Photo: Summer Bellessa (left) recently starred in the film “Amber Alert,” written and directed by her husband Kerry (right). Photo courtesy of Trever Hoehne
by Cheryl Borrowdale
SUGAR GROVE—When Sugar Grove native Summer Smith Bellessa and her husband, Kerry Bellessa, saw an AMBER Alert notice as they drove down an Arizona highway, they began debating what they would do if they actually saw the suspect’s car—would they follow it? Would that put the victim in more danger?
The couple never saw the car, but the idea for their first movie was born.
The thriller, “Amber Alert,” stars Summer, 32, as Samantha, a woman who spots a suspected child abductor (Jasen Wade) on the highway and begins chasing the vehicle with her best friend Nate (Chris Hill). It’s a defining moment for the characters, writer/director Kerry said.
“At the beginning of the film, we see them both. They’re having a good time together; they’re good friends and love life. Then things take a turn, and when they’re put in this situation, you see who they are,” he said. “I wanted to have two main characters with different opinions on what to do. Things kind of start going sour for them.”
As the frightened Nate urges caution, Samantha risks everything to save the abducted girl.
“Before she’s put in this situation, she’s the more responsible of the two,” Summer said. “But I think with women, if there is a child in the balance, we tend to become little mama bears and do things outside the realm of what we think we would do. She does anything in her power to help the child.”
The 80-minute film is rated R and had a limited release in 10 theaters on Nov. 2—none of them in Chicago—and is now available everywhere through Xfinity On Demand.
Critical response has been polarized, Kerry said.
“Either people really, really like it or they really, really hate it,” he said. “At the end of the day, I wanted the main question of the film to be ‘What would you do?’ Was it correct what they did? Some people think it was noble. Other people think they were crazy. People definitely have a reaction to it. People who are parents, and women especially, have a reaction because they relate to it. At the end of the day, whether they like it or not, at least they’re watching it, and I’d rather have something polarizing that people are talking about than something that’s forgettable.”
The story is told from the perspective of Samantha’s 14-year-old brother, who is in the backseat with a video camera and recording everything as it unfolds. The documentary-like style is known as “found footage,” a genre popularized by films such as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” Summer said.
“It’s as if a character in the film is shooting, but he isn’t really,” she said. “It adds to the feeling that this could have really happened, especially in this day where we all have cameras on our phones, and you could be driving down the highway and see this.”
The found footage style makes the film seem so realistic, Kerry said, that some viewers don’t realize it’s fiction.
“I get emails constantly from people saying, ‘I’ve googled these people, and I can’t find them. Can you tell me how to get money to the victims?’ It kind of tricks people and makes them think it’s real,” he said.
It’s also a style that fit neatly into the Bellessa’s budget. The film was financed entirely by the couple and their business partner, Joshua Oram, and made with a crew of no more than 15 people.
“At times, it was only the three of us and the other two actors. That was it on some days,” Summer said. “We had a microbudget, probably less than what “Transformers’’ (budgeted) for bottled water. We had to be creative so that we could stay in our budget and still make a film that did what we wanted to do.”
Kerry had done a number of commercials and music videos when he began raising money for his first feature film. But when the real estate market crashed in 2007, his largest investor dropped out and Kerry had to start over.
“We kind of came to the realization that no one is waiting around to give us a few million dollars to make a film,” Summer said. “We paid for the film between the three of us.”
The gamble paid off when distribution company Wrekin Hill, which often works with smaller independent productions, picked up the film at the beginning of this year.
“Wrekin Hill bought the rights to it for a certain number of years,” Summer said. “We retain ownership of the film and get a percentage of the box office take.”
Though the Bellessas were working on the film together from the beginning, Kerry originally intended for Summer to help him produce the film. He didn’t plan on casting his wife in the starring role.
“I didn’t want to have it be ‘writer/director husband and actress wife,’” he said. “It sounded like a recipe for disaster or low-budget stuff, you know, because that’s what everyone does.”
Kerry held casting calls and considered several actresses for the part, but something made him keep coming back to the idea of using Summer.
“I kept having this gut feeling it should be Summer,” he said. “She was good for this because she was the kind of person I was looking for, and she never once asked me to choose her. She’s gotten a great response from everyone, and I think it was a good decision.”
Though the project was Summer’s big screen debut, she’s been modeling and doing commercial work since she was a child. By the time she was a junior at Kaneland High School in 1997, she was traveling to Japan, Paris, Miami, New York and Los Angeles for modeling jobs.
For the past three years, Summer’s also been hosting an online variety show, “The Girls With Glasses,” with her friend Brooke White, a singer/songwriter and former “American Idol” contestant.
The two met on MySpace “back when it was cool,” Summer said.
“One day she called me up and said, ‘Let’s meet at IHOP and figure out something we could do together.’ We thought doing something television-oriented would be a lot of fun, and we started putting them up online,” Summer said. “We’ve had a lot of success monetizing it.”
The pair interview musicians and bloggers, write jingles, give fashion tips and work with various brands.
“It’s a way (for brands) to get the word out about their products in a fun, entertaining way,” Summer said. “With Kate Spade, we kind of wear their clothes and talk about fashion trends. For Method, we interviewed one of the founders of their company.”
Viewers often catch a glimpse of the Bellessa’s two children, Rockwell, 1, and Phoenix, four weeks, as well as White’s child, on screen—something that Summer said adds to the show’s personality.
“We have kids screaming and wanting stuff between takes, but we have a really good time. It was important for us to have something that was kid-friendly and to do something that was creative while also being able to be moms,” she said. “We kind of embrace it. For a few takes, Rockwell’s on my lap, and for another few takes, he’s not. Our viewers embrace that because we have a lot of moms who watch us. It’s kind of fun like that.”
Summer hopes the online show will lead to a network television deal.
“We’ve had a lot of networks want to possibly develop it into something on television, and following us and our crazy lives becoming mothers and trying to do it all. We haven’t found a perfect fit yet,” she said.
“Amber Alert” is available through Xfinity On Demand, Amazon Video or Apple iTunes. To watch episodes of “The Girls With Glasses,” visit www.thegirlswithglasses.com.