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Home, Sweetest Day, Home: On location in Warren, Ohio, with 'Sweetest Day'

Nate Boyer as the Sheriff, preparing for a scene in 'Sweetest Day'
Nate Boyer as the Sheriff, preparing for a scene in 'Sweetest Day'

On a cold night in November 2023, I find myself in Warren, Ohio, about an hour east of Cleveland. It’s quiet in the small town, save for a handful of filmmakers carrying equipment and thumbing through scripts as they hurry from their Best Western basecamp to the rustic diner around the corner, The Saratoga.

There, fellow crew members are crowding around a booth near the cash register, adjusting lights, checking sound, and peering at monitors to make sure the scene they’re about to film is framed just right.

Seated on one side is actor Nate Boyer, dressed as a sheriff. Across from him sits actress Morgana Shaw, easing into her character. When the camera rolls, Shaw’s character lays into the Sheriff, warning him of dire things to come this Sweetest Day, if he doesn’t take things seriously.

It’s a pivotal scene that plays out before a handful of curious diners, likely unaware they’d be treated to a show this evening.

Sweetest Day cast and crew stand outside The Saratoga restaurant in Warren, Ohio
On-location at The Saratoga in Warren, Ohio

Home, Sweetest Day, Home

Named for Moses Warren, a surveyor who played a crucial role in mapping the area, Warren is the small-town Midwest you picture in your dreams. Once a hub for transportation, trade, and manufacturing, Warren has become the definition of a Northeast Ohio town, with its unique blend of history, industry, and community spirit.

Tonight, though, it serves as the hunting ground for a blood-thirsty Civil War ghost and the heroes that oppose him - all born from the imagination of Warren native and Sweetest Day director Doug Hawley.

Soft-spoken and on task, Hawley, guides Boyer and Shaw through the scene from his post behind The Saratoga’s counter, only a few feet from the booth. Hawley’s passion for filmmaking took hold in Warren while making movies with friends before pursuing the craft at the University of Toledo and moving to Los Angeles after graduation.

Director Doug Hawley and a camera man set up a shot
Director Doug Hawley, right, oversees the scene

The opportunity to return to his hometown to helm a feature film isn’t lost on the young director. “I didn't realize it at the time, but I think writing the script was an admission of homesickness,” says Hawley.

Hawley always pictured Warren as Sweetest Day’s setting. He was open to options, though, while location scouting, but the production always returned to Warren. The city has everything the cast and crew requires and everyone from City Hall to local business owners are quick to lend a hand or offer support. Community commitment makes the long hours of shooting a feature film that much easier.

“It’s been amazing, and the town has been incredibly generous,” says Hawley. “Warren is beautiful and has a ton of character. I even rewrote certain parts of the screenplay to feature more of the city.”

The mysterious Sweetest Day killer
The mysterious 'Sweetest Day' rebel

What is Sweetest Day? And when is Sweetest Day?

If you're wondering what Sweetest Day is, you're not alone. It's a uniquely Midwest holiday that is often referred to as the "second Valentine's Day."

Observed on the third Saturday in October, Sweetest Day's origins go back to 1922 when Cleveland candy companies got together to distribute boxes of candy to "newsboys, orphans, old folks, and the poor." The holiday caught on with silent film stars, who would hand out sweets and treats to moviegoers or when visiting patients in hospitals. 

"It seemed darkly amusing to me to take a very benign and specifically Midwestern holiday and give it the holiday-themed slasher movie treatment of the late 70s/early 80s," says Hawley. "Films like Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, and so forth."

Dorée Seay as Mindy, 'Sweetest Day's' hero, from the proof-of-concept short

From proof of concept to feature film

Sweetest Day began as a short film, a proof of concept that would capture the feature film’s story, tone, and themes. Hawley teamed up with producer Chris Gierowski, a Parma native Hawley met at the University of Toledo, to bring the short to life. Gierowski is a KTLA journalist in Los Angeles and an independent film producer.

In 2022 and 2023, the Sweetest Day short delighted audiences on the film festival circuit, including the South Georgia Film Festival, the Spooky Empire Film Festival in Orlando, the Short. Sweet. Film Fest, the Pasadena International Film Festival, and the Akron Independent Horror Short Film Festival.

Lead actress Dorée Seay took home Best Actor awards from the Spooky Empire Film Festival. Seay, who grew up in Phoenix, didn’t necessarily see acting as a career until a friend persuaded her to give it a go. After a few local auditions, she decided a move to Los Angeles was the best way to break through. Under the guise of transferring colleges, Seay went west.

Seay met Hawley in L.A. and starred in his short film Cursed World Problems, which performed well in various competitions. For Sweetest Day, Seay trained in combat and body movement, guided by Clive Hawkins, who plays the Rebel.

A member of the film crew checks out actress Morgana Shaw in a monitor
Checking the framing on a close-up featuring Morgana Shaw

As for her character, Mindy, the quintessential girl next door who learns martial arts and swordsmanship to defeat the villain, Seay says, “When heroes are away, who can step in their shoes?”

“I wrote the film specifically for Dorée,” Hawley says, “Mindy’s story really came to life by collaborating with Dorée. Even though the movie is far out and fantastical, we wanted to ground it in some sort of emotional reality.”

Under all the horror fun is a story about the traumatic effects of the situation Mindy is thrust into and how she copes and evolves. And what kind of a person would show up to fight an unkillable monster?

“To me, that's next-level brass balls bad-assery,” says Hawley. “I want to show Mindy make the journey to become that. ”

The crew sets up a scene in The Saratoga
Logan Fulton, director of photography, behind the camera, sets up a shot in The Saratoga

The final stretch

Since shooting in Warren, the production has moved back to L.A. for pick-up shots and post-production work, says Gierowski. While everyone would love to be a bit further along than they are, the film is still progressing toward completion.

Ultimately, Sweetest Day is not just a story about battling supernatural forces. It's about the resilience of community, the strength of character, and the enduring connection to home. And there's no doubt Warren has left an indelible mark on this cinematic journey, proving that the sweetest stories often begin at home.

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