Movie set can stay, may draw Spielberg to town

KEVIN SAMPIER

A movie set that resembles atown out of the Old West can remain standing in a protected flood plain and could soon draw Steven Spielberg and Liam Neeson to the area for filming.

"It takes a big burden off my shoulders because we’ve been trying for a long time to get that done," said Jim Conover, owner of the movie set that recently received permission to stay where it is — 2½ miles north of Hopedale.

The seven-building "town" is a saloon, bank, general store, jail, barber shop, undertaker and a two-story hotel with a balcony

Conover built the set for his movie "Sand Prairie," an independent feature-length western he wrote, directed and produced.

The set sits in a flood plain along the Mackinaw River and needed special approval from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to be constructed in 2005.

"We had to go through a lot to get it there," he said.

Conover has been working to get permanent status for the buildings. He recently got it when the Tazewell County Zoning Board of Appeals approved a special-use permit to allow the buildings to stay.

The set is in an area zoned for conservation. The buildings would have been torn down if the approval was denied, he said.

As part of the agreement, the backs of the three-sided buildings need to remain off to allow flood waters to pass freely through them and then recede back into the river, said Kristal Deininger, Tazewell County planning and zoning administrator.

"As long as water can flow through, it meets state and local regulations," she said.

Conover plans to treat the wooden structures with a waterproof sealer and add roofs, which is allowed under the permit.

But no new buildings can be added, Deininger said.

The potential for floods ruining the rustic set doesn’t worry Conover.

"It would have to be a pretty good roaring storm through there to do any damage to the buildings," he said.

The buildings will serve as a filming location and possibly a tourist attraction for western buffs, and talk of director Spielberg and actor Neeson using the set has been circulating, Conover said.

Spielberg, the prolific director/producer known for the "Indiana Jones" series and such exemplary films as "Schindler’s List," in which Neeson starred, is currently making a movie about Abraham Lincoln in which Neeson plays the lead role, set for release in 2009.

Neeson has appeared in dozens of movies, including "Batman Begins" and the most recent additions to the "Star Wars" franchise.

Conover said the Lincoln movie is in pre-production and a list of possible shooting locations includes his Hopedale site.

"Our ‘town’ is on that list of shooting locations," Conover said, adding that the set is the only full-scale western set in the area.

Shooting for Conover’s own movie wrapped up in October and it is now in the editing stage.

The movie’s trailer and press kit have been sent to Paramount Pictures and Conover is waiting to see if Paramount will distribute the movie.

Conover said the set could bring other large production companies to the area, which would mean money for the county and more jobs.

"I know that it’ll bring work for actors and cast and crews," he said. "We’ve got some skilled people now that they’ve had two years of training."

Kevin Sampier can be reached at (309) 346-5300 or ksampier@pjstar.com.