Dave's debut: Disasters stymie Matthews' move into movies

Charlottesville's most famous singer has suffered a strange setback to his fledgling film career. For over two years, footage of his first feature film has been stuck in film cans, and a tug-of-war may soon erupt over the movie's ownership.

Filming of Where the Red Fern Grows, a remake of the kids' classic, was about 75 percent complete by the time the unpaid actors walked off the set. However, several key scenes remained unshot, and the maturing face of the film's teenage star, Joseph Ashton, threatened to make all the old footage useless. Meanwhile, claims from unpaid companies at the main filming location, a tiny town in Oklahoma's Ozark Mountains, were piling up.

How did Dave's debut derail?

Red Ink-ville

 It started out so idyllically. The tiny town of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, an hour southeast of Tulsa– population 14,458– had its last brush with fame about a decade ago when David Letterman called it his "home office." Local merchants expected another financial boost when a film crew arrived in October 1999. What actually arrived, however, was an out-of-cash and eventually bankrupt film company.

"They owe everybody in Tahlequah," says Foix Stauss, whose company, X-Press Rental and Sales, got stuck with a bill of about $3,300 for renting generators, forklifts, and airless paint-sprayers.

"I probably never had anyone rent as many rooms," says Vechil Eller, owner of the Tahlequah Motor Lodge. While Dave Matthews stayed at the Holiday Inn Express (which claims a debt of $16,000), Eller's Lodge housed most of the crew, which allegedly ran up a tab of $120,000. While the debtor disputes the amount, it may be a moot point because unsecured creditors– the ones who don't hold any collateral– rarely see a penny in bankruptcy cases.

"You can get a judgment," says Hugh Dotson, whose Dotson-Roberts Lumber company got stiffed for about $4,000, "but that don't pay our bills, does it?"

"This is not a rich county," says Murv Jacob, a sign painter who was never paid.

Meanwhile, back at the Lodge, Eller says he's "getting used to it." The massive debt hasn't erased the excitement from having members of his family– as well as two of his own vintage cars– playing roles in the film. And Eller's 30-inch television and ability to tune in the Lennox Lewis vs. Evander Holyfield fight on pay-per-view lured Matthews and other cast members to Eller's house on November 13, 1999.

"I happen to be the only one with satellite TV," Eller explains.

Dayton's passion

 Red Fern director Lyman Dayton says he was working with a budget under $5 million, a small sum by Hollywood standards. But then Lyman Dayton isn't working from Hollywood; he's based in St. George, Utah.

A 60-year-old veteran producer, Dayton has made 15 films– including the original 1974 version of Red Fern. Also shot in Tahlequah, it earned a spot on noted critic Jeffrey Lyons' "Top 100" list, and Dayton says the video continues to rent and sell well.

Red Fern is the story of a poor boy and his two redbone hounds who chase some raccoons into a giant sycamore tree. Besides pacing the Depression-era story for modern audiences, Dayton says he wanted to make the hunting sequences come alive.

"This time," says Dayton, "we really show some hunting. You'll see it; you'll feel it."

Joseph Ashton and Dave Matthews take direction.


Dayton also wanted to show more of the local topography and local Cherokee culture. Tahlequah, after all, is headquarters of the Cherokee Nation. In the new film, the boy is supposed to be part Cherokee. "In the old film," says Dayton, "the family's kind of Nordic."

As for Matthews, Dayton lauds the Albemarle-based actor as "incredibly natural." He says Matthews' decision to launch his feature film career with such a quiet role as the boy's father was "wise" and "parallel to the way he's built his musical career."

Dayton learned a bit about grassroots growth by tracking the continued success of the book, written by the late Wilson Rawls. Where the Red Fern Grows was published in 1961. Since then, so many teachers have made the tale part of their curriculum that Publishers Weekly ranks it #5 on the all-time list of best-selling kids paperback books. Its impressive 6.8 million copies sold drubs such well-known titles as Little House on the Prairie, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Little Prince.

Because Dayton controlled the right to remake the film, he says, "We kept getting called by the studios. They had done their homework, obviously, and saw the business possibilities."

Dayton, however, decided to raise the money himself. That turned out to be a big problem.

Fun on the set

With the help of Katy Wallin casting, Dayton was able to land two of the most veteran character actors around, Dabney Coleman and Ned Beatty, plus one of the biggest musical stars of seventies, Mac "I Believe in Music" Davis– and one of the biggest music stars of today, Dave Matthews.

The actors arrived in Tahlequah in October 1999, for filming at locations by the Illinois River and in the hills around the town.

Dayton says Matthews and Davis entertained the set by occasionally grabbing guitars and singing. During a break from filming, however, Matthews' strumming was dealt a setback when he broke a finger while horseback riding.

Although unpaid, Tahlequah artist Murv Jacob thinks the world of Dave Matthews. "I'm Cherokee, and everyone in town's at least part Cherokee. I was starting to think Matthews was too– the way he fit in."

Teenage star Joseph Ashton says he had no idea of the South African-born singer's fame until Matthews took him to the local Red Lobster for his 13th birthday and strangers started perking up. "I really didn't know who he was," says Ashton. "He never came off as a big rock star."

Dave Matthews as "Pa" Colman.


All Ashton knew was that Matthews was a fledgling actor sporting denim overalls and a wide-brimmed hat– he plays a character called "Pa," after all. So Ashton, who has been acting since the age of one (a McDonald's commercial), offered some on-set advice.

"I'd give him clues or hints that I've learned over the years," says Ashton, "like not looking at the camera." ("Everyone was giving me tips," says Matthews. "I didn't know what the hell I was doing.")

A few days later, when Ashton opened a magazine and saw Matthews' face, it dawned on him: "He was this big-time star."

The good times in Tallequah were not to last.

While many local businesses were willing to indulge tardy bill-paying, the powerful Screen Actors Guild, the actors' union back in Los Angeles, would not.

In late November 1999, the SAG fired off a letter ordering all talent to withhold their services. Although just a few more days of location filming remained, the actors walked away, and the production unceremoniously ground to a halt.


The flaming wig

What do the stars think of the project? The first words out of Dave Matthews' mouth: "Dabney Coleman is a badass."

But not everyone saw things so jovially. When this reporter first began looking into the story two years ago, the actors hadn't been paid. How did Red Fern sound back then?

"You mention the word," said Dabney Coleman's manager, Michael Black, "and my wig goes on fire."

Black said Coleman considered Red Fern such a "damn good story" that he trimmed his usual fees. "It's not like he's owed $4 million," continued Black, "but I would like to see my client get the rest of the money that's owed him."

Even then Black noted that Red Fern wasn't all drudgery.

"He loved working on the film," says Black. "He loved the town, and he thinks the world of Dave. He told me, 'If the picture never comes out, at least I have a new friend named Dave Matthews.'"

Dave the actor

The acting career of Dave Matthews goes back as far– perhaps farther– than his musical career. In early 1990, the young Matthews first caught Charlottesville media attention simply for hamming it up behind the bar at Miller's restaurant. In October of that year, this reporter watched him turn the hackneyed role of a used-car salesman into something fresh, likable, and blisteringly cheesy in Offstage Productions' short play called Just Say No.

Shortly thereafter, he starred in one of the late great "Coffeehouse" shows at Live Arts. "We all sat there," remembers longtime Live Arts director Fran Smith, "and knew that minute that this guy wouldn't stay in town long."

Michael Black, Dabney Coleman's manager, says he has seen some of Red Fern's "dailies," the raw footage. "Dave Matthews," says Black, "can absolutely act."

Dave Matthews used to act at Live Arts, site of this 1995 acoustic performance.


"Business is very good for Dave Matthews," says Gary Bongiovanni, the editor of Pollstar, a concert industry magazine. In a telephone interview earlier this week, Bongiovanni says that despite one of the lowest average ticket prices, Dave Matthews Band is #1 in North American concert grosses for the last three months.

Life magazine lists the Dave Matthews Band as one of the "Top 100 Rock and Rollers of All Time." Clearly, Dave Matthews does not need acting to make money or history.

Although Matthews chipped in over $150,000 to keep the Red Fern alive, it wasn't enough. By the time the actors quit, about $700,000 in bills were still outstanding. Dayton said that an investor failed to come through with the cash. Amounts owed to unsecured creditors include $523,000 to the U.S. Department of Labor, $157,000 in payroll, and $17,000 to FedEx. (Matthews' loan was secured.)

At the time production abruptly ceased, media accounts pegged Legacy Entertainment, run by Morgan Skinner, as the investor who didn't come through. Today, Utah-based Skinner declines to discuss Red Fern in any detail. "We're not involved," he says. But he lost money in the project, right? "To put it mildly," answers Skinner.

What about talk that the film could be released? "You hear a lot of things," says Skinner, referring a reporter to an attorney.

Dayton's dilemma

Things would only get worse for Dayton. While lawsuits over the unpaid bills began filling court dockets in Cherokee County, Dayton put together a videotape to show some of the completed footage to prospective investors and vowed to restart the production.

He kept in touch with Matthews' manager, Coran Capshaw, to find a slot in the busy musician's schedule for filming the remaining scenes. But the claims against the film company kept piling up. In October 2000, Dayton's Red Fern Productions Inc. declared bankruptcy. A year later, he and his wife had declared personal bankruptcy as well.

The SAG began investigating Dayton and filed a separate claim alleging that he hasn't been paying proper residuals on some of the films he's made. Dayton's attorney, calling the move a "surprise," denies the allegation.

Meanwhile, creditors continued to hold out hope for recompense from the production company.

On March 28, 2002, the Utah bankruptcy court oversaw an auction of the assets– primarily the film negative and the rights to make the picture. The buyers, who paid $975,000, were a consortium made up of Crusader Entertainment, Persik Partners, and a new company called Where the Red Fern Grows LLC.

The auction freed up enough money to pay actors Coleman, Matthews, and other "secured" creditors– but nothing for the small businesses in Tahlequah. "We never got a penny," says Foix Stauss of X-Press Rental.

As of last week, the Dabney Coleman camp, previously known for its burning wig, was smiling, and Coleman has been contacted by the production's new owners to perform some post-production voice work, typically one of the final stages toward a completed film, says Mark Stoelting in the veteran actor's office. "When that call comes in," says Stoelting, "it means they're close to home base."

But charges of "collusion" and "conspiracy" could soon throw everything into question.

Puberty's threat

Question: Who is Paul Sullivan?

He's the original "Wally" on Leave it to Beaver. The better-known "Wally," Tony Dow, revealed in a 2000 interview that Sullivan had been thrown off the show's original cast. His crime?

"He had grown a foot since the shooting of the pilot," said Dow, "and literally outgrew the part."

Red Fern is in a similar fix. With 75 percent of the scenes filmed, script rewrites and clever editing could help production survive without Dave "Pa" Matthews. But key sequences for Joseph "Billy" Ashton remained. One source close to young Ashton warned this reporter back in 2000 that if the final days of shooting didn't soon materialize, the whole film would have to be re-shot.

Joseph Ashton, circa 1999.


A boyish-looking eighth-grader when shooting commenced in the summer of 1999, Ashton says he has grown "about five inches and 30 pounds" since those early days in Tallequah. He was contacted by Katy Wallin to finish up filming at a Disney lot in California this summer. Ashton insists that "Hollywood magic" in the form of good makeup and a large coonskin cap "down-sized" him.

Born in 1986, Joseph Ashton Valencia (he uses his middle name for his acting career) has Native American ancestors on both sides of his family tree, according to his mother. In his previous starring role, the 1997 film The Education of Little Tree, he earned a hearty thumbs up from Roger Ebert for playing the title role of a half-Cherokee orphan. Ebert called Ashton "fresh and natural." The Boston Phoenix lauded him as "adorable and energetic."

The career span for child actors is short, and the long list of adorable cherubs who became unemployable adolescents includes Shirley Temple, Gary Coleman, and Macaulay Culkin.

Fortunately for Ashton, although his once-round face morphed into manhood while Red Fern footage collected dust, he is still able to achieve fame from voice work, including the lead of Otto on the Nickelodeon series, Rocket Powered. Ashton says his next big dream is film school to learn "behind-the-camera" work.

"I'm just having fun," says Ashton. "I take it seriously, but I'm not Hollywood. School's always first. I'm pretty much a regular kid."

Indeed, a phone call from a reporter one August afternoon found Ashton over at a nearby friend's house. The 11th grader's biggest concern? He recently broke his leg, so he can't play football this fall at his public high school.

"Behind our backs"

Katy Wallin, originally just the film's casting director, appears to have taken the lead as producer in finishing the film. Unfortunately, an intern in her office says, she is too busy to return calls and emails for this story.

Russell S. Walker, attorney for Lyman Dayton, is not happy about the auction, which terminated his client's rights to the film. Walker says that some of the potential investors Dayton was negotiating with to finish the film simply waited for the auction and joined forces to keep the price low.

"A number of these people went behind our backs and colluded to limit the bidding," says Walker, who also used the word "conspiracy" when talking about the auction.

However, William J. Immerman, chief operating officer of Crusader Entertainment, one of the three buyers, claims that Dayton is simply resorting to the "court of public opinion" after legal maneuvers have failed.

"All the facts were laid out before the bankruptcy judge," says Immerman, "and the judge thought that there was nothing improper."

Immerman says that the three companies have already spent in excess of $3 million to finish filming, to commission a musical score, and to work on post-production.

"The courts," says Immerman, who is an attorney, "typically don't favor somebody who sits back in the woods until someone else has spent substantial time and money to complete the project.

"The plan," he adds, "is to finish the film and then show it to a distributor."

Lawyer's vow

"It isn't over yet," says Walker. "We think we've got a deal that will greatly benefit the creditors." Is Walker preparing a lawsuit? He declines to tip his hand. "We haven't played all our cards," is all he'll say.

With Dayton's lawyer vowing to fight to win back the rights, and no word on a distributor, the film's future could be in jeopardy if Dayton sues. While film companies sometimes shy away from grabbing movies embroiled in litigation, Immerman says the book's popularity will make distributors eager for Red Fern.

"Personally, I think the movie's real outdated," says stiffed Tahlequah sign-painter Murv Jacob. "Coon-hunting was a pretty big sport... 30 years ago. I call it 'Where the Red Ink Flows.'"

If the film ever comes out, another small skirmish revolves over whether Lyman Dayton will get sole credit, or whether the director of the California shooting, Sam Pillsbury, can share the credit– and the residuals. The Directors Guild will have to sort that one out.

Standing on the Downtown Mall last week, after wrapping up his summer concert tour, Dave Matthews says he doesn't know when he'll ever see his film debut. While he didn't participate in any of the final shooting over the summer, Matthews expects to be called out for some voice-over dubbing.

"I'll do what they ask of me," he says.

And Matthews seems resigned to wait a while longer for the Red Fern release.

"It's a long ways away," says Matthews. "All I know is it's a long ways away."

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