Josh Hodgins wasn't sure what he was getting himself into when he left Yakima, Wash., to shoot a movie in Florence.
A "Northwest guy" his entire life, Hodgins had heard his share of rumors about the South and was now driving to wooded locations outside Waterloo with the film's director, Mitesh Patel.
He didn't have cell phone service, much less a clue as to where they were. Passing by a flying Confederate flag alongside Lauderdale 14 didn't help.
"Oh, backwoods Alabama with some guy I don't know. Potentially no problems there," he jokes later, laughing.
He has been pleasantly surprised with the Shoals, though, as have all the cast and crew members of Patel's "The Man in the Maze," most of whom have traveled a good distance - everywhere from Los Angeles to Gold Coast, Australia - to take part in the production.
"You come down here and everyone's really nice," says Hodgins, "Maze's" director of photography and camera operator. "Really smart, giving, compassionate people. It's been really nice to see."
Patel, of Florence, has worked to assemble the independent mystery/thriller "The Man in the Maze" for two years through his production company, Applied Art Productions, casting his net wide to find professional actors and crew members to make his self-written debut a success. But, he wanted to stay in Alabama to film because "Maze" revolves around the history of the Trail of Tears, the removal of Native Americans from their lands in the 1830s. Members of the Creek Nation passed through Waterloo on their way west.
Tennessee had better tax breaks and better locations than Alabama, he says, but Patel spent six months location hunting around Waterloo and Florence so the production could stay local.
"The history of Trail of Tears is right here in Waterloo," Patel says. "So I don't want to go somewhere else and show something else. So why not do our area?"
Alabama has its own film incentives, passed a year ago when Gov. Bob Riley signed into law the Entertainment Industry Incentive Act of 2009, which provides tax breaks to production companies that film in the state. The incentive fund available is $7.5 million for fiscal year 2010 and $10 million for subsequent years, according to the Alabama Film Office.
"I don't want to go to Hollywood and L.A.," Patel says. "I want to stay here. It's nice - there's peace and quiet. You can get work done."
Patel and crew have come to know his scouted locations well, spending hours in the woods and at Brush Creek Park in Waterloo, along the Natchez Trace Parkway and at Ghost Bridge near the Forks of Cypress in north Florence.
"The Man in the Maze" centers around four college students on a field study to learn more about the Trail of Tears. While traipsing through the woods, however, they stumble upon an Indian mound that marks the burial site of a Native American family that died on the trail. The mound was cursed by a distraught family member, and whoever disturbs it unleashes trouble and winds up lost in his maze, i.e. the woods.
Andrew Roth came from New York to play Alex, the unofficial leader of the foursome, as well as additional characters who have it out for the group. The dichotomy of playing both hero and villain, however, isn't tough for the professional actor, who is booked on movie sets through June.
"Each scene is one scene, and then you go onto something else," Roth says. "Everything else is schizophrenia."
He's taking a break before filming a scene with his three cast mates, his friend Erik Williams, Liana Werner-Gray and Stephanie Lomenick. The students have just come across something scary in the woods - "We just got the bejeezus scared of out us," Roth says - and the actors rehearse running down the trail and talking through the situation before the scene is filmed.
Williams, originally from Kentucky, stars as P.T., the comic relief of the group who tries to ease his friends' fears, which may or may not work on the brainy Christi (Lomenick, of Florence, and the only local actor) and the Australian beauty queen Megan, played by Werner-Gray, an actual beauty queen from Australia in her first feature film.
"Maze" marks Lomenick's first film as well, a job she landed by chance. She learned about the film from friends at Zodiac Theater, through which she's acted in two plays, and went to Applied Art to volunteer as an assistant. But production manager Steve Hester says that looking at Lomenick, he and Patel knew she was right for the role of Christi. Now she's working with professionals, learning the lingo of movie sets and hoping this opportunity jump-starts her acting career.
"At first, I was quite intimidated," she says. "I can't tell you how supportive and patient they've been with me. I'm just overwhelmed at how much I've learned by being a cast member."
She loves that everyone feels like family, which is likely helped by the cast and crew all being housed at the Economy Inn in Florence, which Patel owns, and is evident on set as everyone jokes around during breaks.
Hodgins' friend, Brandon Russell, joined him from Yakima to serve as the key grip and gaffer. Michael "Thor" Lengies, of Los Angeles, is "the sound god," while locals Michael Mitchell and Diana Mitchell serve as first assistant director and stunt coordinator, respectively (and no relation). Patel asked Toby Burbank, a maintenance man at the Economy Inn, to help at the set one day, and he now serves as grip and assists Russell - "I don't want to go back, either," he adds with a laugh.
"It's a motley crew though, man, look at them," Hodgins says. "People from all walks of life, different places. It's what I love about this business - you meet new people everywhere on every shoot."
Braving cold temperatures and wet weather, the cast and crew have carved out their own maze around north Alabama, zig-zagging from location to location to try and catch the right light for filming. The van has even been stuck in creeks or broken down more than once - the joys of working low-budget, Hodgins says.
Patel has a story map handy to show the path of the four students in the film as they circle the maze, but even knowing the plot doesn't make it less complicated.
"It's pretty smart," Hodgins says. "I think a lot of viewers are going to get lost the first time through, and they'll have to watch it again to pick out all the details.
"It's 'Sixth Sense'-ish as far as there's lots of twists that are thrown in, and it's delivered in such a way that it takes you a while to figure it out. Even reading it and being a part of it I get confused."
Filming is set to wrap by the month's end, to be followed by several months of post-production by Patel, who says he's already in talks with several distributors. A straight-to-DVD release is the easiest route, but Patel is pushing for "The Man in the Maze" to be released in theaters, a much more expensive option.
Lomenick already is lining up her next projects and hopes that more movies will be made in the area. Not many famous actors are from the South, she says, but if her luck continues, she'll add to their ranks.
"Hopefully, I'll get to represent the South in a good manner - bring a little life back," she says.
Sarah Carlson can be reached at 740-5722 or sarah.carlson@TimesDaily.com.