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Do You Know the Way to Balmorhea?

Jesse Dayton and Lew Temple do. And now so does Hollywood.

Temple, sitting next to producer Mitchell Welch out in that Santa Monica Boulevard office, summarizes the plot thusly: "Three boys grow up on a West Texas ranch and are primarily raised by the patriarch of the ranch. And each of them has their own personality but they're all interlocked as friends. It's a love story between three boys, and uh…Mitchell's laughing at me…But in a Texas way…"

Welch clarifies the love-story angle. "There are sheep involved," he yells.

"Yeah, it's not in a Utah or a Montrose way," Temple continues. "One of the boys who is the son of the patriarch wants to go off to college, and his father would like him to be the caretaker of this land, which is kind of like the King Ranch. In the process of them making that decision, the boy takes ill, and they go to Houston to M.D. Anderson, where they are unable to find a treatment. And so in desperation the other two boys decide to take a trip to Mexico to see a faith healer as their last stand. And they all sort of have their 'coming to Jesus,' including the father, who follows them desperately trying to save his son."

Dayton and Temple hustled up enough money to have Balmorhea performed as a play, first here at Ovations, and then in L.A. "The response we got in Los Angeles was killer," Dayton says. And one of the people most impressed was Midland transplant Welch, a thirtysomething Hollywood producer whose credits include the short film The Swinger, a Chris Elliott vehicle that also starred Bob Costas and Maury Povich and appeared on Showtime. Welch also produced Frank's Book, another short. Jack Black was in the cast of that one.

Incidentally, it's not just Welch's résumé that's packed with big names -- so is his pedigree. He's the grandson of Louie Welch, the last of Houston's redneck mayors. Welch's attempted political comeback in 1985 foundered when he committed one of the most notorious gaffes in Houston history. Asked in a public forum what methods he would use to combat the AIDS crisis, Welch responded, "One of them is to shoot the queers."

"Good thing he didn't," the younger Welch notes. "I sure wouldn't have liked to have seen that."

The eye-patch-wearing Welch was drawn to the play for several reasons. One was that he was an old friend of the two writers. Another was the chance to bring a film project to his hometown -- some shoots are slated in Midland (and some in Houston) next year. Another was the name Balmorhea, which is, as he puts it, in the same "field of sticks" as Midland.

"When I was a kid we used to load up in the car and that's where we'd go for the weekend if we wanted a dip in the cool water," he remembers. "We didn't have a beach nearby, and it was about a two-hour drive down to Balmorhea, where those springs are. It sure was fun to go down there and play grab-ass with your friends on a Saturday afternoon."

But he's not in it just out of loyalty or for sentimental reasons. He believes the story's worthy of Hollywood on its own merits. "But all in all, I know this thing is loosely based on Lew's story," he says. "I was friends with Lew [during] what he went through, and I saw what it did for his outlook on life."

The play was forged into a screenplay a couple of months ago at a writers retreat in Angelfire, New Mexico. Dayton, Temple and Welch holed up for two weeks and banged out a first draft of the script. "We put ourselves through the paces -- I think it's an interesting documentary just to watch us write," Temple says.

"We sent in the final draft in late September, and they flew us out there for the day, and basically gave us everything we wanted," Dayton says. "They're gonna let Lew direct."

This will be Temple's directorial debut. Dayton believes he's ready, but more important, so do the people with the big bucks. "Lew's been in enough stuff -- he's worked with a lot of directors," Dayton says. "He did The Newton Boys, he was in all the Richard Linklater stuff. He's at that point now where people are starting to say, 'Wow, maybe we should give these guys some money and let Lew direct a film.' "

Meanwhile, Dayton's already working on the soundtrack. "I'm basically gonna go to all my friends in the music business and put them on there, and I'm sure it'll be pretty cool stuff," he says.

"Jesse's written some amazing music," says Temple. "Some great songs, which have kind of taken the production to a whole other level. He lives this project, so when he writes this music, it's so heartfelt."

Dayton has been performing the songs during the writing of the script. Welch believes that adds another element to the project. "We write a scene and we can have it underscored by Jesse live and in person," he says. "That really brings it to life."

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