erie and Crawford counties do not have the infrastructure to support the next Marvel Comics movie, we do have the talent and resources to support the majority of productions that are being made in Pennsylvania,” he said. Nash said “Unearth” will play a major role in the Greater Erie Film Office’s goal of making Erie “the home of the million-dollar movie.”

From left: Directors Dorota Swies and John C. Lyons and Girard native and actor Marc Blucas answer questions at Thursday’s news conference. [CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]