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Hollywood visits Ceres
Bernsen stages accident scene at Magnolia & Kay for film Life With Dog
Corbin Bernsen gives instructions to young extras perched on their bicyclce on Magnolia Street for Sunday mornings shoot. Below is the scene at Magnolia and Kay streets. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

The intersection of Magnolia and Kay streets became a short-lived movie set on Sunday as actor-director Corbin Bernsen and crew filmed an accident scene for his upcoming movie, "Life With Dog."

The hit-and-run accident scene featured actress Marilu Henner, who plays the wife of main character "Joe" - portrayed by Bernsen. In the movie Henner's character is fatally injured as she is struck by a car while riding a bicycle.

Bernsen, who is best known for playing divorce attorney Arnold Becker on the NBC-TV series, "L.A. Law," wrote the script and both directs and stars in the faith-based movie. This is the second time Bernsen has filmed a movie in Stanislaus County. In 2013 Bernsen filmed "Christian Mingle" in downtown Turlock and around Modesto.

Bernsen plays a retiree pressured to sell his older home for newer housing development.

"He's kind of the last property owner holding out against that and his wife is killed in a hit-and-run accident and he thinks that perhaps there was some foul play involved to get him to sell his property," said Matt Garman who is assisting in the production which wrapped up yesterday.

In the film, Bernsen's character gets tossed in jail after losing his cool at the local bank. Bernsen was granted permission to film in the holding cell at Ceres Police headquarters on July 1 and again on Sunday.

Ceres Police helped block off the low-traffic intersection south of Whitmore Avenue at around 9 a.m. while the film company set up makeshift cooling tents with blue tarps in a nearby alley. Fire engines supplied by Denair Fire Department were angled on both sides of the intersection along Magnolia Street while yellow police tape cordoned off the staged scene of the bike accident.

Henner, 65, who became famous on the TV show "Taxi," walked over to an ambulance gurney set up near a mangled bike with her head bandaged up. Bernsen, dripping in sweat from the approaching triple-digit morning heat, tirelessly bounced around the intersection while directing his camera crew. At times he sought the shade of neighboring yards. During shooting, the hot sun squarely beat down on the actress' face but as soon as the cameras were off parasols were held over her. At one point Henner was placed inside the ambulance to cool off with the air conditioning.

Residents in the area had been notified days before about the film production taking over their neighborhood and asked for understanding and cooperation. Some locals, however, had no idea what was going on. One Magnolia Street woman came out of her house and wondered about all of the activity.

"They left me a notice on my door but I didn't take it serious," said the resident. "I just thought maybe it was a joke or something."

Others passed by thinking police were dealing with a real accident.

Bernsen, dressed in a grey shirt and beige shorts, directed shots and kept his eyes on positions of extras. At one point he coached some young boys who was extras to take off their sunglasses when he yelled action.

Filming included use of a drone camera that hovered around the scene as Henner was being triaged and loaded into an ambulance. Those not in the scenes were asked to scurry off to "safe zones" out of view that included running RVs and vehicles that were running solely for the air conditioning.

Henner's husband, Michael Brown, watched the shooting through the window of an RV as he talked to the Courier.

"She's always been working, like this little indie here," said Brown. "She's a busy girl."

Brown said Bernsen chose the area because of its cooperation.

"I know that this is a low-budget deal so him getting all of this, I guess, for free is huge. You don't get that in L.A. Why when you can do it in Modesto or whatever? That's one of the reasons they do so much shooting outside of L.A. - with L.A. they don't cooperate so much."

The same kind of local hospitality and cooperation was offered by Virginia Beach in January 2016 when Bernsen filmed "In-Lawfully Yours." Henner and Brown both had roles in the film.

"In that movie I was the dead guy," joked Brown. "Now Marilu is playing the dead one."

He said his wife likes her current role.

"It's well written. Corbin wrote it. I've been reading it with her, doing her lines."

Brown said Bernsen is a good guy but has been "a little frazzled right now because he wrote it, directed and starred in it."

The movie plot summary listed on the website contained this narrative written by Bernsen: " ‘My wife had faith, I had doubt - you'd be surprised how well those two work together.' That was Joe Butler's ‘life's operating agreement' that worked until the day his wife was killed in a mysterious accident. Now without the tools to grieve, and circumstances of her accident and death leaving more questions than answers, Joe quickly spirals out of control, into the abyss. His rescue comes in the form of a dog, who wanders into his garden and won't leave despite Joe's many attempts to rid him. The dog never so much as utters a bark, but offers an unspoken, deep love and comfort that Joe has never experienced before. With that love, come the answers to his questions, and the unsolved mysteries of his life - and his wife's accident."

The canine star of the movie, Monty, was on scene with its owner and handler. The dog appeared in the movie Hancock.

Producer Jordan Smith said Denair Fire engines were used because it was the only volunteer agency who could furnish a crew to participate in shots.

"We tried to get the Ceres Fire but it didn't work out," said Smith.

Denair Fire Assistant Chief Craig Lundquist said Bernsen has involved others from Denair and asked the volunteers if they would like to participate as firefighters in the scene.

"It's interesting," said Lundquist.

Officers and sergeants from the Ceres Police Department on scene volunteered as well, as City Manager Toby Wells.

Bernsen and his crew have been in Stanislaus County since the last week of June, filming most of the movie scenes inside an older white house on the Westside Ministries campus on Columbia Street in Turlock. Brown said the house was a hot place to work since the air conditioning had to be shut off during filming because of the noise.

Beside Bernsen and Henner, the movie features Chelsey Crisp of ABC's TV sitcom "Fresh Off the Boat" plays Zoey, the couple's daughter. She was in Turlock for the first four days of production. Clynton Lamur, who appeared in "Perfect Choices," "Strays" and "Me Again," has a key role playing Detective Rollins.

The low-budget production had a scant cast of some local actors. Scenes were shot Saturday at Oak Valley Community Bank on Geer Road in Turlock where Rebecca Bjerke played a bank employee and Andrew Burkum - a Chase bank manager and local stage actor - played the bank manager. Local actor Dave Weltner plays a Pastor Frank.

A number of film extras played spectators at the Ceres crash scene, among them Faith Johnson, daughter of Ceres Police Sgt. Trenton Johnson.

"I like it," said Faith, who had to wear a jacket because the crash takes place in cooler weather. "I wish I was getting paid. I'm acting as natural as I can but I want to smile and I can't."

After filming wrapped up at Magnolia and Kay, the company moved back to the Ceres Police station for finish-up shots.

The first hint of the production coming to the area came last month when Garman contacted Ceres Chamber of Commerce President Renee Ledbetter about possible film locations. Since a Turlock Police cell was not available, Garman thought of neighboring Ceres.

Michael Everett of the Turlock Film Commission, said although "Life With Dog" is lower budget than Christian Mingle, that doesn't mean lesser quality.

"It's a simpler movie," said Everett. "Eighty percent of the movie is in the house with just Corbin and that dog and his wife. When you say low budget some people think lower quality. The quality's right up there with any other films. It's just not a lot of locations. Christian Mingle we had like 12, 14 locations. This time we only have two or three."

The new film flew under the radar because there was little publicity and no advertising for extras. Christian Mingle attracted 1,200 to 1,400 to show up for auditions in Turlock.