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Actor says local cooperation key to bringing film production to Turlock, Ceres
Bernsen in ceres
Actor-producer-director Corbin Bernsen films a scene for his upcoming film Life With Dog in downtown Ceres. Bernsen filmed the majority of the independent movie scenes at a house on the campus of Westside Ministries on Columbia Street in Turlock. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/The Journal

Corbin Bernsen says he will be back.

The local cooperation offered the actor-producer-director in Turlock and Ceres for the filming of his latest film, “Life With Dog” was overwhelmingly positive and aided in stretching the shoestring budget of his independent film. He experienced this kind of hospitality once before, in December 2013 with the filming of “Christian Mingle” after a Turlock businessman fronted financing of the faith-based film.

Filming wrapped up Tuesday at Turlock’s Westside Ministries campus, which was offered up for Bernsen’s use as home base for a crew of 20 and cast of eight. Most of the filming took place inside of a quaint older home on Columbia Street. The production maintained such a low-key profile the entire two weeks that few may have noticed – with maybe the exception of when actress Marilu Henner was spotted eating in Turlock restaurants.

“I saw with Turlock, as with some of the other smaller towns nearby, this wonderful Main Street America, not without its problems,” said Bernsen. “A wonderful community. People supporting. All the films I have made I embrace that kind of community support, as opposed to shooting behind iron gates in Hollywood.”

Ceres saw filming on July 1 and 9. The Ceres Police Department was used for jail scenes and the intersection of Magnolia and Kay was the backdrop for scenes in which Henner’s character is fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver. Bernsen realizes that many communities like Ceres have never enjoyed the attention of filmmakers before and locals eagerly lent their support wherever possible. He benefits when costs are held down and few roadblocks are encountered.

“Ceres was great,” said Bernsen. “God bless them. Their police department came through as aces. They just really did an incredible job. I will tell you, they singlehandedly gave a grounding to the film because of these arrests, these police things and we’ve got these real guys in the real cars, real handcuffs, doing the real thing. I bought basically seven cop uniforms to stick on extras and these guys were the real deal and for a little production it gave a great grounding. When I come back I really want to involve the town of Ceres. I didn’t know Ceres that well.”

The Ceres police officers used in the production were volunteers.

Bernsen had already had scouted Southern California for the house to use in the film but community cooperation made the difference between choosing Stanislaus County over Los Angeles.

“If you don’t have the cooperation it’s a make or break. I was pretty set on shooting this film, ‘Life With Dog,’ in Los Angeles and somebody said ‘You’ve got to come up here.’ I love this house and have a whole facility next door that’ll take care of everything. Came up and fell in love with this little house next door. I met people from Westside here and they said, ‘Here’s a place you can have your production office,’ and make meals and incredible food and all their kids were assistants or extras. It became sort of a package deal that was wonderful,” Bernsen said about Turlock’s Westside Ministries.

Bernsen wrote the faith-based script but tried his best to steer clear of making it just another corny Christian film.

“There are certain elements of faith in all religions and those basic elements are love and compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness – all of those things. This movie deals with forgiveness. I identify as Christian, that’s my faith and there’s certain elements in there, whether it’s a cross or references to Jesus. God is somewhat universal so yeah, they’re faith-based movies but they’re human stories and stories of forgiveness.”

Bernsen shot two versions and is still wrestling with the use of a curse word uttered by Joe, his character in the film, upon losing his wife, a woman of faith. One of the ground rules of the marriage had been a no swearing rule and Joe, an ex-fighter, tames his tongue.

“When she dies I have no ability to deal with her death because she sort of handled the faith stuff in the family. When she dies he says a few things, the F-word once, very specifically. He feels guilt for it. It’s an indication that he has lost her as his moral compass and now he has to find a way back and by the end he does redeem himself.”

Despite trying to “make the characters real,” Bernsen is wrestling to include the four-letter word especially because of young ears. He may decide to drop it if the scene works without it.

Forgiveness evolves for Joe when he must decide not to pulverize the kid who ran over his wife and left her for dead in the road.

“I finally find out who it is – kill him or forgive him. That’s a huge journey.”

That forgiveness is not clearly delineated in the film, rather a working of Joe’s heart.

The house is the centerpiece of a development battle as it’s being crowded by newer housing. Joe is convinced that the wife was intentionally run down by a car by the development community to get him to sell out and move. He said the concept was based on a real-life story of an arson fire used to burn out a stubborn property owner. In the end “it’s really the man’s paranoia.”

There were times during production when Bernsen doubted the entire project. It’s been a trying experience. Bernsen had a hand in all of production, including cleaning up the Westside Ministries property and taking some unused purchases back to stores in Turlock. It’s been difficult work for the 62-year-old.

“I’ve not slept in two and a half weeks. My son who is the art director had a trip planned so I had to put the house back together. I have to clean, pack up the truck. I’m driving the U-Haul back to LA. And every day there’s this, why am I doing this? But here’s the thing about faith. You either have faith or you don’t and one of the things I’ve discovered is … it’s in your heart to do it. You can question … why, why, why? I literally, more than once, said ‘Please God just make this shot work for me.’ But I have faith in what we do.”

Beside Bernsen and Henner, the movie features Chelsey Crisp of ABC's TV sitcom "Fresh Off the Boat" who plays Zoey, the couple's daughter. She was in Turlock for the first four days of production.

The low-budget production had a scant cast of some local actors. Clynton Lamur, who appeared in "Perfect Choices," "Strays" and "Me Again," has a key role playing Detective Rollins. Scenes were shot Saturday at Oak Valley Community Bank on Geer Road in Turlock where Rebecca Bjerke played a bank employee and Andrew Burkum — a Chase bank manager and local stage actor — played the bank manager. Local actor Dave Weltner plays a Pastor Frank.

Bernsen has no idea where his new film will go once it’s released – likely in the spring of 2018 – but the name of his production company, Home Theater Films, is intentional. Big screen is nice for the ego, he said, but getting a movie there is often three times the cost of production.

“I know we shot some really wonderful stuff with great actors, some of them local, but you never know. You cut a film and you could put it together and go, ‘oh my goodness, it’s magic.’ I’ve been in what I think are not so good things that turn out wow. I’ve been in ‘wow’ scripts that turn out not so ‘wow.’ You don’t know. I think there’s potential within this and what it does and if I have the courage to maintain some of my breaking the walls of what you typically get in a faith-based movie – being able to say the F-word, which I’m struggling with – there’s a chance to really become a little indie film. We shoot it to where it’ll certainly look good on the big screen but the more likely home of all these kinds of films is places like Netflix and video on demand outlets. It’s a huge audience. If I can get a family around a film and discuss this thing, then great.”