The crew of “Range Runners” gathered at the base of one of the bluffs in Big Rocky Hollow at Ferne Clyffe State Park as actress Celeste M. Cooper prepared for her scene from her perch above them during filming in early June. Photo provided.

Survival thriller filmed in Southern Illinois

“Range Runners,” a female-led survival thriller, began production in Southern Illinois’ scenic Shawnee Hills in early June. Filming was planned in Union, Johnson and Jackson counties.

Produced by Fatal Funnel Films, directed by Philip S. Plowden and written by Devon Colwell, the film tells the story of a woman in the woods who runs into trouble when she meets two men hiding from the authorities.

It’s Plowden’s second foray into the region after serving as an associate producer on “Dig Two Graves,” which filmed in Southern Illinois in 2013. 

Range Runners will be his first feature-length directorial debut. He previously directed an extended short “Cellar Door” also written by Colwell.

They chose Southern Illinois for the majority of filming locations due to the region’s forested and hilly landscapes.

“We scouted almost every state park and forest preserve within two hours of Chicago and kept coming up empty. Each had a unique look, but we needed that vertical feeling: we needed bluffs and hills to go along with the trails and woods,” Plowden said.

“It’s paramount to capture different moods within each of these varying locations; fear, excitement, isolation. The moment I came down to scout  last September, I knew that the unique topography of this landscape would help elicit those emotions and ultimately play a vital role within the film,” he added.

Filming began May 31 in the Chicago suburbs  and then moved downstate for nearly three weeks of production in Carbondale, and at Giant City and Ferne Clyffe state parks, SIU Touch of Nature and Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tours.

Although the story was inspired by Appalachian mountain range, producers say the presence of the Illinois Film Production tax credits helped to tip their decision to stay in state.

“The community in Southern Illinois has been very welcoming,” producer RoseMary Prodonovich said. She said that the local support, plus the assistance of the Illinois Film Office, allowed them to keep this production in Illinois.

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“We’re excited to take advantage of the Illinois tax credit, even at our small budget level, and utilize everything that the communities and the  state of Illinois have to offer to help tell our story creatively while making filming in Illinois a financially feasible option,” she added.

Production spending has supported local hotels and restaurants, the educational and camping programs at Touch of Nature, as well as suppliers throughout the state.

“We’re incredibly grateful of the support from the local community. Businesses and individuals alike have been so friendly and willing to help. The support goes a long way with independent filmmaking and makes this journey that much more exciting,” said Christian Crocker, another one of the producers. 

“I can’t wait to give back to the area by showcasing the stunning features of Southern Illinois.”

Plowden visited the Shawnee Hills last fall with regional location scout Jon Musgrave, who worked with him on “Dig Two Graves” in locations. Hiking trails from Bald Knob to Garden of the Gods in one weekend, he narrowed it down to the area between Goreville and Carbondale.

A second trip in late April along with Colwell, helped pinpoint scenes in the script to locations on the ground. 

A return trip called the technical scout in early May brought producers, department heads and the show’s stunt coordinator in an effort to give everyone a first-hand view of where production will take place.

“I was truly stunned to learn that these incredible landscapes exist in my home state. I’m looking forward to seeing the natural beauty of Southern Illinois breathe life into our film,” Crocker said.

In addition to using facilities at Touch of Nature, the production planned to offer internships and crew opportunities to film students from the SIU College of Mass Communication and Media Arts.

The cast is led by Celeste M. Cooper, who plays Mel, the lead character. She’s appeared on stage, film and television, with credits in “Chicago P.D.,” “Chi-Raq” and “Sense8.” She is also a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble in Chicago.

Chicago actors Sean Patrick Leonard and Michael B. Woods portray Mel’s antagonists, Wayland and Jared.

The films tells the story of a woman thru-hiking in the isolated back country who runs into trouble when her pack is hijacked by two men hiding out in the woods, desperate and on the run. 

Now, stranded and left to fend for herself, she has a choice: crawl back to her normal life in defeat, or push forward and take back what was stolen from her.

“From the start it has been my prerogative to give a real sense of agency to our characters: to treat them like they are real people, with their own desires and emotional reactions to their environment. It’s more than just pulling their strings or giving them one-note motivation. By giving them a voice and the respect to take their own initiative, we can experience something inherently human through their choices,” Colwell said.

“I believe that by witnessing a characters choice to take action, rather than just dictating it to them we can learn something from them, and maybe even challenge ourselves to be better people in the process,” he added.

In addition to directing Plowden also serves as executive producer for the film and a co-founder for the production company, Fatal Funnel Films, which he and Colwell formed in 2014. 

Plowden has worked on a variety of projects, including five seasons of NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” and Steve McQueen’s thriller, “Widows.” He’s a also a member of the Director’s Guild of America.

His filmmaking partner Colwell also serves as executive producer and works in the film and television industry in Chicago with credits on “Chicago P.D.” and the feature film “Jupiter Ascending.” 

He recently placed second out of 3,500 screenplays for his original script “The Regulars” in the 2017 Scriptapalooza screenwriting competition.

Crocker, Prodonovich and Christopher Ganze serve as producers for “Range Runners.”

Fatal Funnel Films is an Illinois-based production company dedicated to the creation of independent feature films. 

The company’s current projects can be followed on Facebook at @RangeRunners, Instagram at @FatalFunnelFilms and Twitter at @FatalFunnelFilm. For more information, visit


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