TRAVERSE CITY — Actor Gary Busey gave a pep talk to the young men huddled on the beach under a steady drizzle, then led them in a loosening-up exercise. Finally the cameras started to roll.
Rain and fall-like temperatures this week didn’t deter shooting for “Camp Manna,” an independent film set at YMCA Hayo-Went-Ha Camps on Arbutus and Torch Lakes. The comedy farce shoots Aug. 17-Sept. 8 and is a throwback to the summer camp films of the 1980s and ’90s. Only in this one young male campers are molded into “men of faith” by a Biblically themed Olympiad known as the “God Games.”
The film stars Busey as the slightly-deranged born-again Vietnam vet who manages a Christian camp with the help of a staff of exuberant counselors, and Suttons Bay actor Luke Klein, 15, as the wayward Florida teen who lands there after the death of his parents in an alligator attack.
Other cast members include actor and comedian Jimmy Tatro, star of “22 Jump Street” and creator and star of the YouTube channel “LifeAccordingToJimmy.”
Co-writers and -directors Eric Johnson and Eric Machiela said their aim is to create an ensemble kids movie like “Stand By Me” or “The Sand Lot,” with lots of silliness, labels and stereotypes but a meaningful message.
“We grew up in Michigan and they say, ‘write what you know,’” said Johnson, who, along with Machiela, owns Grand Rapids- and Los Angeles-based Gorilla Productions and its entertainment arm, GRLA. “We call it ‘satire with a soul.’ We grew up in a culture that had a lot of good and a lot of silliness.”
The directors scouted 30 Michigan camps before they decided on the Hayo-Went-Ha boys and girls camps, which girls camp program director Felicity Stevenson calls “hard-core classic summer camps.”
“You’d be surprised how hard it is to find a great camp,” Johnson said. “They’re either very modern or decrepit.”
The film’s art department transformed the girls camp on Arbutus Lake into “Camp Manna” for Christian boys through inspirational signs, a mini-golf course featuring scenes from the bible and the paintball course “Dodge Your Way to the Promise Land.”
Crew also constructed an 18-foot-high platform at the edge of the lake — called Lake Galilee in the film — with a large inflatable balloon in the water below. The prop will be used for a “blob” scene in which characters jump from the platform onto the balloon, launching characters on the balloon airborne into the water.
“It’s going to be fun to see camp — not our camp, but another camp — immortalized,” Stevenson said.
The $1.5 million film squeaked in under the Michigan film incentives program, which was eliminated earlier this summer. It’s eligible to receive a $260,357 incentive from the Michigan Film Office, based on a spending estimate of $1,187,708 along with hiring 67 Michigan workers equating to 13 full-time employees.
Jacob Fedrigon and Austin Wolfgram of Elk Rapids are among dozens of extras and “featured extras” from northern Michigan. On Tuesday the young men played in a fight scene between campers from the “Passover Privates” and “Righteous Regiment” cabins. They hope to see their faces on film.
“It’s just cool to hang out with people like Jimmy Tatro,” said Fedrigon, 19, who plans to study business and acting at Michigan State University this fall.
Klein, a 10th-grader at Leland Public School, auditioned for an extra part but landed the role of Ian Fletcher when the English actor set to play the lead was denied a visa at the last minute.
“He really drives the story,” said Klein, whose career already includes roles in school plays, Interlochen Arts Academy and Camp productions, the Rich Brauer film “Mr. Art Critic” and two shows in Chicago. “All the other characters are hilarious. It’s really difficult sometimes not to laugh when we’re shooting.”
Klein is paid at the Screen Actors Guild rate of $630 a day or $2,190 a week for low-budget films shot in the U.S. for under $2.5 million. He plans to save it for college, where he’ll study theater or acting.
Brauer, owner of Traverse City-based Brauer Productions, has a hand in “Camp Manna” too. He’s a gaffer on the film, working closely with the director of photography.
“I kind of enjoy it because they get to worry about all the logistics all the way around and I only have to worry about what I have to worry about, which is lighting,” he said.
Machiela said the directors hope to speed up post-production in time to get the movie into film festivals as soon as spring.
“We want to get buzz going as soon as possible,” he said.
Visit campmannamovie.com for more information.