Rantoul ready for its closeup: Movie to be made in community

RANTOUL — “Hollywood” comes to Rantoul this summer when Mark Roberts and a Shatterglass Films crew films a movie based on Roberts’ successful play “Rantoul and Die.”

An Urbana native, Roberts was the creator and three-season executive producer of the CBS television show “Mike and Molly.” He also was the head writer and executive producer of TV’s “Two and a Half Men” and executive consultant on “The Big Bang Theory.”

This will mark Roberts’ directorial film debut, according to Jennifer Shelby, Shatterglass Films executive producer.

Shelby said “Rantoul and Die” had a successful stage run for Roberts.

“It played in New York, Chicago, all over the world,” Shelby said. “It was more of an off-Broadway production.”

Roberts has his fingers in a lot of pies, and “Rantoul” is one of several plays the central Illinois native has written.

“He’s a pretty prolific playwright,” Shelby said.

Roberts uses the closure of Chanute Air Force Base in 1993 as a backdrop for the play and said it sent “the local economy into a tailspin” — much like the life of the main character whose marriage is struggling.

“Businesses closed and area residents moved away, giving Rantoul a desolate, ghost town feeling,” he said.

Roberts said due to the “gritty, edgy” nature of the play, he considered Rantoul “a perfect choice.”

The play was written during a difficult time for Roberts.

“This play is about the baby steps of someone’s personal growth told in a somewhat dark way,” he said, adding that “it’s a little about me and my way of dealing with that period.”

The process of writing the play was like “birthing an 80-pound snapping turtle that was wearing a spiked collar and a crown of thorns.”

The story revolves around Rallis and Debbie, whose marriage is failing. She wants him to leave, but he is reluctant to and clings to her.

Critics lauded Roberts’ writing and the show’s edginess.

While noting that “Rantoul and Die” is certainly not G-rated fare with its expletive-laden dialogue, a New York Times critic  said, “Mr. Roberts’ bizarre, Quentin Tarantino-esque twists will leave you unnerved and squirming; thankfully for those of us who are squeamish, much of the gristle and gore is described or heads offstage, rather than presented in celluloid close-up.”

The critic said the play “is nothing if not unpredictable, but it earns its very unlikely plot turn through committed, hard-nosed performances.”

There are also patches of physical comedy, including one character who scoops out the remnants of a peanut-butter jar using a pair of chopsticks.

Could more films be on the way for this area? Possibly. Shelby said the movie industry has discovered that the Midwest — and Illinois in particular — is a much-cheaper place to shoot movies than some other regions of the country. She said a number of films and TV shows are being filmed in Chicago.

“And if you come to downstate Illinois, you get more bang for your buck,” Shelby said.

She estimated the film would take about a month to shoot with scenes in rural Rantoul and Rantoul proper. The search for film locations will begin soon.

Casting won’t involve a large number of actors.

“The cast ... is four main characters and a handful of extras,” Shelby said. “I would assume it would include no one from the play. (Roberts has) so many connections with TV and Hollywood. I would guess (the cast would include) more well-known people. With Mark being a higher-caliber person in the industry and the talent he will probably attract, I would assume that it will be a (big) deal.”

The film-editing process will take through the end of the year. Shelby said Roberts’ manager and agent will then attempt to promote the film for film festivals.

“We’re going to run the festival circuit because it’s a dark comedy where I’m sure it will gain some good accolades and likely get purchased at a festival,” Shelby said.

The 56-year-old Roberts hasn’t spent his time just behind the camera. He is also an actor and comedian, having appeared seven times as a stand-up comic on “The Tonight Show” in the mid-’90s. Those appearances led to numerous guest-starring roles and films. Among them: “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “The Practice,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Two and a Half Men” and “Bulletproof.” He was also a series regular on the television comedy, “The Naked Truth.”

Shelby, director Luke Boyce and producer Brett Hays formed the Champaign-based Shatterglass Films two years ago. Shelby has a history in the auto industry, serving as the president and dealer principal of a Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership and a Ford dealership in Hoopeston. She formerly held the same title at Shelby Motors in Champaign, until selling it in 2013.

Shelby did not have a history in producing films prior to her involvement with Shatterglass. Her role is raising money for the film.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com

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