By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

Eli Daughdrill has been nurturing a large ambition since he was at Atwater High, a country boy being raised in an evangelical Christian home who spent weekends dissecting “Die Hard”.

Daughdrill dreamt of making films.

In November, after years studying, making documentaries and shorts, and teaching others the same, “Faith”, his first feature-length movie, was released to a national audience on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

The Merced College alumnus leaned heavily on his valley upbringing to shape the script he wrote 10 years ago. “Faith” is about a religious man, a farmer, who faces a 180-degree perspective shift after a family tragedy.

“Sure, I wrote what I knew, but it wasn't easy,” the father of two said of the script about a father who questions his faith. “I was also telling a story about people that aren’t always represented [on screen].”

Daughdrill, also a film professor at Long Beach City College, shot “Faith” at his parent’s farm, Fosters Freeze, Wilson Family Funeral Chapel and Liberty Fellowship in Atwater, and the Cinema Café in Merced. The cast and crew stayed at the Merced Travelodge.

Daughdrill jokes that he hasn’t stopped apologizing to his parents Barry and Helen or disrupting their lives that month in 2018. On the other hand, using the family home cut costs, as did casting them both in the movie.

A GOOD IDEA

“Faith” got made because Daughdrill was pragmatic. As a film student, he had learned the power of a moving script paired with a realistic budget, in this case $200,000.

He convinced producer Mike Ryan, well known for supporting small films, that he had a strong story. Ryan successfully sold the project to actors Brian Geraghty, of Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker,” and Iddo Goldberg, of BBC heavy Peaky Blinders.

Then Merced County and Hollywood merged.

“Like I told them at dinner one night, ‘You gotta say ‘a-monds’ not ‘all-monds.’” Daughdrill said. “And someone at the next table leaned over, ‘You talking about the price of ‘a-monds?’”

Point made. Getting the sounds, the look and the pace right anchored this film in small town America.

“I wanted it to feel like the valley,” Daughdrill said. “It’s slow. That’s a positive, not a negative. I like the rhythm of it. It feels like a country night.”

He captured that in one scene as Geraghty’s character sits alone in the farm’s front yard, bugs buzzing in the fading light, the heat and his pain palpable.

“I almost called the film ‘Darkness of a Country Night.’” Daughdrill admitted. “That was too long, but there’s something about being outside on the farm when it’s dusk. It’s not this huge cinematic moment, but getting it right was crucial.”

He served up other moments as an epilogue: A family laughs over dinner at Fosters Freeze. Two men drink beer and shoot the breeze outside the Chevron. Kids rush away from Atwater’s Mitchell Senior School.

“I wanted to show people a place that was specific, but universal,” he said.

A GOOD START

Daughdrill says he began wanting make his own films because he didn’t have a social life at Atwater High.

He’d spend weekends at Blockbuster renting anything he knew would never play at local theaters. He didn’t understand all of it, but needed to consume what no one else was watching.

Daughdrill remembers watching “Independence Day” with friends and finding it ridiculous. He chose their next film, dragging them to see Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning turn in “Leaving Las Vegas”.

“I did feel that movie was more meaningful than aliens,” he said. “My friends hated it.”

Daughdrill understood then that, to make films, he would have to leave home. But he has never left home behind.

After Merced College, his biggest undergrad project at San Francisco State featured his father and uncle. At Loyola Marymount for graduate school, he made shorts on an ex-con living in his car, inspired by a high school friend; a hospice nurse caring for her father inspired his mother; and one about his brother Jonas living with schizophrenia.

He turned “Jonas” into a documentary that did well at film festivals. Daughdrill felt good about it, but time still gnawed at him.

“What happens when you’re young is you expect each movie you make to set the world on fire,” he said. “‘Jonas’ won awards, but it didn’t change my life. I still wondered, ‘What now?’”

At that point, the answer was “Faith”. Now again wonders what’s next. It’s why Daughdrill describes filmmaking as Sisyphean work.

Ironically, the proverbial boulder nearly crushed him during pre-production on “Faith”. An investor pulled out three weeks before filming began.

He still did what one often does on the farm, and what he’ll continue to do with his ideas—finish the work.

“It sounds so arrogant,” Daughdrill admitted, “but the way you see it through is you see it through.”