Dominion Resources chief executive Thomas Farrell calmly stood before about two dozen Virginia movers and shakers in Richmond’s iconic Jefferson Hotel one afternoon five years ago.
He wasn’t there to talk about climate change. He didn’t want to talk about the utility’s stock price.
Farrell wanted $7 million in commitments to fund his Hollywood dream: a Civil War motion picture with stars, battle scenes, special effects — and a story he thought would make money.
“They were thinking that Farrell must be out of his mind,” said the 59-year-old former litigator, who is a film buff and, now, credited screenwriter and producer.
Farrell got his stake and, with a chunk of his own money, immersed himself in the film world and the headaches that go with it: actor schedules, endless postproduction, rewrites, nighttime shoots, caterers, video on demand, studio negotiations, special effects, on-location filming.
The result is “Field of Lost Shoes,” a film about 250 mostly teenage cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who fought for the Confederacy in 1864’s Battle of New Market.
The film premieres Monday in Alexandria and stars Jason Isaacs of “Black Hawk Down,” “The Patriot” and the Harry Potter series; Lauren Holly of “Picket Fences” and “Dumb & Dumber”; David Arquette of the “Scream” movies; Nolan Gould of “Modern Family”; and Tom Skerritt of “Top Gun” fame.
Farrell, who has made tens of millions at Dominion, comes from a long line of Army officers. His grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb. (Farrell’s son works for Graham Holdings, the former owner of The Washington Post.) He grew up at Army posts across the United States, reading a lot of military history, especially on the Civil War.
One story that stayed with him was about the 250 VMI cadets who — after marching four days in pouring rain from Lexington to New Market — joined the Confederate line to fight the Union forces.
“They were thrown into the middle of the line and led the charge across a newly planted wheat field,” Farrell said. “The mud sucks the boots off their feet. It became known as the field of lost shoes.”
Farrell outlined a book on the cadets’ role at the Battle of New Market two decades ago. He said he didn’t have the time or talent to write a book, but he thought a movie might be the right vehicle.
Fast-forward to four years ago. Farrell contacted a college buddy from the University of Virginia, David Kennedy, who had become a Navy fighter pilot and wrote screenplays in his downtime on aircraft carriers. Farrell pitched Kennedy, who had moved to Los Angeles, about his idea for a film, and Kennedy was intrigued.
For months, they batted script ideas back and forth over long telephone calls between Richmond and Los Angeles. It took Kennedy six months to finish a script. Then they rewrote portions, sending the versions back and forth for another several months.
When the pair thought they had something worth moving forward on, they took it to VMI for its sign-off. Once they had VMI’s imprimatur, Farrell started thinking about raising the money to make the movie.
“David kept telling me how hard it is to make a movie. He is right,” Farrell said.
They hired an executive producer to see how much it would cost to put their idea onto film. Then Farrell — who knows something about a balance sheet — sat down and penciled in a budget with two columns: cost and fundraising.
The utility bigwig got in touch with several people in his Richmond and U-Va. circles and some from VMI, and he organized the Jefferson Hotel pitch lunch. No detail was overlooked: He made salad the main course to send a message to investors that he was a cost-conscious filmmaker.
“This is not a Ted Turner ‘I want to make a movie whatever the cost’ project. This is a commercial enterprise with very sophisticated investors.”
With contacts he met through Kennedy, he studied the business of movies, its revenue streams and cost structures. They also started casting about for a director, producers and actors, all with an eye toward holding down costs.
Farrell viewed moviemaking through the same business lens of running a utility.
“I don’t know how to run a nuclear power plant. My job is to make sure we have the right people in place to run a nuclear plant. I don’t know how to make a movie. My job was to hire the right people to make it happen.”
Case in point: His first candidate for executive producer, which is the movie equivalent of a chief operating officer, had visions of a $25 million epic.
Farrell and Kennedy kept looking, knowing that they needed to fill the job with exactly the right person — or risk losing theirs and the investors’ $7 million.
“I wanted to make sure we had somebody who understood the nuts and bolts of making movies. In a movie, every day is money.”
To stay within budget, most of the movie was filmed around Richmond. Outdoor scenes were filmed near an old prison farm for women west of the state capital.
Payroll was the movie’s biggest expense, so they learned how to use their actors efficiently. When main character Jason Isaacs could be on site only four days, they scheduled his days down to the minute.
They cut the number of characters in the original script from 62 to 30, which saved money and time but also expedited the story.
“We combined characters to make the movie faster, attract higher-profile actors and to save money,” Farrell said. “Every actor is a different line item on the budget. Their costs for food is a line item. Costumes. Makeup.”
Director Sean McNamara wanted to film the key battle scene at its actual New Market location more than 100 miles from Richmond, but Farrell killed the idea because it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars moving, feeding and finding hotel rooms for the cast and crew.
“We made our own battlefield instead,” Farrell said.
Some expenses were worth it. They hired an experienced and expensive screenwriter, Ron Bass, who won an Academy Award for “Rain Man,” to help polish the screenplay, including juicing the dialogue for authenticity.
The entire film, including pre-production, filming and postproduction, took about four years, although actual filming lasted less than two months. Even so, they had 200 hours of film to edit down to less than two hours.
The film is expected to be released in 20 cities in September.
Farrell said he is happy with the final product and believes he has a hit on his hands. And surely, so do his investors.
I asked him whether he had another movie up his sleeve, but for now he is sticking with turbines and power lines over celluloid and sound booms.
Then he paused.
“If another story struck me like this one did,” he said, his voice trailing off.
Maybe he’s hooked.