By Rick Wolcott*
On October 8, 2019, with a film crew setting up in its front yard and movie extras filling its worship area the Nehemiah Mission of Cleveland looked like the center of the Hollywood universe. East Ohio Conference Communications was granted access to the movie shoot as long as we agreed to not publish our story or photos until after the movie was released.
Since 2003, the Nehemiah Mission of Cleveland, located in the former People’s Hope United Methodist Church building, has been transforming the community. But on this sunny autumn day it was director Robert Lorenz who brought change to the neighborhood. For his movie The Marksman the corner of W. 65th Street & Bridge Avenue was renamed W. 18th Street & S. Allport Street, and the building housing the Mission, which is an Advance Special of the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church, was turned into St. Percy’s Church.
Onlookers, being kept away by security, strained to see around the semi-trailers full of gear, and past the camera crews, lights, makeup artists, and extras in the hopes that they could get a glimpse of the movie’s star – a box office action hero known for his “special set of skills.”
“I got a call from the locations guy saying they were filming a movie here and they were going to be on our corner, and they needed a place to feed the cast and crew and in the midst of the call he said, ‘we’re going to be shooting from across the street so your yard will be in the movie,’” Pastor Jim Szakacs, the director of Nehemiah Mission, told me as we stood “on set” while the scene and the camera rig were being reset for the next take.
Location manager David Rumble explained that the movie is set in a very specific Chicago neighborhood so, they needed to shoot in a place that could stand in for the Windy City.
“We’re basically shooting in four areas here. You’ll see the front of the church (the Nehemiah Mission), the exteriors of the store and the house across the street, and we’re shooting inside of the house. This neighborhood fits a number of different needs for our movie.”
The Marksman tells the story of retired U.S. Marine Jim Hanson, who is now a rancher on the Arizona border. He becomes the unlikely defender of a young boy fleeing Mexico who is being chased by the drug cartel assassins who murdered his mother. Hanson is portrayed in the movie by Liam Neeson, well-known for his starring role in the Taken movies, and other action/thriller films. Relative newcomer Jacob Perez plays the young boy, Miguel.
“I was excited to see that we were shooting at one of our United Methodist mission sites but it’s too bad it won’t have The United Methodist Church name in the movie,” said Willa Sandra Prewitt, a member of Church of the Saviour UMC in Cleveland Heights, who was cast as an extra in the movie.
Szakacs explained, “Because the movie is set in a very specific Chicago neighborhood that is highly Hispanic the producers thought that it was more appropriate to have a church named Saint Something in the background, so our United Methodist Nehemiah Mission became a Catholic church for the movie.”
“I think this is fantastic. It’s a great opportunity for The United Methodist Church, even though it doesn’t say United Methodist on the building for the movie. All press is good, and local news stations are covering the shoot. People in the community know about the ministry. So, it’s neat,” said Craig Cowles of Rocky River UMC who is the manager of the church’s Twice Blessed Store that is housed inside the Nehemiah Mission of Cleveland building.
Cleveland was just one of the locations that stand in for Chicago, Arizona, and Mexico in the movie. The film was partially shot in Cuyahoga, Lorain, Portage, and Geauga counties in Ohio and also in New Mexico – all of which kept Rumble busy.
“On a location I’m in charge of wherever we shoot, wherever we eat, where we go to the bathroom, and security, police, road closures, fire departments, and logistics. My job is to make sure people just show up for work and everything has been figured out for them in advance,” he said.
On this movie he was working for director Robert Lorenz, who has been nominated for Best Picture three times as a producer and has been first assistant director several times on Clint Eastwood-directed films. He made his directorial debut in 2012 with Trouble with the Curve, which starred Eastwood and Amy Adams.
For the shoot outside the Nehemiah Mission, the front yard was turned into a community bake sale, with Prewitt playing one of the persons behind the table.
“We’re supposed to be very lively and happy because the little boy that’s coming through the neighborhood hasn’t seen many happy people or scenes since he’s been on his way from Mexico because everything has been very harrowing and disturbing for him,” she said. “They’re shooting from across the street showing what the little boy is looking at as he walks with the man that Liam Neeson plays. Unfortunately, they’re not coming over to our side of the street.”
“This all happened so fast,” Szakacs shared. “I just got the call last week, and now look at it. It’s pretty cool.”
Editor’s Note: The movie industry has taken a severe financial hit since the COVID-19 pandemic began six months after shooting wrapped on The Marksman. With the majority of movie theaters across the country and around the world closed because of the pandemic, many studios have delayed releasing their new movies or have made them available for viewing on streaming services, but The Marksman opened in theaters on January 15. It was the number one movie in America for two weeks before falling to fourth last weekend.
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.