Josh Stewart has been on screen as an actor for more than a decade, but recently, the Diana, Webster County, native went behind the lens to write and direct his first feature film, “The Hunted,” which he also stars in.
The movie, set and filmed in Webster County, will have select West Virginia premieres, starting this weekend in Sutton.
“It’s about a guy who’s had a lifelong ambition to get a hunting show on the Outdoor Channel,” said Stewart of the found-footage horror thriller. “He ropes a friend who’s a news cameraman into coming along for the ride. When they get there, things aren’t as easy as they’d foreseen. There are the normal challenges, but then you throw in the things that go bump in the night, and it really throws them off.”
This isn’t the world premiere — that was last year at Screamfest, in Los Angeles — but West Virginians will still be among the first to see the movie, which is very important to Stewart.
“Being from West Virginia and starting [my career] in West Virginia, it only made sense for me to come back there first,” he said from his Los Angeles home. “So, when [the movie] was available for public consumption, it was important for me to come back there and start there.”
The Sutton showings — which he’s unable to attend because of filming for “Hysteria,” a TV pilot for Amazon — are as close as he can get to his tiny hometown about 10 miles from Webster Springs, where his parents still live.
“Growing up where I did, you had to go an hour to get to the movie theater,” he said with a laugh.
The location also has sentimental value to him.
“The place it’s screening at in Sutton, The Elk Theatre, was one of the first I ever went to, and it’s right down the street from The Landmark Theater, where I did my first play, so I’m going right back to where I first started.”
Since getting his start, Stewart has appeared on TV in NBC’s “Third Watch,” FX’s “Dirt,” ABC’s “No Ordinary Family” and CBS’ “Criminal Minds” (where he has a recurring role as JJ’s husband), as well as in films, including “The Dark Knight Rises” (as Bane’s right-hand man), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and the horror movies “The Collector” and its sequel, “The Collection.”
Stewart said he’s always had an interest in directing, though.
“I really think, at the core of it, if you’re a storyteller in any fashion, all aspects appeal to you on some level,” he said. “Some people follow through, and some are content to just act or write or direct.
“I think the way I was taught to approach acting from an overall standpoint lends itself to directing, as well,” he added. “The way I see it, my job as an actor is to service the writer’s words within the director’s vision. I’m just a piece in that puzzle, and every piece has to be there to have a complete picture.”
It was while filming “The Dark Knight Rises” that Stewart really began piecing his puzzle together.
About “The Hunted,” he said, “It’s based on a true story that actually happened to me, so the story has always been there.” He said it happened when he was a WVU student, living “out towards Cheat Lake, in the middle of nowhere.
“When I was doing Batman, towards the end of that was when it really started grabbing hold of me that this was the time to do it. I started writing it during the last leg of that.”
The two films couldn’t be more different — one, a multi-million dollar blockbuster filmed with “a traveling army going all over the world to film,” the other, a small indie “with time constraints, budget constraints and location logistics.” And that’s exactly what Stewart wanted.
“I had the best time of my life doing ‘Batman,’” he said, “but, creatively speaking, I wanted to do the complete opposite of that. I wanted to go do something that was shot in no time with a very minimal cast and crew, to just go back to that sort of thing.”
He wrote the script during the fall and winter of 2011, and filming was in September 2012.
“Being a true independent movie, that’s the way indie movies are done,” he said. “You scrape everything together that you can. You shoot it when you can shoot it. We had to piecemeal it all together.”
Shooting in Webster County was a joy for Stewart, but also a challenge.
“Just to be able to come home and film in places I myself have grown up in, it was like coming home to play,” he said.
However, that playtime included equipment problems and bad weather.
“Just getting to the middle of nowhere with all the equipment and generators was a feat in and of itself,” he said. “Then throw in when a light blows — you can’t just run to Webster Springs to get a new light; that’s a trip to Pittsburgh. And we were laying down so much cable from the generators to the lights that the cables were starting to melt.”
He praised Bob and Jeff Tinnell at Allegheny Image Factory for their help with the film crew. Unfortunately, no one could help them keep Mother Nature at bay.
“One night, the biggest downpour came, we had a few pop-up tents we were all huddled under. All the vans got stuck. We had to call a logger I knew to get us out. He was literally the only person I knew who would know where we were.”
The logger was just one of the people who benefited financially from the production. Stewart acknowledged the film’s limited budget but said he was glad to contribute to the local economy any way he could.
“I didn’t come back and spend a ton of money, but to spend the money we did have, I saw it go right back into that small country store where we got gas and sodas every day and the kitchen at Holly River State Park that made our meals. That’s just as important as stories being told there.”
Also important: the state’s portrayal.
Stewart said, “More than anything, that’s the reason I wanted to come back. That’s where it happened to me, and West Virginia is so beautiful. I think a lot of the stereotypes overshadow what West Virginia is.
“[The film] is not disparaging in any way,” he added. “Trust me; I’m a West Virginian. It’s gonna have some things that throw you off, but anything that could be seen as any sort of stereotype will be explained.”
Currently, two additional West Virginia screenings of “The Hunted” are planned: June 19 in Bridgeport and June 26 in Morgantown. Stewart also hopes to have one in Nitro.
Those interested in either the Bridgeport or Morgantown screenings should go to www.tugg.com, search for “The Hunted” and RSVP to their desired event. This ensures there will be enough interest to hold the screenings. Once enough people RSVP for the screening to be confirmed, any remaining tickets will be available at the theater.
“The point of the screenings is to see if there is enough interest in a small theatrical release in addition to what we’re doing,” Stewart said. “This fall, eOne, who bought the movie, will be releasing it on VOD [Video On Demand], DVD and digital download.
“It will be available for mass consumption right in time for hunting season. I want everybody to think about what I think about when I walk into the woods,” he said with a laugh.
Reach Amy Robinson at
email@example.com or 304-348-4881.