Growing up in Tiffin, Brad Wise had many opportunities to use his imagination. In grade school, he and his best friend spent much of their time building a tree house in the neighborhood woods. While hanging out there together, they played games and made up many of their own.
Having little money to spend did not matter, even into Wise's high school years.
"We spent our entire childhood learning how to improvise," Wise said. "When I was playing football for Columbian, I got the whole team to spray-paint their shoes gold."
Like other Tiffin families with limited funds and few clubs or amusement parks nearby, the Wises found inexpensive ways to occupy their free time. In the process, they made memories. Brad said he believes nurturing that creative muse was good preparation for his present occupation as a writer and filmmaker.
At 34, he already has directed two movies. "Fenced Off" was screened at The Ritz Theatre in Tiffin. Now Wise is promoting "A Strange Brand of Happy," which is set for national release in theaters Sept. 13. The romantic comedy stars Rebecca St. James, Shirley Jones and Marty Ingels.
"There's just something about growing up here that makes you think anything is possible," Wise said.
A trailer for the film was released in April, and the production company, Rebel Pilgrim Productions of Cincinnati, has been working on pre-show publicity. In June, Wise spoke to the congregation at his former church, Grace Community Church in Fremont. Monday, he met with a few fans and Tiffin Mayor Aaron Montz for a photo shoot at Cinemark Tiffin Mall 8.
"There's so much stuff out there. It's hard to rise above the noise," Wise said. "Our company's mission is to tell stories that spark hope and action. Any story that we do, we want folks to leave just a little more hopeful."
Filmed primarily at Evergreen Retirement Center in Cincinnati, "A Strange Brand of Happy" tells the tale of a bachelor who loses his job as an illustrator. In the title role is Joe Boyd, president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, who doubled as the producer. Wise said he wrote the screenplay during the financial crisis when many Americans found themselves downsized and unprepared for unemployment.
"So many of my friends were losing their jobs and having to start over, but also just feeling hopeless and down," Wise said. "We wanted to write something that said, 'You have gifts and unique abilities that only you have. There's something very specific and very good that you can deliver to this world.'"
In the movie, the bachelor hooks up with a group of older people at a retirement home. They encourage and inspire him to regain his confidence and enjoy life with new friendships and activities.
Wise wanted realistic characters with whom audiences could relate. He says the story subtly conveys an uplifting message in a funny, quirky manner.
Wise said he was pleased to be working with well-known artists and actors.
"Shirley Jones wanted to be in it because her husband's in it, and it's the first time they've acted together. She also said she loved the script and the interaction between the retirees and the younger folks, how they all kind of helped each other," Wise said.
That collaborative tone also guided the film-making process. Wise partnered with Isaac Stambaugh, who helped to direct, produce and edit "A Strange Brand of Happy." Wise said their collaboration has been invaluable, as their skills complement one another.
Although the film had a low budget, the crew found ways to make it competitive with films that cost much more.
"We're learning how to maximize every dollar," Wise said. "When you don't have money, you have to figure out how to pull it off."
Creativity also comes into play. When Wise found himself with a shortage of shots at certain locations in the city, he had to find another way to segue from scene to scene. The season had changed, so the crew could not go back for more footage. Wise compensated with animated segments that also tie in with the main character's occupation.
The movie has been rated PG-13. Wise said he sees it as an alternative to the fall horror films that open in September.
He said he thinks it will be "a great date-night option" that will appeal to men and women.
Created by "a bunch of 30-something dudes," the movie has some playful scenes. The movie poster pictures a metal sculpture of an armored knight, splattered with paintballs, being toted in a wagon. Wise intended the knight, "Arthur," to symbolize reinventing oneself and taking time to have fun.
The company also is working with a new company, Seatsy, to generate interest in the movie prior to its release. Wise said this is the first motion picture to utilize the Seatsy website, seatzy.com/
Wise said he is counting on hometown support.
"People can go online and reserve tickets. For awhile there, Tiffin was sitting at the second-highest market, just below Cincinnati," Wise said. "We have to get 500 tickets for it to come here, and we're sitting at 250 right now."
Family support also has been important to Wise. As a teen, he received encouragement from his parents, Jeff and Mindy Wise. They taught him he could do anything if he wanted it and worked at it hard enough.
"In seventh or eighth grade, when I was not even 5-foot tall, I mentioned I wanted to win the Heisman Trophy," Wise recalled. "Dad said, 'We've got a lot of practice to do, don't we?'"
Wise did not win that honor in college, but he is making a living at a career he loves. He and his wife, Leah, reside in Cincinnati with their 2-year-old son, Henry. Wise cares for the boy on Mondays and in between projects while Leah works part-time.
Earlier this month, Wise finished shooting another movie, "Hope Bridge." Filmed in Kentucky, it features BooBoo Stewart ("The Twilight Saga: Eclipse") and Kevin Sorbo ("Hercules"). Editing will begin in September for theatrical release in 2014.
Last year, Wise wrote three screenplays that are in development. He is looking for funding and hoping at least one of them will attract enough attention to become another film.
If the crew ever acquires a large sum of money to work with, Wise said he and his cohorts will know how to use it. "Fenced Off" achieved a fair amount of success with an even smaller budget than "Strange Brand of Happy." As Rebel Pilgrim Productions grows and evolves, Wise wants to keep its small-town, friendly spirit.
"We want to maintain that feeling of a group of friends building a tree house together," Wise said.