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At three years old, Texhoma native John C. Eslinger knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. That is what lead him to Guymon yesterday to talk about the film "Cottonwood" and his role as Executive Producer of the film.
Relating this film to "Grapes of Wrath" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" gives anxious fans an idea of the storyline of this film. Eslinger says this film is going to be similar to those, and is going to be shot using 35mm film, which is very unique to these days and times.
The film is going to portray a 1937 small Texas Panhandle town by Amarillo, and has a main focus of two families during the dust bowl era.
"The reason I'm so excited about this being around the Oklahoma Panhandle, is because I'm from here," said Eslinger.
He said that after reading the script a couple of times and then the book, it hit home.
"It just grabbed my soul, because it took me back to when we were kids," said Eslinger, while fighting back tears. "The thing that made this so real to me is that our parents grew up out here and we experienced the tail end of the dust bowl. The story is so real and the book was written so well that it was almost like being there."
The actual book is based on a little town by Amarillo, but Eslinger says that nobody would be able to tell the difference if the story was taken place by Amarillo or Texhoma because the same thing was going on here.
"They allowed me to discuss this from the perspective of the Oklahoma Panhandle, which in my mind, was probably the base for the whole dust bowl."
Eslinger said they are producing this film in partnership with Willie Nelson's company, who has a big role in the film.
The story of the two families reaches out to many issues that arose during the era that this film is set in. One family involves the small town's Sheriff, his wife and three children. The Sheriff's youngest child, a 7-year-old daughter gets fever and passes away, leaving the mother in a nervous breakdown so intense that she can no longer function. The Sheriff is then left to care for his two sons, but does not have the means to take care of them while fulfilling his duties that come with his job.
The other family portrayed is a black man who is a fairly successful farmer, and his wife. They bought a mule and aspire to grow cotton, which was unheard of for its time. The wife is a waitress at the restaurant and ends up getting hired by the Sheriff to care for his two sons.
Eslinger said that this is the part of the story that gets really interesting.
"If you are a family oriented person, this will get you right here," said Eslinger as he pointed to his chest.
Elsinger says that the sons develop a fondness for their new caregiver, the black woman, who also takes care of the Sheriff's wife who is basically bedridden and in a vegetative mindset from her breakdown after losing their daughter. The Sheriff then has to deal with controversy within the community of the black woman taking care of his white children, which is very true to the setting during that era.
"The reason we really, really feel good about this story is because it is a real historical thing."
The movie has an exciting line up of cast members, including three A-listers of which names cannot be released yet. The locked in cast includes, singer Willie Nelson, The Breakfast Club's Anthony Michael Hall, Aerosmith's Joe Perry, Waylon Payne, who is local singer Sammie Smith's son, and Eslinger himself as a bartender, just to name a few. Clint Eastwood's daughter, Remember the Titan's Ethan Suplee, and distinguished actor Louis Gossett Jr. are also in the film.
"When Willie signed on, he wanted to be bartender, but after thinking about it a while, changed his mind and decided to be the preacher," said Eslinger. "A lot of the comments from people are saying 'I can't see Willie in church,'" he said, with a laugh.
Eslinger himself plays the bartender role that Willie turned down. He said that a lot of special people are involved in the bar scene.
Eslinger also said that they will start filming fairly soon, and will be doing most of the filming in the Amarillo area.
"My goal would be to film it here (Texhoma area), out in the fields, but we can't do that," said Eslinger.
He explains that a with a movie of this magnitude, 40-80 people will be on the set every day, who need hotels and transportation, so Amarillo is the closest place to do that. This is a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) film so they have to follow specific rules and have to play close attention to budgeting needs.
For the film setting, they will have two different churches, one being for white people and one for black people, the two families' houses, a bar, a restaurant, and the Sheriff's office. Eslinger said that another major element to capture the look of the film will be the long, straight, dusty roads of the Oklahoma Panhandle. This area provides the scenery that they will be using for some b-roll scenes for three or four days to get that image they wish to capture.
Not only is Eslinger excited about the production of this film, but he was also grateful for the opportunity to come back and visit his roots. He described his home growing up in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle in Texhoma.
"Back then the airport was across the street from where we lived, we lived in a dugout," he said. "When I was three years old I knew what I wanted to do. I was really blessed that I got to do it in ways that I would have never known."
As a result of his talent and aspirations, he has traveled all over the world. This ended up being quite the change for him after growing up as a child only traveling to Amarillo once in 1956, and getting to see his Grandmother in Kansas a few times. He has now spent a lot of time in over 60 countries.
"Doing that has given me a perspective that a lot of people don't have," said Eslinger. "It made me appreciate growing up in a cellar in Texhoma."
He then went on to express his appreciation for the people that encouraged him along the way, including local Guymon woman, and Eslinger's cousin, Judy Ortiz. He said that she was closer to him than his own sisters and that they had a very special relationship.
"Judy is one of the most solid citizens I've ever met in any country," he said.
His special friendship with his cousin has played out well for Judy, who said she had always wanted to take a part in films if Eslinger ever was able to be involved with films with certain actors. Luckily for Judy, Willie Nelson is one of them. As a result, Judy gets to be an extra in the church scenes where Willie Nelson plays the preacher.
Eslinger expresses his enthusiasm of this film and the representation it has of the area he loves; and he now gets to use his art and talent to show the rest of the world a piece of it. This film is going to very well represent the area and the history behind the area, but also allows a very successful Panhandle man to come back and take a trip down memory lane for a while.
"I always paid attention to the people in the area," said Eslinger. "I don't live in the past, but I love going back and visiting it."