The secondary education major from Ducktown, in southeast Tennessee, found both when he tried out and was chosen for a part in “Bell Witch: The Movie,” produced by Big River Pictures L.L.C., a subsidiary of Sevierville’s Cinemarr Entertainment.
Based on a legendary haunting that happened in the early 1800s, “Bell Witch: The Movie” premieres at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Saturday, Sept. 24. The red-carpet gala, concert featuring music from the film and the movie itself will be broadcast live via satellite in full-bandwidth to high definition theaters across the country.
“Not everybody gets an opportunity like this, and I’m thankful because I realize this experience has truly been a blessing from God,” said Geren, who portrays Joshua Gardner, the love interest of tormented Betsy Bell, in the film.
The voice of the witch is provided by Betsy Palmer, who is possibly best known for her role as Jason’s mother in the original “Friday The 13th” movie.
“Shane Marr, who directed and produced this movie, took a long shot when he decided to cast me as Joshua Gardner, though, because I know I’m not worthy of it. It was an incredible experience for a poor kid from Ducktown,” Geren continued.
It was an incredible experience for director and producer Marr as well. Although he has an extensive background working in film and television in both Florida and Santa Monica, Calif., this was his first full-length motion picture with his own Tennessee companies, Cinemarr Entertainment and Big River Pictures.
“I had a little wish list,” Marr admits. “I wanted a true story that would showcase my Smoky Mountain home, would celebrate mountain music and would scare the pants off anyone listening to it around a campfire. The Bell Witch was the perfect story.”
If it hadn’t been for Geren’s late grandfather, Rev. Eddie Lewis, however, he might never have even tried out for Marr’s movie.
“He had just passed away. We had just had his funeral, and I was messing around on the Internet, typed in the wrong web address and was directed to a page for an open casting call for this project, so I decided to go and try out for my grandfather,” Geren said.
He took his guitar with him and was given the green light to return for an audition.
“I read with lots of the young ladies who were trying out for the lead actress part, and about a month after that first reading, I was called back for a second reading,” he said.
A song from the movie, “The Dreams We Dream,” was inspired when musician Jimbo Whaley watched Geren read with Hope Banks, who was cast as Betsy Bell. Other musicians who contributed to the soundtrack include Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike Band, The Jeanette Williams Band, Becky Buller and Jeff and Vida Band.
By the end of summer prior to filming, the part of Joshua Gardner had finally been narrowed down to Geren and another actor — and the rest, of course, is history.
But the experience was just beginning for Geren, who — along with the rest of cast and crew — was on location in Townsend for filming during the entire month of October 2001.
“I returned home only three times that month, and one of those times was to visit my girlfriend, Beth, on her birthday,” he said.
She is now his wife, and the couple met shortly before Geren became involved with the movie, after he learned that her father had died only three days before his grandfather.
“It was a new relationship, so it was hard having to be away for such a long period all at one time — but everyday on the set, I was learning something new about make-up, wardrobe or just about movie-making in general,” he said.
In fact, Geren said, the experience helped him acquire a newfound respect for Hollywood.
“I learned from first-hand experience that it’s not always as easy as it looks to be an actor. I’ve definitely acquired a higher respect for the trade,” he said. “Just knowing that so many other people’s careers depend on your performance is a huge responsibility.”
The job also involved long hours, with filming sometimes running from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. “And the weather was often dark and dreary, but that didn’t darken my experience,” he said.
In one particular scene, he and Hope Banks as Betsy had to film a picnic scene barefoot in the grass.
“It looks nice and sunny in the movie, but on the day we actually shot that scene, it was 30 degrees outside,” he said. “Whenever we weren’t on camera, we were huddled under blankets, drinking hot chocolate. It’s hard to act like you’re not absolutely freezing when it’s that cold outside.”
Geren says the experience also inspired him to have greater confidence in himself.
“I was the poor kid who got picked on in elementary school, so instead of having lots of friends, I became the nerd who walked around with my nose in a book, but now I know I won’t be scared to go to another audition, if God leads my life in that direction again,” he said.
Doris Marr, a representative of Cinemarr Entertainment and Big River Pictures, said Geren is exactly the type of person those companies are looking for.
“There is so much untapped talent here in the South, and it’s our goal to try to find and reveal some of that hidden talent,” she said. “Todd was a natural who was wonderful to work with. No matter what career he chooses, I know he will be successful. That’s just the kind of personality he has.”
Although Geren says the experience hasn’t altered his desire to become an English teacher, he believes some of the things he learned on set will enhance his classroom capabilities. “I think with both, you have to always be ready, always be on your toes and not be afraid to improvise if you have to.”
As for the red-carpet premiere next weekend of “Bell Witch: The Movie,” Geren says he’s looking forward to it.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product, but what will make me happiest is knowing my wife and my mama will both be there beside me and being able to see the looks on their faces when they see me on screen. I wish I could take my whole family,” he said.
Tickets for the premiere event, which will be hosted by Phil Campbell, son of the late Archie Campbell, are $30 each.
They are still available for purchase through www.BellWitchPremiere.com, all Ticketmaster outlets and the Ryman Auditorium box office, on the web at www.Ryman.com or by phone at 615/255-9600.