Luzerne County native Kevin Davis-Whitt wanted to make a movie – not for cash, fame or glory, but to prove to himself he could do it.
When he was young, Davis-Whitt, now 43, was told to find a job with a guaranteed paycheck – specifically, not film making. Davis-Whitt just finished producing his first film, “Man in a Box,” this summer.
Davis-Whitt is a nurse from Taylor. He grew up in Wilkes-Barre and graduated from Wilkes-Barre’s Meyers High School.
His past is riddled with turmoil. He was caught selling drugs in 1990 and did six months in county jail. In 2008, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, from which he recovered. He wanted to make a movie that drew on his past and provides hope for others.
“I was pulling from reality, from my life,” Davis-Whitt said. “Alcoholism, drugs, these were all things I was exposed to.”
“Man in a Box” is about a young boy who lands in a mental prison after he murders his parents. When he’s released 20 years later, diagnosis: cured, he has to find his way and depends on faith in God. Davis-Whitt wrote, directed and starred in the movie.
Inspiration came at a pivotal low point while Davis-Whitt was collecting unemployment.
“I thought, what’s the worst that could happen?” Davis-Whitt said.
He drafted a script and connected with Drew Pizzo, a 22-year-old cinematographer who was fresh out of film school, and Krista Bartosch, a case worker from Wyoming Valley Drug and Alcohol Services. They planned production to begin in June 2012.
Even then, he was uncertain he would succeed.
“It wasn’t a dream I felt I could realize in this area,” Davis-Whitt said.
One weekend at a time, with Pizzo directing photography and Bartosch assuming a producer’s role, they assembled a cast and crew of about 45. The production had them raising cameras with cranes on quiet Kingston streets and working into the early morning hours in the middle of Pittston.
Scene by scene, they hired actors from the Screen Actors Guild and recruited local talent to volunteer.
The spent about $6,300 on production, saving cash by soliciting local food sellers to donate food and putting other expenses on credit cards.
The project was a first for Bartosch, but she found support in each community where they worked. Police in Wilkes-Barre, Kingston and Pittston were accommodating, and as they persisted, pieces clicked neatly into place.
Davis-Whitt credited their success to co-producer, Joe-Angel Rodriguez, who knew how to get their crews clearance to shoot scenes in places like downtown Wilkes-Barre, scenes that could have alerted the neighbors with staged gunfire and car-chase scenes.
“He took care of all that. We would show up on a location, cops already were made aware. He contacted the proper people and got their approval so we would have no issues,” Davis-Whitt said. “He took all those (responsibilities) away … and it was just refreshing.”
They weren’t without challenges. Bartosch said there were times she had no idea how to approach a hurdle, but Davis-Whitt offered no alternative.
“Kevin would say to me so many times, ‘We need this done. Figure it out.’ And he’d walk away.” Bartosch said.
Pizzo had never directed a feature-length film, either. One of the crew’s youngest members is from Frackville. He slept on the floor in Davis-Whitt’s house or at their central filming location, the home of Jody and Donna Cain in Kingston.
“I couldn’t believe that script he wrote would be my first production” as a director of photography, Pizzo said. “This is a film that’s going to establish my career,” Pizzo said.
The team submitted “Man in a Box” to half a dozen film festivals where they are hoping to get noticed by a production company. A local premiere is also in the works for early next year. Davis-Whitt said he believes by completing the movie, he has given something back to his hometown, a place where he was once considered a criminal.
“Of all the goals in my life, that was the one that was the highest,” Davis-Whitt said.