BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The way Lynn Shelton tells it, a few things had to happen before her film, “Sword of Trust,” could make its way to Birmingham.
Shelton, a director and writer who has worked in both TV and film the last decade, had her first encounter with the city back in 2006 when her feature debut, “We Go Way Back,” premiered at the Sidewalk Film Festival. It was also the same time she met Ted Speaker, a longtime producer and presence at the festival.
In the following years, which included work on shows like “The Good Place” and the film “Your Sister’s Sister,” Shelton decided she wanted to make another movie. However, she wanted to make something different: she wanted the story to be set in the South, she wanted it to be about conspiracy theories, and she wanted it be entirely improvised, albeit with certain scenarios written out beforehand.
Originally, Shelton had the idea to shoot the film in Kentucky. Looking for people to work on the project with her, Shelton called Speaker to help out. He offered a compromise: shoot the film in Birmingham and he would do it.
“That was serendipitous because it just happened to be set in the South and that sounded perfect to me,” Shelton said.
It also helped that Shelton had enjoyed her time in Birmingham years before.
“I just fell in love with the city and the vibe of it and the people out here,” she said.
The city lends itself to any easygoing vibe in “Sword of Trust,” a film shot last year in downtown and parts of Argo that stars comedian and “GLOW” actor Marc Maron as a pawn shop owner in Birmingham who comes across a sword from the Civil War that allegedly proves the Confederacy had actually won the war. The film also stars Michaela Watkins (“Saturday Night Live,” “Casual”), Jon Bass (“Baywatch”) and Jillian Bell (“Workaholics, “22 Jump Street”).
Since its July 12th release, “Sword of Trust” has garnered mostly positive reviews, praising both the cast and story. The film currently holds a 93% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Bringing in only a handful of people from Los Angeles to work on the film, Shelton opted to use locals from around town and nearby Atlanta on the set, ranging from actors to behind-the-scenes crew. Al Elliott, an actor and former Hoover City Schools teacher, played Jimmy, Maron’s neighbor who owns a restaurant. Elliott shared several scenes with Maron in “Sword.”
“The biggest thing was there was a lot of improv,” Elliott said. “They wouldn’t let us rehearse, except to tell you ‘When you walk in, this is where you stand.’”
Elliott said he loved working on the film and being part of something so unique to his own acting experience.
“What she (Shelton) was able to create with this ensemble cast was amazing,” he said.
Virginia Newcomb, an actress and Alabaster native who came back to Birmingham from Los Angeles a few years ago, worked as a producer on “Sword,” where she cast Elliott and worked with Shelton to get a Southern feel for the film.
“She (Shelton) really has made Birmingham a character in this film,” Newcomb said.
While filming in Birmingham, Shelton made a conscious decision not to shoot in some of the newer or remodeled parts of downtown, instead going to the older parts of the Southside and Irondale to reflect a part of Maron’s character.
“It informs the character on where he’s at in his life,” Shelton said. “He’s not in the hustle and bustle of downtown. He’s not a kind of pawnshop owner where he’s really trying to make a lot of money or make a fast buck.”
Although Shelton had ideas of what “Sword of Trust” was going to be about, Birmingham had its own influence on the final cut. In addition to shots of Sloss Furnace and different parts of town shown in the film, the pawnshop that serves as the primary location for the story is Delta Pawn, a real pawn shop on 6th Avenue South. In fact, the titular sword belongs to Gene Paul, the owner of Delta Pawn.
Elliott said that despite the film’s initial premise, the story is about normal people trying to live their lives the best they can.
“I think it’s good when films can resonate with regular people,” he said. “It was so important to show regular people being the heroes.”
Newcomb said she hopes more films like “Sword” can be made in Birmingham. Recently, she completed work on a new movie called “The Death of Dick Long,” which was shot in Bessemer and Birmingham and was directed by Birmingham native Daniel Scheinert (“Swiss Army Man”).
“Things keep pulling me back here and I’m super excited for what’s coming here in the next few years,” she said.
Shelton admitted that by the end of the 12-day shoot for “Sword of Trust,” she had fallen in love with both the city and its people.
“I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “I was so filled with warmth and a sense of real humanity and connection every day.”
“Sword of Trust” is available to rent or buy online at Amazon, YouTube and Vudu. The movie will also be screened during the Sidewalk Film Festival on Aug. 25. “The Death of Dick Long” will play Aug. 24 at the festival.