“It’s the inspiration behind the entire story,” said actress/producer Jenn Gotzon Chandler, discussing why she and her husband and fellow producer Jim E. Chandler chose to film their movie “Farmer and the Belle: Saving Santaland” in Walker County. “I couldn’t imagine it being anywhere else.”
For the couple, New Dawn Farm, located in McLemore’s Cove, made perfect sense as a movie location, since it is where the story began. After they met, Jim, whose family has owned the farm for 100 years, brought Jenn out to see the place. Being used to the world of modeling and acting, the farm was a departure for her. “I was frightened of the cows and the goats,” she remembered, laughing. “I dry heaved at the smell of the pig slop.”
And, two and a half years ago during that first visit, the seed of the story was planted, so much so that it became the movie tagline: When a New York City model spends the holidays in a small town, she falls in love with her childhood pen pal, a pig farmer, and helps save his hometown’s Santaland, learning that true beauty comes from the heart, not just a pretty face.’
Much like her character in the movie, Belle, Chandler was used to a life in the spotlight. She felt people’s adoration on the red carpet but struggled in a marriage that was unfulfilling. That left her wondering why she didn’t feel loved.
“I was confused by the outward adoration” she noted. Upon meeting Jim after a difficult divorce, that changed. Like his movie character Josh, Jim showed Jenn true love, although she didn’t trust it. Having trouble believing that she could be loved “showed me a gaping hole inside. That’s where Jesus came in and gave me love only He could provide” she said. “He allowed me to look in the mirror for the first time and see myself as He sees me.”
The movie grew out of a passion to share that unconditional love and acceptance with others.
“I felt like I was the only one who had those thoughts,” she noted. After conducting research, the Chandlers found this wasn’t the case.
“We learned that 90 percent of women, starting at age 6, compare themselves with what they see in movies, on TV, or in life, believing the lie that ‘if I’m beautiful, then I have value to be loved,’ ” Jenn said. “The way to tackle that is to identify that it’s real and bring the lie into God’s light and transform your mind by renewing it.”
With the help of the community in Walker County, the Chandlers are doing just that. The production, set at Christmas time, has involved building sets, gathering Christmas decorations, finding livestock to use during filming, and providing food for the cast and crew. Neighbors around the farm, family friends, local churches, local businesses, and many volunteers have stepped up to make it happen. The process hasn’t been without difficulties though, but even then, the community rallied to help.
“The biggest challenge we have faced on production is lodging” Jenn noted. “We absolutely didn’t have enough space for cast and crew until neighbors opened their homes graciously.”
Although the couple has been asked to film “Farmer and the Belle: Saving Santaland” in other locations, “we just kept saying no” said Jenn.
“We really want to honor the land here. There’s something special about it being in the family for 100 years.” Using Camp New Dawn, also located on the farm, as their base has been special for the Chandlers as well. “The land shares the same mission as the movie,” Jenn noted. “Camp New Dawn has been helping kids have a real relationship with God and understand love through camp. We want to do the same thing with the movie.”
The cast, while made up of some familiar names like John Schneider, Corbin Bernsen, Henry Cho (comedian), Natasha Bure (known most recently for “Faith, Hope and Love”), singer/songwriter Bekah Shae, Roxane Mims (from the O Network), nighttime radio host Delilah, and Sandra Lafferty (“Walk The Line” and “Hunger Games”), also includes the Chandler’s niece, Adele, who lives on the farm. “She is charmalicious and stole our hearts two-and-a-half years ago when this story came into making” Jenn noted. “The character was written specifically around her mannerisms, personality, and comfort level around animals.”
The Chandlers have worked on 20 movies together, including most recently, “Saving Faith.” “We love working with each other as actors and producers,” said Jenn. “Both of our brains (together) are better than one.”
Director Wes Llewellyn, who grew up in Alabama and lives in Atlanta now, met Chandler at a Christian filmmaking competition in Los Angeles. As director of “Sid Roth — It’s Supernatural” from 2007- 18, he is a seasoned filmmaker. “He has an epic storytelling eye” Jenn notes. “We are very excited to have him direct ‘Farmer and the Belle’.”
Due to be a Christmas release in theaters or on television in 2020, “Farmer and the Belle: Saving Santaland” is a labor of love. “All of the charitable giving of the (Walker County) community has allowed us to make this story that will impact girls lives and help them know their true value,” said Jenn. Through that, the Walker County community will have impacts far beyond the county lines.