Leesburg takes spotlight in new film ‘No Vacancy’
Leesburg takes the spotlight in the upcoming film “No Vacancy.”
Based on the true story of First Baptist Church of Leesburg, Cecil Johnson and the Samaritan Inn, the movie follows jaded reporter Brandi Michaels (Sean Young) as she is demoted from Orlando to a rural outpost during the 2007 economic and housing collapse. There, her editor assigns her a story about a church struggling to purchase a motel for homeless families and she encounters former drug addict Cecil Johnson (T.C. Stallings).
“It’s basically these three stories,” said writer and producer Art Ayris. “One story of the track is the church struggling to buy this motel; another track is the guy in this journey to get off cocaine and come to wholeness and become a productive citizen; and the third track is this reporter and her beginning to uncover the story.”
Ayris said he always felt called to tell the “incredible story” of his friend Johnson.
“He was such a vivacious, wonderful person,” he said. “Everyone at the church loved him.”
Ayris describes Johnson as a poor, Black, homeless criminal and drug addict who faced racism. He entered First Baptist Leesburg’s
men’s residence (a faith-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility), followed the 12-step program and turned his life around. He later taught others the same method that saved his life and served as a groundskeeper, usher and deacon at the church.
“When we had his [funeral] service here, it was the largest the church has ever seen,” said Ayris, who
is also executive pastor at First Baptist Leesburg. Clips from the March 2019 service will be shown in the movie.
Stallings said he is honored to play the beloved Leesburg resident.
“I always say a lot of people might not know his name, but I guarantee you God knows this man’s name because he’s a great person,” said Stallings. “This is a great man with a great heart.”
The Texas-based actor prepared for the role by talking with Johnson’s wife, Victoria, who he describes as the “female version of Cecil.” He also watched videos of Johnson preaching and the Heritage Foundation documentary about the couple.
“I hope people see that … as messed up as my character was, that God can turn his life around. Cecil Johnson … would say, ‘If God can change me, he can change anybody.’ ” Stallings said. “I hope people see what a little love and care for others can do, which is what the people here at First Baptist Leesburg do.”
In addition to the men’s residence, First Baptist Leesburg has a pregnancy and family care center, job program, women’s care center, children’s shelter, medical center and pantry that distributes free food, clothing and household items. But it’s the church’s struggle to purchase a motel and convert it into homeless housing at the height of the Great Recession that takes center stage in “No Vacancy.”
“We want to tell the story of this incredible church that made a decision to not build a new church for us but to take care of people in our Samaritan Inn,” said Ayris, noting the church lacked not only funds but also community support in this endeavor.
He credits former Orlando Sentinel columnist Lauren Ritchie in helping the church acquire the property, particularly for a story she wrote encouraging readers to support First Baptist Leesburg in its quest to buy the motel.
“There was a tremendous response to the article,” Ayris said.
In gratitude, he loosely based one of the lead characters, reporter Michaels, on Ritchie — who also has a cameo in the film. While Ritchie is “tickled” to be included in the film, she said she was just doing the job of a journalist.
“I’m grateful that they appreciated what the power of journalism can do when it comes to helping a community,” she said. “I’m always impressed when a church really puts its money where its mouth is, so to speak, and that’s something that First Baptist in Leesburg does consistently. They’re community-based in terms of helping the community where they are.”
Ayris hopes “No Vacancy” — which is being produced by his Central Florida-based production company, Kingstone Studios — will be a catalyst in other communities, providing inspiration for ways to address homelessness.
“We’re trying to point out what a lot of people maybe don’t see that I think this church sees a lot of,” Ayris said. “We’re trying to encourage others to address the need.”
“No Vacancy” began filming Sept. 7 at the downtown campus of First Baptist Leesburg, the site where the events depicted in the film took place in real life. Those familiar with this area in Lake County will recognize the church and its many facilities.
Director Kyle Saylors said the authentic location makes this film unique.
“Everywhere we’re shooting is where it actually took place, unlike most movies,” said the Nashville, Tennessee filmmaker. “Even some of the extras, they are the people who were … actually part of the story.”
But using these spaces also has its challenges. Saylors and his crew had to add cinematic touches to ordinary offices and hallways.
“My main goal is this is not gonna look anything like a Hallmark movie,” he said with a chuckle. “We want to have a lot of edge and a lot of interesting dynamics.”
Costume designer and Apopka resident Beverly Safier also played a role in elevating the film’s feel, as she adapted the wardrobes and makeup of Stallings and Young to mimic the evolution of their characters. Johnson starts in oversized, baggy clothing and evolves into clean, well-fitting garments. Similarly, Michaels goes through a transformation from structured, dark clothing to light, airy, colorful attire.
While Safier worked to make the wardrobe authentic to the time, there’s a trendy 2007-2010 color viewers won’t see: mustard gold.
“This mustard gold that no one can wear was the most popular color,” she said. “It’s been difficult to nail the time period and stay away from that because it’s not flattering to anyone and it photographs ugly.”
And add to these obstacles that filming is taking place amid the coronavirus, which presents its own difficulties.
The production has implemented several safety precautions. Anyone on set must fill out a health questionnaire and undergo a temperature check upon arrival. Frequent hand washing and sanitizing are encouraged, and masks are required. Health safety supervisor and COVID19 compliance officer JD Demers and his team also constantly test the cast and crew with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
“Testing is really the most important way to control it on a set, whether it’s a set that’s open outdoors or it’s a closed environment,” said Demers.
A few major film companies and streaming services have shown interest in acquiring rights to “No Vacancy,” according to Ayris, and he hopes it will debut early next year. For more information, go to novacancymovie.com.