The story of a courageous Guiford County dog is soon to hit the silver screen.
“Susie’s Movie” has been shooting in and around Winston-Salem in recent weeks. The emotionally-charged drama tells the story of Susie, a pit bull mix who was beaten, set on fire and left for dead by her owner LaShawn Whitehead in 2009. The eight-week-old pup was found in a Greensboro park two weeks later. Her jaw was broken, her teeth and ears were missing and her back was covered in second and third degree burns. Her abuser received a sentence of four to six months in jail after being charged with merely burning personal property.
The heinous nature of the act shocked Donna Lawrence, who adopted the canine after her harrowing brush with death. Lawrence led the charge to have acts of animal cruelty be more severely punished in North Carolina. In 2010, Gov. Bev Perdue signed Susie’s Law, raising the penalty for anyone who “maliciously” kills or causes to be killed an animal by “intentional deprivation of necessary sustenance” from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class H felony. Susie was in attendance for the historic moment, and even stamped the bill with her paw print.
Actor Lance Nichols was in town last week to shoot a pivotal role in the film. He plays a judge who mulls over the case against Susie’s abusive owner.
Nichols is headed to Baltimore this week to begin work on “House of Cards,” a new series staring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey that is slated to air on Netflix.
“I read it and I loved the story,” Nichols said of his motivation to get involved in “Susie’s Movie.” “It was a very heartwarming family type drama, which I think we need more of those films coming out now.”
Nichols, a native of New Orleans, has appeared in “The Curious Case Benjamin Button,” “K-Pax” and “The Green Lantern.” He currently stars in the HBO series “Treme,” which is set in his hometown and recently wrapped its third season. He praised the cast and crew of “Susie’s Movie” for their Southern hospitality and professionalism.
“It was terrific, one of the best crews I’ve ever worked with, and that includes some of the bigger (budget) film crews,” he declared. “Everybody was just so friendly and warm.”
Nichols, a grandfather of four, said he and his wife recently lost their 16 year-old Schnauzer mix, Pepper. He said the project’s goal of spreading awareness and empathy for abused animals resonated with him.
“This film does have a message to it. This is a film that people should support because studies have shown that individuals who start off abusing animals often graduate to being violent crime offenders,” Nichols said. “God gave us dominion over animals, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to abuse them or mistreat them. They are creatures of God, just like us. We should love and respect them just like they love and respect us.”
Nichols believes he is called to act, and to bring to light important stories like the tale of Susie’s survival against all odds.
“It’s been a driving force for me,” Nichols said of his faith. “There were many, many times when friends, and even relatives, questioned why I was doing what I was doing and tried to persuade me to get a normal job, but I always knew I was destined to do what I’m doing. This is my gift; this is what I was born to do.”
City native Willette Thompson said she was also drawn to the film’s message and to the people who lived it. Thompson portrays Marsha Williams, executive director of the Guilford County Animal Shelter, who was on hand for the taping.
“It was exciting to meet the real person,” Thompson said. “It’s not often that you get to play someone that actually exists. She’s really the kind of person that you want in an animal shelter because she cares so much.”
Thompson said Susie showed her true star power on the set.
“It’s a real sense of community feel with this project because everybody loves Susie,” Thompson said. “She’s just this wonderful being that brought a bunch of people together for the common good.”
Though she has spent the bulk of the last decade on stage in theater productions in the Washington, D.C. area, Thompson, who relocated to Winston-Salem in 2004, said it was good to be back on screen and working in her hometown again.
“I am looking forward to doing more film in North Carolina,” she remarked. “From the looks of things, I think there’s going to be a lot more productions coming this way in the future.”
The film’s stars also include Emmanuelle Vaugier (“Two and a Half Men” and “CSI NY”), Andrea Powell (“Twilight: Breaking Dawn” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance”) and Burgess Jenkins, a city native whose long list of television and film credits includes “Remember the Titans,” “The Reaping” and “One Tree Hill.”
“Susie’s Movie” is one of two films that have been shot in Forsyth County in recent weeks.
Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler have also been in town filming the comedy “You Are Here.”
For more information about the film, find “Susie’s Movie” on Facebook or visit www.susiesmovie.com.