By Jeff Himler
Friday, June 25, 2004
CARROLLTOWN -- The spirits of the Ghost Town Trail soon may be haunting television sets across the nation.
That's the hope of a cast and crew of about 30 who this week wrapped location filming on the popular hiking trail in Indiana and Cambria counties and other reportedly haunted sites for a television pilot titled GhostHunters: PSI.
"PSI" stands for "Paranormal and Supernatural Investigation," the chosen calling of a "Ghost Crew" team which explores a series of area hauntings in the pilot and in the 2001 book it is based on, Ghost Tales from the Ghost Trail.
The crew is led by area native Cynthia Sterling, who penned the source book under the name C.L. Shore. A member of the American Society for Psychical Research and the Institute for Parapsychology, she is portraying herself in front of the cameras and also serving as co-executive producer for the hour-long pilot.
Both seasoned Hollywood actors and local thespians have been cast as the remaining ghost hunters--including Brett Mack, a 21-year-old Indiana native who will be entering his senior year as a theater major at IUP. His role as "Brandon Tyler," an upstart intern with the Ghost Crew, could bring him valuable exposure and experience as he prepares to launch an acting career. "I'm comfortable with stage acting, but this is my first real experience with film," Mack noted Tuesday before shooting a late-night scene near an isolated church cemetery outside of Carrolltown.
A 2001 Indiana Area High School graduate, he was cast in the role of a "British New Age computer cop" for a student film at IUP. But the low-budget feature was never completed. "I'm very excited--and nervous," Mack said of his latest role. But, "I've gained a lot of support and confidence from the other cast members."
They include Charlotte Chatton, a London native with both acting and production credits, and T.J. Storm, an action-adventure star and martial arts master from Sherman Oaks, Calif.
They are respectively playing ghost hunters "Rand Warren" and "Keone Mikahala."
Chatton's notable roles have included "Emma," a saloon girl on the 1990s TV series Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, and "Madeleine Astor" in the 1997 blockbuster film Titanic.
Storm became known to TV audiences as the warrior "Bayu" in the syndicated series Conan: The Adventurer. He's also taken part in such other major productions as Mortal Kombat. Standing at an imposing 6-2, the eighth degree black belt will call upon the spiritual focus rather than the physical skills of his martial arts training for his role in GhostHunters.
"They wouldn't be of much use," Storm said of his martial moves. "You can't kick a ghost," Mack pointed out.
Mack noted he has a healthy skepticism when it comes to manifestations which might qualify as paranormal phenomena: "I try to explain things by thinking, 'It's just in my head or it's a reflection.' " When he revealed his doubts during open auditions for GhostHunters last month in Nanty Glo, Mack worried that his candor might eliminate him from contention for a role. But, he learned, "My character is skeptical, too. So that worked out nicely."
Mack didn't have high hopes when his mother, Andrea Alsippi, heard about the auditions and urged him to try his luck at the Nanty Glo fire hall. "A few of my friends from Indiana were there," he noted, but he was discouraged to find out there were more than 200 other hopefuls in line ahead him.
He said, "I had been there for hours and I was just about to get up and leave," when he caught the attention of Sterling, who heads CyntoMedia Corporation, a Pittsburgh-based publishing house and literary agency, and Los Angeles-based co-producer Cheryl DuBois of Feature Finance.
Sterling saw right away that Mack had "exactly the look we wanted" for the part of Brandon. "He's a cross between James Dean and Tom Cruise," she said, "a little bit of a rebel, but thoughtful." From a pool of close to 700 people who showed up at Nanty Glo, Mack made the first cut of 280 who were granted auditions. Then, he said, "I got called back and got the part."
"We were just hoping he could read lines," Sterling said. The producers were pleased to learn he'd had local acting experience, including parts in several productions staged at IUP.
Most recently, he performed the explosive role of "Stanley" in A Streetcar Named Desire. Roles in past Theater By The Grove productions have included "Captain Bluntschli" in Arms And The Man, and the title role of "Leslie" in The Hostage. This fall, he will appear as the mysterious "Limping Man" in a production of Fuddy Meers, which portrays a day in the life of an amnesiac. Fresh from the set of GhostHunters, he was scheduled to head to western New York state for the eight-week Chautauqua Summer Institute for Theater. His stint with that program will be funded through a full scholarship.
One other area actor won a major GhostHunters role at Nanty Glo--Chris Rickabaugh of Altoona, who plays ghost crew member "Paul Zelinski." Mack describes "Brandon" as a "20-year-old man who is interested in parapsychology, but he wanted to get some experience first," before subscribing wholeheartedly to the unusual discipline. Like all interns, Mack noted, the character has to pay his dues, "fetching everyone coffee." But, Sterling indicated, that inexperience is offset by a "cocky" attitude. To match that persona and make his physical transformation into the character complete, the GhostHunters stylist trimmed Mack's hair slightly and spiked it up a bit with gel.
Though Mack and the other actors are just pretending to be ghost hunters, they're being backed up by the real thing. DuBois noted a medium is at hand on the sets to "bring over from the other side" disembodied spirits which may be in the vicinity. Sterling also has come armed with a "night vision" camera and an array of other devices meant to detect any ghostly presence. She demonstrated a meter which picks up electromagnetic, microwave and radio wave readings. She explained, "The electromagnetic readings are what you look at" for a sign of activity in the spirit world. Other readings will indicate possible interference from man-made sources on the set, she noted.
"It is a science," Mack said of Sterling's methodology. "We had a two-day crash course on how to use the equipment." With all the effort the crew has made to lift the veil separating the normal and paranormal, Mack figured, "If this stuff exists, it's going to happen to us. It's been an eye-opening experience. I'm still skeptical, but I'm not as sure of myself. There have been some interesting things that have happened" during the location shoots.
DuBois cited camera batteries that would "go dead and come back again," as well as mysterious bouncing lights and "a phosphorescent glow."
They're all hopeful signs that the GhostHunters crew will be able to include in the pilot spontaneous special effects provided by otherworldly extras. "People have doubted that we would get anything on film," DuBois said. "We want to prove them wrong."
She indicated the crew captured some potential paranormal manifestations using still photography. But, given the remoteness of the first two locations, by Tuesday she'd not had a chance to review the filmed footage in depth. Eerie light shows and unexplained electrical disturbances aren't the only factors which have tested the mettle of the GhostHunters cast and crew. Periods of rain and curious bears provided unwelcome distractions during the initial part of the week-long shoot, while the company was camped along the Ghost Town Trail near Sterling's hometown of Twin Rocks. The hiking and biking trail stretches 16 miles from Dilltown to Nanty Glo on a former rail line. Its name refers to a string of several abandoned coal mining towns located along the route.
But in her book--and in one of three cases filmed for possible inclusion in the GhostHunters pilot--Sterling suggests another association, relating stories of supernatural sightings along the trail. For the pilot, she and DuBois have adapted the tale of "Maggie," the apparition of a young girl which Sterling has repeatedly encountered and has dubbed "the resident ghost of Twin Rocks."
On Tuesday, production shifted to the church cemetery to lens the investigation of another spirit reportedly spotted there. Working outdoors in an adjacent field, the film crew battled insects and dodged potholes on an unlit country lane as they shuttled back and forth between a small convoy of trailers and the set. All were anxiously awaiting the move to their last stop: a hotel in Altoona with some ghostly tenants who reportedly never checked out.
"It will be the first time we've had a controlled environment" for filming, Sterling noted Tuesday. Still, she said, "I'm very pleased with the way things are going. The people in the area are phenomenal," Sterling said, noting an Ebensburg restaurant welcomed the film crew with open arms when they finally were able to pull up stakes on the trail. She also expressed "a deep sense of pride" that the natural beauty of the rural Allegheny foothills will be showcased along with the pilot's spooky storyline. "It will give people the opportunity to see what a wonderful place I grew up in," Sterling said.
Some initial scenes for the pilot were shot in Pittsburgh. Once she returns to L.A., DuBois expects it will take about a month to complete post-production. Then the producers will look for a cable or broadcast outlet to pick up the show for airing, hopefully leading to a deal for expansion of the concept into a series. That could lead to recurring roles for the ghost crew, with two cases unfolded per hour-long episode.
But, even if Mack's performance as Brandon never sees the light of day, he said working on the pilot has been a worthwhile experience. "Making contacts is always important, but I've also made some great friendships," he said.
Meanwhile, Sterling has completed a second book inspired by the Ghost Town Trail: a tale of supernatural sleuthing titled Murder and the Trail. "As long as people keep dying, I'll never run out of cases," she noted.
Jeff Himler can be reached at email@example.com or (724) 459-6100, ext. 13.
Copyright ©2004 Blairsville Dispatch