In the last gasp of winter in a small Northern Michigan town, four high school sophomore boys are living on top of the world. Best friends, classmates, and peers, T.J., Jed, and Brent are all starting players for an undefeated varsity basketball team. Jackson, their loudmouthed hyper-enthusiastic friend, makes more noise for his three friends than an entire cheerleading squad. All four share a history of companionship, a notable nickname, and all the confidence and exuberance of youth.
Their basketball season is shattered when Brent's older brother, Mike, attracts an Irish gang leader named Sean O'Sullivan. Sean is intent on setting up a rural meth lab and supply operation in the peaceful community. Despite plenty of cash to fund the start-up, Sean isn't sure that he can pull together a team of locals to do the dirty work.
Since Mike is the one who invited Sean to town, he naturally sees himself in a key leadership role in the gang. Both Mike and Sean see the need and benefit of having a high-school aged member to infiltrate the school system from within. Mike entices his younger brother Brent to check out an opportunity to make some serious money. Against his better judgment, Brent agrees and ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On a cold Sunday night, Brent is expected to meet Jed, Jackson, and T.J. for a skating party at the local rink, but he never shows. As the group of kids wait outside for the doors to open, Brent is riding in a car with Mike, Sean, and Frank. The car approaches the rink and Sean hands Mike a 9mm handgun. "Aim a little high," Sean says. Brent sees the gun and flails out as Mike pulls the trigger. As the car speeds away, T.J. drops to the ground, blood soaking his letter jacket while Jed frantically dials 911.
Brent's best friend T.J. suffers a spinal injury, a cracked head, and severe trauma. He lapses into a coma facing paralysis, brain damage, or worse. Brent is threatened by Sean to keep his mouth shut.
The small town of Charlevoix is rocked by the violence. In order to knock Brent out of his funk, Jed initiates his own investigation of the crime. Jed, Jackson, and Brent try to discover the shooters, but Brent's heart is deeply conflicted.
The action intensifies as the boys get closer to solving the crime: Brent gets more and more nervous about his own exposure; T.J.'s father wrestles with the final decision of organ donation; Jed begins to receive mysterious messages from the comatose T.J.; and the basketball team struggles to regain its identity and success.
Ultimately, The Frontier Boys is a story is of how guilt can erode a person from the inside out, and how in the midst of life's trials there are people who turn to God for comfort, conviction, and hope.
The story itself was born on a ski trip between a father and son. Author John Grooters and his twelve-year-old son Jed were riding on the first chairlift of a three-day weekend when they decided to spend their time creating a story. As they talked about how the story might turn, they found themselves involved in meaningful discussions about things that really mattered: how to choose your friends, whether or not there was life after death, and if God was present even in times of suffering.
It was clear to John that the power of story could open dialogue, and that young teen boys had precious little in the way of fiction or film that features positive, God-honoring role models. He took the essence of the story born on the slopes and first created a manuscript and subsequently a screenplay. John says, "I set out to make the film that I wish had been made when my son was twelve years old." His vision was to make a film that a father and son could enjoy together. It had to be cool enough for a twelve year old boy, but deep enough to be valuable to anyone who wanted to help that boy become a man.
John included elements of his own childhood in the small town of Charlevoix: his love of high school basketball, old Mustangs on wintry roads, and most of all, four friends who shared many adventures (and misadventures) in Northern Michigan.
With the help of writer Jeff Barker, John polished the script and shared it with Dove Foundation president Dick Rolfe. Dick read the screenplay and told John that in his twenty years of working in the industry he had read literally hundreds of scripts. "The Frontier Boys," said Dick "is among the top four I've seen." Dick was so impressed with the script that he introduced John to some of his contacts in Hollywood, including executives at Disney, Fox, Walden, and Sony. The Dove Foundation became involved early on, checking scripts and rough cuts in order to ensure that the final film would be truly family friendly. Dick Rolfe became a Co-Executive Producer of the film.
John hired Director of Photography Bryan Papierski, known for his creativity and bold techniques behind a camera, in order to build the film's concept. They took a small crew, lighting and grip truck, and a handful of willing actors to a wintery Northern Michigan in 2008 and spent four days shooting a proof-of-concept trailer. That trailer became the key vehicle in giving birth to the project. Two years later, principal photography began.
The cast comes from all over the country. Working with casting associates Asher Noel of Ugly Mugg Productions and Carolyn Hoover of Northern Hollywood.net, Grooters conducted Skype auditions with dozens of actors. He found lead actor Tim Lofing (Brent Fencett) working in New York and comic-relief Jackson came alive with the talents of Jake Boyce from Chicago. The other two Frontier Boys were played by Taylor DeRoo (T.J. Lewis), a real-life high school basketball star who now plays for the Dominican University in Chicago, and Jedidiah Grooters took a semester off from his sophomore year at Point Loma Nazarene University in Southern California to play the lead role of Jed Bracken.
Grammy Award-winning singer Rebecca St. James brought tremendous style and grace, along with a passionate and authentic faith to her role as Jed's mom, Judy Bracken. "I loved the script and I think it hit on some important issues that young people are dealing with — everything from peer pressure to drugs. The themes are very real, but I think they are handled in a very sensitive way, and they point young people to God-honoring values in the midst of trial. The script is very well written. Seeing the film come to life, and being a part of that is a joy!"
Big Kenny, formerly of the platinum selling country band Big & Rich, came to the set directly from Haiti where he had been doing benefit concerts to support relief efforts. He plays the role of Kevin Bracken, Jed's dad. "I thought the story was very timely, one that needed to be told. It was quick, it was funny, it was heartfelt, and it was real. It's incredibly important for parents and their children to have great, honest relationships."
Big brother Mike Fencett, played by Greg Myhre, and Rev. Lewis, played by pastor and former heavyweight boxer Earthquake Kelley, both hail from Los Angeles. The Irish gang leader was Rodney Wiseman of Springfield, Illinois, who plays the role of Sean O'Sullivan. Christian comedian Ted Swartz, of Ted & Company, came from Virginia to play the role of Bucky, the coffee shop owner. From Grand Rapids, Michigan, improv comedian and musician Sam Kenny was cast for the hyperactive and compulsive liar Frank, and youth pastor Butch was played by Compass Film Academy's own Evan Koons.
The backdrop for The Frontier Boys is the Northern Michigan town of Charlevoix; a town of great charm and beauty. Winters are long and cold on the windy coast of Lake Michigan. The story is set in late winter's basketball season - a time where visitors are scarce and locals are anxious for a change of seasons.
It was important to the director to shoot as much of the film as possible in the real elements of cold, snow, and darkness. Grooters and Papierski were after a film with a grit and authenticity and wanted to avoid an over-lit, studio feel. Thanks to the innumerable talents of Papierski and Gaffer Dean Horn, the film has high-speed, nighttime snowmobile chases through woods and fields, midnight rendezvous along the icy frozen shores of Lake Michigan, and a full scale house fire. Many scenes in the film required the cast and crew to work in knee-deep snow, darkness, and occasionally blizzard-like conditions.
Despite the harsh conditions, long nights, and people pushed to their limits, the enthusiastic cast and crew bonded together to create an authentic and modern film with an action feel. Horn said he had never pushed his gear harder — but in the end he was very proud of the look of the film.
The cast and crew descended on the town of Charlevoix, Michigan for 24 days of principal photography, with an additional eight days of filming scheduled in Holland, Mancelona, and East Jordan, Michigan. The production schedule was constantly racing the weather — in reverse. Springtime almost came too soon. The production needed a couple of weeks of full snow cover to shoot the snowmobile chase and other scenes. After three nights of shooting racing snowmobiles in snowy fields, production shifted to three days of interiors with Big Kenny and Rebecca St. James. The weekends were the only time high-school student and basketball player Taylor DeRoo was available, so Saturday was scheduled for gymnasium scenes. By the following Monday and after several days of 40 to 50 degree temperatures, the crew was scheduled to film the conclusion of the snowmobile chase. There was only one problem: the snow was gone! The double-wide trailer that was Butch's home was now sitting on a muddy patch of green grass instead of a field of pristine white snow. The entire north had melted, and the chase scene conclusion had not yet been filmed.
The local ski hill, Mt. McSauba, with its four foot base of machine-made snow, and Papierski's small Airstream trailer saved the day. McSauba was the only place in all of Northern Michigan that still had snow. By hauling the Airstream partway up the mountain, the scene was saved and the conclusion could be filmed. Butch, the good friend and volunteer youth pastor of The Frontier Boys, simply became a guy who now lived in a rather small Airstream instead of a double-wide trailer.
One casualty of the early spring, however, was the barn-burning scene. The producers had secured permission to burn an old barn in Charlevoix County that looked exactly like the gang guys' barn, albeit older. The lack of snow was enough to make the fire hazard too great, and ultimately the County Fire Commissioner refused permission to proceed with the scheduled burn. What seemed at the time like a major setback proved in the end to be a blessing in disguise. Visual Effects Artist and Production Designer Trevor Lee created a three dimensional graphic model of the actual barn that had been used for principal photography. Lee composited a fantastic looking computer generated graphic of the barn burning to the ground. Integrating green screen shots of the boys and actual footage of a burning house made for a much better scene than could have been achieved by burning a substitute barn.
The most exciting and final night of production was the burning of a century-old house in downtown Charlevoix. The last night of filming was the culmination of many hours of planning between the City of Charlevoix, several local historical societies, and Fire, Police, and EMT departments from across the county. The City had been planning to tear the house down, but instead worked with the producers to demolish it by fire and allowed the producers to capture it for the movie. Fire Chief Paul Ivan and Police Chief Gerard Doan provided a safe environment for cast, crew, and the hundreds of locals who came out to see the burning through the wee hours of the morning. The event was also used to train several area fire departments as the house was set on fire and doused repeatedly for each scene. The house was eventually allowed to burn to the ground and the temperature from the burn rose so high that the vinyl siding on the nearby homes and businesses melted.
The local people, businesses and governments of Charlevoix, East Jordan, Mancelona, and Holland, Michigan, opened their doors and made The Frontier Boys possible through generosity of time, services, locations, and passion. Hundreds of extras and dozens of volunteers stayed long hours to help make Grooters' vision a reality.
Writer/Director John Grooters served as his own music supervisor for the film, and why not? As a musician himself, with seven Grooters & Beal albums under his belt, John has a deep love of and appreciation for music. "Switchfoot is simply, in my opinion, the best rock band to come along in the last fifteen years," John says. "Their music embodies so many things we aspire to capture in this film -- meaningful lyrics, originality, honesty, and excellence. I was thrilled when they agreed to let us license three of their songs for the film, and another one for the trailer." The film features "The Sound," "Mess of Me” and “Sing It Out" and the trailer closes with "Needle and Haystack Life" -- three great songs off their Hello Hurricane album.
In addition to Switchfoot, John chose to include songs from three of the actors in the film. Big Kenny has two songs in the film from his album The Quiet Times of a Rock-N-Roll Farmboy - "Share the Love," and "Free Like Me." In each case, his song emerges as we see Big Kenny on screen, and the lyrics fit as if they were written for the scene.
For those who actually stay through the credits of the film, they will be treated to a brand new song by Rebecca St. James called "You Make Everything Beautiful." John actually had chosen a different song for that slot, but the first time he heard a rough mix of "Beautiful" he was so moved he just had to put it in the film. In a day of pitch-corrected, American Idolized, musical showoffs, Rebecca reminds you of what a truly great singer can do with a great lyric and melody. "I just love this song," John says, "And I can't say enough good things about working with Rebecca St. James. She is just pure quality."
A cameo appearance by Melissa Brock of Superchick is followed by a music video montage to their song, "Cross the Line." Superchick did a special Box Office Blockbuster Remix of this song, which was originally released on their album "Rock What You've Got."
Some of the freshest worship music in the world today is coming out of Redding, California and a movement known as Jesus Culture. One of their bright stars is a wonderful singer named Kim Walker, and her song "I Asked You for Life" actually makes two appearances in the film. "If you're looking for great songs to lift your spirits," John says, "Jesus Culture is a tremendous source of unbelievable live music."
Grooters & Beal have been a well-known Christian rock band since the early 90's, when John Grooters and Dwight Beal began touring and playing around the country and the world. They appear with their band in a church scene playing their song "Reveal" off their No Shame album. They also wrote and recorded a new song "Smile" which serves as the closing anthem of the film.
Manafest is an up and coming artist from Nashville, Tennessee who contributed a perfect hip hop mix in the song "Bounce" which plays during one of the basketball games. And from nearby Knoxville, Tennessee the United Pursuit Band contributes two songs to the film. "Waterfall" and "Story of Your Grace." After getting to know the band members John says. "They are people of such depth and integrity, and I've really come to love their music and their heart."
The film score by Eric Schrotenboer echoes the great John Powell film scores from movies like The Bourne Identity, or the Italian Job. All in all, The Frontier Boys is not a musical, but it is a very musical film. The songs in The Frontier Boys are like its lifeblood combining energy, power, and truth. The Frontier Boys CD will be a tremendous collectable as a take away from the film, and will come out when the DVD is available.