Pasadena conservative activist Jonathan Wilson rolls the dice, recreating the Revolutionary War with his new DVD miniseries, ‘Courage, New Hampshire’
It’s well after dark on a crisp April night as a group of men wearing Colonial-Era clothing and burlap masks enter a barn and bring criminal charges against another man. Accused of treason for helping British troops learn information on revolutionary activities, the man has burst into a quiver of terror-filled emotion.
He’s denying everything this local tribunal is accusing him of, but they will not be placated, for they are the Sons of Liberty and they are determined to help forge a new nation free of English control. As they pronounce him guilty, he is led out of sight, shrieking for forgiveness and his very life. Moments later, a dull thud is heard and then all is silent.
This isn’t a real moment, of course, but rather a stirring re-enactment for an ambitious new series of straight-to-DVD, historical-fiction videos called “Courage, New Hampshire.” And at the heart of it is Pasadena resident Jonathan Wilson and his producing partner, Jim Riley, who also writes, directs and performs in the series shot on his rustic farm at the base of mountains one hour outside San Diego.
The two men have teamed up for several reasons, among which is a shared passion for American history as well as for a highly traditional brand of old-school conservative politics. While the show isn’t meant to directly espouse Tea Party politics, Wilson is one of the founders of Pasadena’s local Tea Party chapter, Pasadena Patriots, and the show strongly plays into that movement’s fixation on the nation’s founding era.
More than anything, Wilson says, the show is just trying to be good, old-fashioned family entertainment.
“It's funny, because we're not getting the response we thought we would from the Tea Party, but we are getting response from left, right and center, from people who just love a good story,” says Wilson, who started his career as an assistant in the motion picture literary department at the mega-agency ICM before becoming director of development for prolific director Peter Hyams (“The Three Musketeers,” “End of Days”). “A lot of our cast is from the other side, politically, and so we have a rule that there's no politics on the set. We don’t want to be known as a Tea Party production company, because Jim and I want to make stories for everybody. Politics are deeply divisive, and I think the solution to a divided America is a good story, where we can learn about ourselves and our nation, that can bring us together.”
Wilson makes it clear that his company, Colony Bay Productions, is “not receiving money from the Koch Brothers” — the conservative billionaires often regarded as the prime financial backers of the Tea Party movement. Rather, he’s lucky he found Riley, since Riley has been hosting Colonial-Era re-enactments for tourists and school groups on his expansive farm for years.
In fact, it was Riley’s Colonial-Era expertise that brought the two men together when Wilson was looking to hire a fife and drum trio for Tea Party rallies in 2009. Numerous people referred him to Riley, who is renowned for his powerful live portrayals of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, and the two decided to put Riley’s farm to work in a whole new way.
“The farm was homesteaded in 1883, then in 1886 my father bought the farm and land around it, and now it’s about 760 acres,” says Riley. “We’re still growing apples, pears, pumpkins, Indian corn and cherries, but we host 70,000 school kids every year and have a total of 120,000 guests each year for our open restaurant, two gift stores, U-Pict strawberries and raspberries, and the show ‘A Christmas Carol’ plus other plays in our theater.”
With the expense of sets and costumes negated, a large part of the financial challenge is eliminated. Many of the extras on-set are volunteers who love dressing up in the period wear, or are fellow conservatives happy to lend a hand in getting a show like this into the world entertainment market.
On top of that, Riley’s own large family steps in to fill many positions, including a son-in-law who’s outside directing the third episode. But there are still plenty of other obstacles to deal with.
“The biggest challenge has been producing a period piece in Southern California that’s supposed to take place in 1770s New Hampshire on the budget we have,” says Wilson, kicked back in the large, wooden main building of the Riley’s Farm complex as he samples a plate of hot cobbler following a hearty meal in the candle-lit restaurant. “If Hollywood was producing this, it would easily cost $750,000 to a million per episode. I’m not sure of this, but I don’t think there’s ever been a TV series produced on spec, where the show is produced before you know if you have the funds to get your money back, much less a period piece. The most fun is that we put together a fabulous cast that enjoys spending time together, regardless of politics.”
“I feel the biggest challenge is actually needing a lot of physical endurance,” counters Riley, in full costume while enjoying a cup of hot cider. “These are 16 to 20 hour days, and for this episode, we’ve been out until 3 a.m. with snow flying in our faces. We put a lot of time into casting, weeks of auditioning to find the right faces for the parts, so we already surmounted a lot of things with preparation. To me, it’s astounding you could get $64 mil out of ‘Hot Tub Time Machine.’ We’ve got a lot of European interest in the show, so I think we’ll make it.”
The goal is to produce 26 one-hour episodes, with each covering events in a different season from winter 1770 that led to the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. From there, the team plans to take it to the world’s biggest film and TV sales market at the Cannes Film Festival this month, harboring high hopes as their foreign sales representative has informed them that miniseries like theirs are the hottest thing on the current world television market.
“The best part of it is that it’s fabulous drama and has a lot of tremendously authentic history in it, but it’s also about morals,” says Basil Hoffman, a Pasadena-based acting veteran with more than 100 TV and movie credits, who stars as the show’s main villain, attorney Simeon Trapp. “I love even the name of my character, because it feels like it could have come from Charles Dickens, rather than Jim Riley, It’s great dramatic literature, and it parallels the Tea Party now because the Sons of Liberty never got violent, but they made a statement that resounds through history.”
DVDs of “Courage, New Hampshire” are available at colonybay.net and Amazon.com.