Friends collaborate on a movie that may be headed for Sundance Film Festival 09/22/05
Louis Llovio

Jeffrey Eline, of Eline Funeral Homes in Reisterstown, and his business partner William Whitehurst, of Cockeysville, relax at Java Mamma's in Reisterstown. The partners produced the film "Mentor." Java Mamma's coffee shop on Main Street in Reisterstown is as far from Hollywood as one can imagine.

But on a sunny Tuesday morning in early September, the doors open and in walk two motion picture film producers, Jeffrey Eline and William Whitehurst, the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck of Baltimore County.

Though not likely to draw legions of screaming female fans like the superstars, the two unassuming men have more in common with the Oscar winners than not.

Eline, whose family has operated funeral homes in Reisterstown and Hampstead since 1863, and Whitehurst, of Cockeysville, met several years ago while attending a screenwriting workshop at Johns Hopkins University.

Writing and producing wasn't new for the two. Whitehurst attended the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City, and Eline studied television production at Wilkes College in Pennsylvania and City of London Polytech in England.

But they wanted to make movies.

"Screenwriting is an

Actor Matt Davis, in avocation," says Whitehurst, a playwright by trade. "I'm looking to turn it into a vocation."

The two became fast friends and partners.

While at Hopkins, they collaborated on the short film "Tears of a Clown," which they co-wrote and Eline directed. The film won Best of Festival for a short feature at the 2002 Berkeley Video and Film Festival in Berkeley, Calif. It was shown at other festivals nationwide.

"We worked together well," Eline says. "We wanted to see if we could go further."

Their next project was the screenplay "Mentor" that Whitehurst had written.

Whitehurst's screenplay was a semifinalist for the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, an international competition open to screenwriters who have not earned more than $5,000 writing for film or television. The contest is sponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the same group that hands out the Oscars.

"'Mentor' is a story about redemption," Whitehurst says.

The movie, which begins with the death of a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, is told partly in flashback and in real time. Also featured are his girlfriend and protege.

Set in New England, the lead character, Carter, played by Matt Davis, receives a letter from his mentor on the same day the mentor dies.

While still a student, the protege had become entangled in a love triangle with the mentor and his girlfriend. The girlfriend is played by Dagmara Dominczyk.

The writer and mentor, Sanford Pollard, is played by actor Rutger Hauer, who made his name in the 1980s classic "Blade Runner."

The story is about the protege "coming to terms with his life," Whitehurst says.

Small project grows

Eline and Whitehurst planned to turn the script for "Mentor" into a small film.

"But then, gradually, more people began finding out about it," Whitehurst says.

"William wrote a great script," says veteran film editor Simeon Hutner, who read an early draft. "You read a lot of scripts (as an editor) that aren't very good and get made into Hollywood films. But this one was clean and had a lot of potential."

While Eline and Whitehurst were in Baltimore working on plans to shoot "Mentor," New York independent film producer Gill Holland read the script - and liked it.

"When he came on board, it gave the film legitimacy," Eline says.

Hutner says the "script attracted a lot of people" to the project.

The partners originally planned to make the film themselves on a "very low budget. We thought about shooting the movie on video (which is cheaper than film) and directing it ourselves using local, but very good, actors," Eline says.

But when Holland committed, "it enabled us to get some really good New York actors."

Before they knew it, the partners were jetting to New York - joining Holland and director David Langlitz - to interview actors whom they recognized from films and television shows.

"We would be sitting there," Whitehurst says, "and an actor would walk in and we'd say, 'Wow! That's so and so.'"

"We got actors we never would have gotten without Gill's participation," Eline says.

But the ability to land better-known actors proved to be an even bigger blessing than they could have imagined.

"We learned that older, established actors look for smaller, meatier roles," Eline says. Once actors have reached a certain level in their careers, they will try more off-beat, riskier roles.

Casting a big name for the role of Sanford Pollard, the writer/mentor, became a priority.

Eline and Whitehurst knew that if they could land a well-respected actor for the pivotal role, then younger actors who wanted to work with the established star would sign on as well.

On the short list of actors was Harvey Keitel.

At an earlier meeting between the producers, Rutger Hauer's name was mentioned for the mentor character.

Then a serendipitous trip to a Manhattan coffee shop got the screenplay into Hauer's hands.

He called the producers from his home in Denmark several days later and signed.

Davis and Dominczyk, two up-and-coming actors who've worked in films and television, soon followed.

But drawing Hauer proved a mixed blessing for Whitehurst.

"Rutger Hauer came in with his own distinct opinions about the script," he says, laughing. "We had many long discussions about the material."

One such heated discussion lasted 1 1/2 hours and had to do with a single line in the film.

"I was defending my baby," Whitehurst says, "and Rutger cared as much as I did. He wanted to do it (play his character) the best way he knew how."

Hauer eventually compromised and read a line similar to Whitehurst's original.

Filming wrapped in August

Filming of "Mentor" throughout Maryland, in St. Mary's and Carroll counties and on Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus wrapped in August. Hutner now is editing the film.

"William and Jeff were very open to hearing my opinion with certain creative things along the project," says Steve Blair, a classmate from the Hopkins workshop and line producer on the film. A line producer keeps the film on schedule and within budget.

"Sometimes low- budget filmmaking requires producers to come up with cost-effective ways to shoot a scene or shot," he says. "I feel their work outside of production over the last decade has given them a sense of fiscal responsibility that no producer should be without."

He calls Eline and Whitehurst "consummate professionals."

Jessica Feldman, who has been on sets for commercials as well as in theater productions, was an extra in "Mentor." She was impressed with the pair's professionalism.

"Seeing them work with the crew," says the Reisterstown actress, "it was like they had been doing this (making films) for a while."

Feldman says their interaction with veteran movie makers was seamless. "Everybody worked really well together. They knew what they were doing."

Hutner agrees.

"They haven't made a feature before," he says. "But they picked it up really quickly. They've been great to work with. The film looks great."

Eline and Whitehurst have entered the film for consideration at the Sundance Film Festival, to be held in January in Park City, Utah. Sundance is a premier independent film festival founded by Robert Redford.

A Sundance showing would help attract a distributor who could get the film into movie theaters.

For now, the two producers intend to continue making movies from Baltimore County. "It (being away from New York and Hollywood) can be an obstacle or a blessing in disguise," Whitehurst says.

Making "Mentor" proved to be a blessing.

Through their relationships with Johns Hopkins and the business community, they were able to secure locations throughout Maryland.

"We had million-dollar sets we didn't have to pay for," Eline says.

So what's next for the two?

Sitting in Java Mamma's sipping on coffee they answer almost in unison, "Keep doing what we're doing."

"Our goal is to do small, quality films that we can shoot in Maryland," Eline says.

As for becoming tabloid fodder with starlets hanging on their arms, like Affleck and Damon?

If their wives have anything to say about it, probably not.