By Brian Mittge
Chehalis moviemaker and former Hollywood producer Tad Devlin has announced he is calling it quits after losing $1 million directing and filming a full-length film in the greater Lewis County area. “The dream is dead,” said Devlin, who at one time employed 14 youths at his downtown Chehalis office of Northwest Film Projects. “I failed.” Devlin, who has put his home and office supplies up for sale, uses a movie metaphor to explain why he’s leaving Lewis County for good. “I’m where Jimmy Stewart was just after he got punched out in the bar by the angry husband,” said Devlin, in reference to the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Frustrations and bills are piling up for Devlin, who produced and directed a coming-of-age movie using local actors and scenery. After the Enron scandal and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it was hard to find venture capital, he said, so his company couldn’t take the movie to market and move forward on other films that were in the works. At the Chehalis premier of the movie in May 2001, he thanked his Mastercard for making it all possible, and that grain of truth is haunting him now. Devlin said he’s spent $1 million of his own movie and will take any job that comes open.
For now, he’s doing some digital editing consulting for Disney, he said, but is looking for long-term work. He’s produced such films as “George of the Jungle” and “D3: The Mighty Ducks,” but left the bustle of Hollywood for, he said, a more meaningful life exploring the issues facing “rural America.” “I still think this community is a diamond in the rough. There’s a lot about this community I love, but I had very unrealistic expectations of what could be done,” he said.
Devlin, 57, used 350 local volunteers to write, film, edit and produce what is believed to be the first full-length motion picture made completely in the greater Lewis County area. A fictional coming-of-age story, it followed a young woman in Oakville whose correspondence with a British gardener gave her a new outlook on life. In November, the film received a student film award in Dallas from the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, beating out schools throughout the nation. “It’s an award for the community,” Devlin said. He points to a movie review for a Tacoma screening that compared “The Immigrant Garden” to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Anne of Green Gables.” He’s proudest that his company gave experience and hope to local youths, including, he said, two former methamphetamine users who kicked the habit when they found something to occupy their talents.
As far as real-life comparisons to “It’s a Wonderful Life” are concerned, Lewis County United Way Executive Director Debbie Campbell said Devlin – like Jimmy Stewart’s character – probably doesn’t recognize all the good he’s done in the community. He donated time and labor to make promotional videos for the countywide charity agency, she said, but also worked one-on-one with young people who needed a mentor and skills.
“Tad had a big vision, a bigger version than ever materialized here in Lewis County,” she said. “I think a lot of people around here didn’t understand Tad. Because he is an artist, he had a lot of different visions that maybe didn’t gel with what other people in the community were thinking,” she said. “I hate to see him leave. It’s a loss for the community and a loss for him, too,” agreed Chehalis Mayor Bob Spahr.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of young people worked with Devlin, who saw digital media as a skill that could help replace logging as a local industry. Jamie Kline said the skills she learned from Devlin as video editor for “The Immigrant Garden” allowed her to get a job at Microsoft editing corporate videos. “He completely set me up with what I’ll probably do for the rest of my life,” she said. Some who’ve work with Devlin say he’s a tough boss, even for those who are just volunteering. “He’s probably the most intense person I’ve ever come into contact with,” Kline said. “He demands a lot and he expects a lot, but he lets you know that going in.” Caroline Wood, who wrote the play that became the screenplay of “The Immigrant Garden,” uses the term “driven” to describe Devlin. “He knows he only has a certain amount of time on this planet,” Wood said. “He has dreams of creating wonderful movies that can make a difference. He’s very frustrated that money stops that creative process.” Devlin said the movie was a success, but that he recklessly failed to foresee the obstacles – and thus failed those who were involved with the movie. “It was a million dollar idea. I never had the million dollars and I went ahead anyway,” said. “Maybe my appetite exceeded my grasp.”