There’s nothing like coming home to shoot a film. For Goshen native Jordon Hodges, that meant diving into lush, private woods in LaGrange County where he and the cast and crew of his latest film, “The Shade Shepherd,” could play out some real tensions in his life.
In the fictional story, two brothers struggle to survive the Indiana wilds while on the run — Hodges as a burned-out psychiatrist who’s wielding a bow and arrows; his brother, Pike, played by Randy Spence, a heroin addict who they hear is wanted for a murder. No memories of the crime. No food. No camping gear. No cellphone because, after all, it’s 1987.
In real life, it was spring 2018, and Hodges’ wife, Natalie, who’d designed the film’s costumes and set, had been diagnosed with cancer about two weeks earlier. They’d come out from their Los Angeles home to shoot for 22 intense days, each 12 to 16 hours long. It had Hodges running between the set — mostly a rented log house in the woods — and Natalie’s chemotherapy.
“I was right at that edge,” he says of his emotions, which helped to fuel the moody scenes in this thriller, which, in reality, is about the internal struggles of the two brothers. “We put a lot of love and passion into it.”
“It was a blessing, because she got to be around family,” the 33-year-old adds, speaking by phone from Elkhart, where he and Natalie now live. “I found some strength from her while I was shooting the film.”
Natalie is from Middlebury, where they’d both graduated from Northridge High School. Although half of the cast and crew are from across the country, local roots, people and places made “The Shade Shepherd,” which Hodges co-wrote with director Chris Faulisi. The film was released Tuesday through the California-based Indican Pictures, now available on streaming services.
The way he made this film is much like the 2014 thriller film “Sand Castles,” which he co-wrote and filmed in the Goshen area, also starring alongside Spence, a North Carolina actor who’s also played in the TV series “House of Cards.”
“Sand Castles” worked out so well, winning awards at several film festivals, that Hodges says they wrote the role for Spence in “Shade Shepherd.”
“You write what you know,” Hodges says of the Indiana storyline, as he credits local officials, businesses and police for opening up the possibilities.
Early in the movie, Hodges’ character, Jack, deals with both his bedraggled and suicidal brother and the needs of his pregnant wife, soon to give birth. He prepares for the runaway mission, jogging in a blue “Middleburry Middies” sweatshirt, which Hodges says came from Natalie’s father’s connection to the middle school. Jack also swims in a pool at the former Howe Military Academy.
Later, as Jack and Pike seek shelter on their trek to the Canadian border, they find an abandoned and crumbling white house that had been a childhood home — where they unravel hard memories of a missing father. Actually, the house was near Niles, due for demolition, and Hodges’ parents knew about it because their modular home business was going to build nearby.
And when the brothers stop briefly at a tiny office labeled “Berrien County Police Station,” a sheriff in a white shirt and white cowboy hat looks at them suspiciously and chases them down an alley. The actual place: downtown LaGrange, Ind. The sheriff: Ed Ernstes, a news reporter for WSBT-TV who has played many roles as an extra in regional films and TV drama shows over the past several years, including a bit in “The Dark Knight.”
Ernstes calls “The Shade Shepherd” “the highest caliber of film I’ve ever been involved in.”
“What struck me is that this was a cast and crew from all over the U.S.,” he says, having known Hodges as a fellow extra in Chicago roles. “Each brought their own talents, and it was collaborative.”
A LaGrange County naturalist helped to scout out a scenic river in the film and also played a role as a turkey hunter.
The brothers find fun in an empty bowling alley — actually OC Lanes in Osceola.
But the story also hits on themes of suicide and addiction, both of which have afflicted friends and family members of his. They emerge subconsciously, Hodges says, adding “I don’t realize when I’m writing it, only when the picture comes together.”
The film reaches for something deeper than chase scenes. That’s why it’s set in the 1980s, he says, to “strip away technology” like cellphones that might distract from the real dilemma of the brothers’ survival in the woods.
“Trying to find the strength to pull yourself out of darkness — that’s what ‘Shade Shepherd’ is about,” he says.
Early this year, before COVID-19 struck, Hodges and his wife (now healthy) moved from Los Angeles to Elkhart because they’d just birthed a daughter last year and wanted her to be around lots of family. He’s working as project coordinator for his parents’ firm, GoModular Housing, while he’s writing another film, a scary one. In the pandemic, too, returning home “was a blessing.”