DCFF ’12: New Albany’s Tom Whitus Carves out Kid Niche with ‘Sam Steele’

'Sam Steele' stars Jacob Hays and Katherine McNamara are both packing Disney credentials.

“Treasure and mystery, I like that combination,” says Sam Steele Jr., private eye. The fedora-sporting hijinks of child actor Jacob Hays’s kid-noir sleuth return to the Derby City Film Festival screen this weekend with an espionage-inspired, Louisville-based, faux-history-mystery boasting Kevin Sorbo (Hercules, Andromeda) and Dee Wallace (E.T., Cugo) alongside Doug, the crime-sniffing dog. And if the continued success of his burgeoning family-friendly empire is any clue, then New Albany filmmaker Tom Whitus has his finger on the most treasure-laden combination of them all.

A sequel to 2010’s ‘Sam Steele and the Junior Detective Agency’, screenwriter/director Tom Whitus hatched the idea for ‘Sam Steele and the Crystal Chalice’ after hearing about the 50th anniversary of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to Kansas City. (Jacob Hays hails from the Missouri-metropolis and the first film was also shot there.) From there Whitus envisioned a centuries-old chalice passed down from Peter the Great coupled with a continent-spanning conspiracy that saw Khrushchev smuggle the artifact into the United States for safe keeping. Assigned to write a school book report on the Premier’s visit to the States in the 1950’s, Steele is initially bored out of his skull with the prospect of “ancient history”, but has his interest more than peaked with news of the treasure, and specifically, it’s rumored whereabouts in a turn-of-the-century, all-too-mysterious hotel. Pepper in Sorbo as international treasure hunter Cash, also questing for the chalice, and you’ve got yourself a bonafide race of a case.

Sorbo looking super-sly.

The hotel in question was none other than Louisville’s own Seelbach, which housed the full cast and crew in addition to serving as the primary filming location. “No one had anything bad to say about the lodging,” Whitus joked, but admitted that despite the extremely close proximity of bed and set, that there were (somehow) still some problems with tardiness. Outside of scenes filmed at the Seelbach, many of which were done at night in order to avoid being too much of a burden to the guests, ‘Crystal Chalice’ also saw limited sequences in Southern Indiana (including at Whitus’s own home), as well as limited work in Kansas City and Los Angeles.

Whitus first worked with Jacob Hays in 2008’s ‘Matchmaker Mary’, and is humbled to have taken some part in discovering the young talent, who he describes as, “a great actor that just happens to be a kid.” Hays has also appeared on the Disney Channel as part of ‘Disney’s Really Short Report’ and his on-screen female counterpart Emma (Katherine McNamara), who was also in ‘Matchmaker Mary’, will be featured alongside ‘Super 8’s Joel Courtney in the forthcoming adaptation of ‘Tom Saywer & Huckleberry Finn’.

When asked of the experience of shooting in Louisville and as to whether or not he would attempt to do so again, Whitus lauded the Derby City (and surrounding areas) for what he considers to be an over-abundance of great locations, generally favorable access to requisite equipment and a surprisingly deep pool of qualified crew-members.

‘Sam Steele and the Crystal Chalice’ screens as part of the 4th annual Derby City Film Festival on Friday (Feb 17) at 8:00pm in the Eifler Theater and will also be featured in the International Family Film Festival this Spring. Whitus refused to commit to the idea of a potential ‘Sam Steele’ three-quel, but did tease the notion of a ‘Doug the Dog’ spin-off, and is currently prepping a multi-million-dollar adventure film called ‘The Winter Prince and the Flame Eternum’.

Full schedule and ticketing information available via DCFF’website.

Stay tuned as our series of filmmaker interviews continues throughout the week and know that LouisvilleKY.com will also be covering DCFF over the weekend with live-blogging via twitter @CT_Smash.

Some DCFF ’12 coverage from LouisvilleKY.com that you may have missed:
Serafini Braves New Roads with ‘Johnny’s Gone’
Danville Filmmakers get Strange with ‘Bizarnival’
‘Below Zero’ Filmmakers Signe Olynyk and Bob Schultz
‘On Our Radar’ Festival Preview Part 2
‘On Our Radar’ Festival Preview Part 1
Scifi Legend now a Lifetime Achiever
Derby City Film Festival Returns, with More Talent than Ever

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Chris Ritter <<<< twitter.com/CT_Smash <<<< ctsmash@gmail.com