Clara Haizlett Published

Beckley Filmmakers Present Ambrosia, A Feature-Length Comedy

An old mansion in Beckley, West Virginia is the set of a new feature-length comedy. It’s a grassroots passion project for two Beckley filmmakers and a cast that’s almost entirely composed of West Virginians.

The film “Ambrosia” is a day-in-the-life story of the owner of the Ambrosia Inn, an up-scale bed and breakfast. On this particular day, there’s a dreadful storm on the horizon and the guests are all trapped inside.

Beckley filmmakers Shane Pierce and Dave Gravely wrote and directed the comedy. They’re not full-time filmmakers – but it’s not just a casual hobby either. Their shared interest in film goes way back.

“Shane and I met in high school through guitar, we had a guitar class together,” Gravely said. “We were just really interested in film, and it ate up most of our conversations.”

Eventually, they decided to try making their own films.

“We got together and we Googled ‘how do you write a script?’” Gravely recalled.

They named themselves Butter Chicken Pictures, in honor of the meal they shared on their first day of shooting their first short film.

On their first feature film in 2017, they brought Beckley photographer Saja Montague on as their producer.

“I was just totally unaware of what I was walking into,” Montague said. “And when I got there, I was like, ‘Man, this is weird.’ I didn’t know there are people like this in Beckley that were doing these cool things.”

When they decided to make their second film, they knew they wanted to shoot it in Beckley. The Ambrosia Inn was the perfect setting. The old coal baron’s mansion turned bed and breakfast was a sort of character in and of itself.

“It’s a very bizarre looking location, its architecture sort of sticks out, it’s kind of isolated, it has a big plot of land, and it kind of jumps up in all these strange directions,” Pierce said.

But making a film in Beckley, and in West Virginia in general, can be challenging.

Saja Montague
Actors in the film “Ambrosia” review the script before the camera rolls.

“There’s a practical barrier of like, well, I’d like to make a film. But there’s nobody else really in West Virginia right now making films, I don’t know how to do that,” Pierce said.

And there was the psychological barrier.

“I have an ambition. But I’m from West Virginia, and people who are from West Virginia don’t do those things,” Pierce continued. “And if they do them, they do them somewhere else. They move to New York and they move to LA and they go to film school.”

But Pierce said community support for their project outweighed the challenges.

“People are hungry for this stuff to happen here,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re involved with it. They see those crazy people across town with their camera crew and they’re filming some slapstick gag in the backyard of this mansion. It’s just, it’s just exciting.”

Gravely recalled an instance during the Ambrosia shoot when a neighbor started mowing his lawn right next to where they were filming. Since they couldn’t shoot the scene with the sound of the mower in the background, they had to ask him to shut it off, all the while anticipating the worst.

“So we go over and we talked to him, and he was excited to shut his mower off so we could shoot the scene,” Gravely said. “And I was just like, ‘Man, it feels really good to be in Beckley right now.’“

The production of Ambrosia was a state-wide collaboration, involving multiple generations of West Virginia filmmakers – like Danny Boyd, who started making films and acting in the 1980s. When Pierce and Gravely called Boyd for advice on their film, he eagerly offered his support. Boyd ended up acting in the movie, alongside an actress who had acted in his own movies back in the 80s.

“That’s one of the things I’m more proud of than almost anything else,” Gravely said. “Because we carried on the flame of something that started a long time ago.”

The directors also invited film students from Marshall University to intern on the Ambrosia set. Pierce says they wanted to show the interns it’s possible to make a film in West Virginia.

“You don’t have to go somewhere else to make a film,” he said. “It may be a little bit harder to do it here. But at the end of the day, you can do it, you can pull it off.”

With help from Mountain Craft Productions out of Fairmont, Butter Chicken Pictures spent about 2 weeks filming Ambrosia last summer. They recruited and hired actors, many of whom were not actually actors by trade.

“The way Shane and I like to do it is if there’s a certain personality that we find interesting in town, we’ll just say, how about you just be in the movie?” Gravely said.

“They kind of create their own personalities and their own characters that we honestly probably couldn’t have written,” Montague added. “And it adds that level of Beckley weirdness that I think we want to come through.”

One such character was David Sibray. He played Stanley Kublitz, a filmmaker and explorer staying at the Ambrosia Inn.

“Amusingly they wrote me into this,” Sibray said. “The character is, to some extent, myself.”

In real life, Sibray is the publisher of West Virginia Explorer Magazine. He’d acted a few times in high school and college, but he’d never done anything at the scale of Ambrosia.

“The first day of shooting was the hardest day,” he said. “I was almost in tears by the end of the day. You know, I’m 55. It was 10 o’clock at night and I had been there, I’m sure since 7am. And they were still going, we were all still going.”

Sibray, like most of the cast and crew, was taking time off work to shoot the film. And even though filming the movie was no vacation, Sibray says Ambrosia gave him the chance to try something he’d always felt inclined to but never pursued professionally.

“Discovering this part of myself again was – it was a breakthrough,” he said. “Now I’m an actor. I’ve always been an actor.”

Pierce says Ambrosia is just one part of a creative renaissance happening in Beckley right now.

“It’s like every couple of weeks you’re seeing new projects,” he said. “Something new is happening in Beckley.”

And although Ambrosia is still in the editing phase, Gravely, Pierce and Montague are already looking forward to the next film. 

“You really go into it,” Montague said. “You become this family unit. And then it’s over. And it’s like, ‘what’s the next thing we can do?’ Because I want that feeling back.”

The film is set to debut at the Raleigh Playhouse and Theatre in Beckley later this spring.

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to Inside Appalachia to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.