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Dreaming Up Doonby : Peter Mackenzie Prepares For Release of His Special Film

Although British writer/director Peter Mackenzie created the premise for his feature film Doonby over 15 years ago, it took a very specific set of circumstances for the movie to come together.

Peter Mackenzie

The story, set in a small Texas town, is likely to provoke discussion about how much one man’s life can affect those around him and the larger questions of what one life is worth and who decides whether someone a life is worth living.

Although the film is still six months away from being released in theaters it is already being written about extensively in publications like World Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter and gathering a buzz in the film community. However, Mackenzie isn’t ready to give away the plot just yet.

While the structure of Doonby has gone through many changes, the basic scenario has always remained the same:” Mackenzie said, “to make people think about the value of life and the effect our choices have on one another.”

As he patiently crafted his story over the course of the last decade and a half, Mackenzie decided his film would be set in a small town that typified Middle America. Peter was delighted to find himself in Smithville, Texas, some 40 miles east of Austin.

“I found all the locations that I had included in the script right there and where they should be and I knew then and there that this was the place,” he recalled. “It was almost spiritual”.

In 2009 Mackenzie approached film producer Mark Joseph, a veteran who had developed or marketed 21 feature films like Ray, Narnia, I Am David, The Passion of The Christ, Facing The Giants and others who had recently made the jump to producing and Joseph was intrigued by Mackenzie’s quirky script and agreed to be part of the project when his funding came through. Once Doonby had its location, funding quickly followed.

“It is pretty remarkable really, that after 15 years, once it got rolling Doonby actually happened pretty fast with the help and support of a committed Texas investor,” said Mackenzie.

Jenn Gotzon and John Schneider
on the set of Doonby

Mackenzie and Joseph worked together on casting, with Mackenzie casting John Schneider for the lead role and Jennifer O’Neill, Will Wallace, Ernie Hudson and Joe Estevez for supporting roles while Joseph put forward Robert Davi and Jenn Gotzon who had starred as Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia in Frost/Nixon.

Doonby was also a family affair for Mackenzie – his sons Mike and Dan were on board as producer and Camera Operator, joining Peter Field who brought his vast experience to the role of Director of Photography. His impressive list of blockbuster 2nd unit credits includes three James Bond movies, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Cold Mountain and Troy.

“It was an exceptional team to work with” said producer Mike Mackenzie, “I really enjoyed the collaborative process to create what I consider to be a movie I am very proud of.”

Examining the life of Sam Doonby (played by John Schneider) and a small town in Texas, Mackenzie questions the effect each of us has on each other’s lives in an immersive, entertaining and provocative film. Doonby is centered on the story of drifter Sam Doonby, who shows up in a sleepy Smithville with no invitation and seemingly no past. Welcomed into the town by the owner of the local country/blues club, Doonby is offered a job as a bartender and with his charm he soon garners the attention of Laura Reaper, (Jenn Gotzon) the attractive daughter of the town’s doctor who finds Doonby’s charm irresistible.

John Schneider plays the mysterious drifter

Smithville is jolted awake as a series of tragedies plague the town and as each catastrophe unfolds, Sam Doonby always seems to be in the right place at the right time to save the day. At first the town is grateful to their new friend, but people soon start to question the motives of the mysterious Doonby and in the process realizes that before he came, they never needed a Good Samaritan because nothing bad ever happened. The ill-fated coincidences start to point to Sam Doonby and people begin to wonder: who is Sam Doonby? Why has he come to their town?

Mackenzie takes the viewer on a journey of intrigue and suspense as the truth about Doonby’s past begins to unravel. Written off as a “no good drifter” by Laura’s father, Dr. Cyrus Reaper (played by Joe Estevez), she and her mother (Jennifer O’Neill) start digging to find out more about their visitor. In an attempt to find answers, Laura and her mother travel to Doonby’s hometown to talk to anyone who knew him. Remarkably, no one except a delirious woman in a nursing home has ever heard of him. The old woman who knew his mother offers the only clue, “Sam never had a chance.”

Upon Laura and her mother’s return to Smithville, they discover that the attitude towards Doonby has turned from suspicion to outright distrust. The final hand is dealt to Sam when his budding romance with Laura comes to an end when in a drunken rage, Laura rejects him. But when she awakens from her sleep, she finds a very different reality. Sam Doonby has disappeared but his disappearance leaves behind chilling implications for her family and the whole town.

Doonby was also the subject of a curious article in the top industry magazine The Hollywood Reporter when media learned that the film had been quietly screening the film for Christian leaders who had given Mackenzie some feedback that they would be supportive of his film if he could make a few minor “wardrobe” changes with his lead actress Jenn Gotzon in some scenes where the neckline of her dress had plunged lower than it should have.

“If I can make a few small changes and reach out to the faith-based audience, I’d be crazy not to do so,” Mackenzie told the Hollywood Reporter “We’re not pandering. It was something I should have caught on the day of shooting, and modern technology allows us to fix this. The scenes weren’t about her sexuality at all so it doesn’t compromise my art.”

Dan Wooding with Jenn Gotzon during his interview with her for His Channel Live

“Many families won’t go to the movies nowadays because they don’t know what their children will see,” the film’s co-star Jenn Gotzon told the magazine. “It would break my heart if families or church groups or my 90-year-old grandma didn’t want to see this movie.”

Those touch ups were not inexpensive and included some alterations to the film’s co-star Jenn Gotzon’s dress which the actress laughed off as “wardrobe enhancement,” but Mackenzie thinks it was worth it.

“I have tremendous respect for the American heartland. I don’t want to give anybody in America a reason not to see my movie,” he said. “If I can make small changes here and there in order to accomplish that without compromising my vision, then I’m happy to do so.”

The team behind Doonby has spent nearly a year in Texas and California working on the production and the marketing and Peter Mackenzie says he has adapted well to the change in scenery offered by the American West.

“Texas was always a very romantic connection for me, not in the traditional romantic fashion but just in the mystery and character that is present everywhere,” he said.

The film had a deeper meaning for several of the actors involved in the production, especially Jenn Gotzon, who believes that she is called to Hollywood just as surely as missionaries are called to foreign countries:

She said, “Since I was 15, I would pray every night to work professionally as a leading actress in films that entertain and inspire. My journey as an actor has consistently been based in passion, prayer, perseverance and faith in God. My prayers became more focused on playing emotionally dynamic protagonist roles in redemptive films.

“I keep grounded in my walk with God by attending a weekly Bible study. When you strive to genuinely love, encourage and serve those around you wherever you go, I believe God provides a place for us wherever He leads. I’ve really enjoyed my time on every set I’ve worked on here in Hollywood and throughout the country.”

Actor Joe Estevez whose family includes brother Martin Sheen and nephews Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez found himself on a similar journey that led him to Doonby:

“I had a talk with myself and a lot of praying and meditating about making movies that make a difference,” he told AOL News. “I asked God, ‘Can you send me movies that do this that I can also make money at?’ And God does listen.”

Expected to be released in theaters in September, producers Mark Joseph and Mike Mackenzie have their hands full overseeing the film’s marketing and distribution efforts.

“Marketing Doonby has been challenging in the sense that it is, at its core, a mystery,” notes Mackenzie. “With that in mind, we have to be careful what we give away and what we hold back, but we know from the screenings that we have done that and our audience is going to be there when it hits theaters.”

Poster for the film

Doonby has relied heavily on social networking outlets to reach its core audience, and is quickly developing a following on Facebook and Twitter.

“What makes this film remarkable is that from the beginning it’s been less about marketing a film and more about creating a family,” says Joseph. “On the set in Texas, many people remarked that it was like a family. We stayed in B&B’s and it wasn’t an uncommon site to see John Schneider tooling around Smithville on this bicycle. Our Facebook page still feels like that.”

At the film’s Facebook page, Doonby “family” members get daily updates on the film’s progress, and participate in contests with prizes range from an autographed cast photo, to a Doonby themed Flip digital video camera with a personal message from John Schneider, to an autographed guitar provided courtesy of the Fender guitar company.

“We see the film’s social media fans as family and want to let them get an early glimpse into a movie they care about,” said Joseph. “Most major productions simply won’t take the time or care that we are to get to know their fans and provide them with access to a film at the level we are. In return, these fans have shown some incredible dedication to getting the word out to their friends about this incredible movie they’ve heard about.”

For the brainchild behind Doonby, Peter Mackenzie, it all comes back to the story that was birthed in his heart fifteen years ago and as the release date of the film approaches, he is eager to share his story with the world.

“I set out to make the movie of my lifetime and I hope audiences will feel the same way,” he said. “I believe that every life has value and that each of us was put on the earth to make a difference.”

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