Five years ago, a moviemaking family slipped into Baton Rouge largely unnoticed. A movie now airing on Apple TV+, Amazon and Google Play serves as their coming-out party.
“The Last Champion,” starring Cole Hauser as a disgraced former wrestler who’s come home to a town that still resents him, is a production of Redburn Street Pictures. It’s Redburn Street's first movie project to be produced locally. The family expects it won’t be the last.
Producer-director Glenn Withrow; his wife, actress Hallie Todd; and their daughter, Ivy Withrow, co-wrote the movie, and Todd has a significant on-screen role. She is best known as Jo McGuire in the TV series “Lizzie McGuire,” and she’s had a busy acting career, mostly in television, since 1976. Her husband amassed 27 acting credits before deciding to pursue his dream of making movies.
Having produced a horror film, “The Mooring,” in 2012 and operating a small studio in Burbank, California, Withrow was doing projects with Louisiana’s film industry and found Baton Rouge to his liking.
When his daughter was looking at law schools, he suggested she check out LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center. She did and received both her juris doctor and diploma in comparative law in 2018 and uses her legal expertise for Redburn Street in addition to her writing and co-producer roles.
By that time, mom and dad were already based here.
“With the entertainment business, you can be anywhere,” Glenn Withrow said. “We just figure nowadays you can live wherever you want, and we wanted a better quality of life. We were fine in L.A., but it became too much. We fell in love with the people here. We have wonderful friends here.”
By the time the Withrows arrived, they had already been working on “The Last Champion,” which took 17 script drafts before they were satisfied. Glenn Withrow, who had been a successful high school wrestler in Kentucky, loved the sport and wanted to feature it in a movie.
The sport, however, is more of the setting than the subject. “The Last Champion” is no more about wrestling than “Casablanca” was about casinos.
John Wright had been the small-town hero who won an Olympic medal that was taken away because he’d used banned performance-enhancing drugs, and he was too ashamed to return. He only comes back after his mother's death to get her run-down home ready to sell, and he ends up coaching his old high school wrestling team, which includes Michael Miller, whose mother is played by Todd.
“It was the struggle,” Withrow said. “Wrestling was a perfect metaphor for this film. John Wright is struggling. People are struggling with him coming back into town. Michael, the kid that he winds up mentoring, is struggling with his mother, who is struggling with issues. It was a perfect metaphor for this film.”
Sean Scully plays Miller, and other key roles are done by Annika Marks, Randall Batinkoff, Peter Onorati and Bob McCracken. Two former Olympic wrestling gold medalists, Dan Gable and Randy Lewis, have roles. Hauser, of course, is the headliner.
“The timing has really been fantastic,” Withrow said. “Cole has done some really good stuff through the years, but ‘Yellowstone’ (the Paramount Network drama series) has really brought his talent forward, and it’s coincidence that it worked with us. When he walked into the office … I knew within five minutes that that was the guy who should play John Wright. … He’s a powerhouse.”
“The Last Champion” was filmed in Garfield, Washington, a town of about 600 people near the Idaho border. Because the film is set in wrestling season, much of it was shot during winter, which was a change for anyone from LA or La.
“It got to negative 15 degrees wind chill on some days,” Ivy Withrow said. “You’d be wearing your snow boots with little heating pads inside, and it did nothing. It was tough.”
But it’s a tough business. Withrow’s original plan was for a theatrical release, but COVID-19 made that impossible. The digital platforms could be a blessing in disguise.
“It’s a better business move for independents,” Withrow said.
And those independents can be anywhere, including Baton Rouge.