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Peoria movie 'College Debts' premieres Friday

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Aaron Warr was sitting in the prison in Joliet several years ago when he decided to turn an idea for a film based on his life into a screenplay. So, armed with an ink pen and a yellow legal pad, he wrote the script without knowing whether it would really be made into a movie.

A year or so later, in 2009, Warr came home to his native Peoria and filmed, over a period of 21 consecutive days, the movie from that screenplay, titled “My Guaranteed Student Loan.”

Fast forward several more years and on Friday, that same film that is now titled “College Debts” will have its world premiere in two different Peoria theatres, with the red carpet treatment at the Carmike Cinemas at the Shoppes at Grand Prairie.

“Oh, yeah, of course I’m excited. And I’m proud; not just of myself but of everybody who poured so much into this. It has been an experience and I’m glad I did it,” Warr said while trying to relax for a few minutes at a friend’s Peoria home this week.

To set the record straight, the reason Warr was at the prison in Joliet when he started writing the film is because he was an extra in the former television series “Prison Break,” which ran on Fox for several years and filmed many of its episodes at the now-closed lockup.

 Starring Oscar winning actress Celeste Holm and veteran film actress Janet Carroll and blending Hollywood actors with local performers, “College Debts” is loosely based on the lives of Warr and a couple of his friends and is sort of a compilation of some of the things they did while in college, in order to get through college. “A lot of the things we experienced are in the film,” he said.

The credits say the film was written and produced by the Warr Brothers. Considering Warr himself has no siblings, he explained the others are his friends “who are like my brothers from other mothers.”

“This was a collaborative effort. I couldn’t have done it alone,” he added.

In the six years since the movie was shot, almost all of it in Peoria, Warr has been able to show it in film festivals, including Cannes in 2010, in hopes of landing a big film distributor. He had a distributor for “My Guaranteed Student Loan,” but has been shopping it himself the last few years.

Finally, Carmike Cinemas agreed to distribute the film to several of its locations. Warr hopes it will launch a following and that “College Debts” can become a cult hit. “It’s a good back-to-school cult film. It shows some of the outrageous things college students will do just to be able to stay in school, especially after their first source of tuition gets taken away. That’s what happened to me and some of my friends,” he said.

It‘s rated PG-13, mostly for language. There is no nudity, which Warr acknowledges is rare for a film about college. “But it has some very interesting characters who do outrageous things to pay their way through college,” he said. “It’s very twisted but it’s something people of all demographics can relate to.”

Warr said he knew from an early age he wanted to perform. He said it’s in his blood. His great uncle was Stymie Beard of “Little Rascals” fame and his uncle is musician Danny Beard, who performed with the Fifth Dimension.

After graduating from Spalding Institute Warr went to New York City and attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. He since has moved around finding work as extras in television series and films or as part of the crew for several projects in the industry. All the while, he was watching and learning.

“I would watch the directors and listen to what they said and I learned so much from them. I also learned a lot about what it takes to produce an independent film. But I have to tell you, until you actually do it you have no idea how tough it is,” he said.

Directors he credits with helping him include Josh Zilm, with whom he worked on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” as a production assistant in 2007. Others were Jace Alexander of “Law and Order” and Matt Beesley of “Braveheart” fame.

Then as he was getting production set up to begin filming, the stock market crashed in 2008, bringing the economy down with it. “Interestingly that was already part of the film. But we didn’t expect it. We knew we just had to have the courage to push forward and do the movie,” he said.

Warr said the city of Peoria and many of its businesses opened their arms – and their doors -- to him during the filming. Corn Stock Theatre and Peoria Players Theatre, where Warr has performed in the past (the last time being in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Corn Stock in 2003) allowed him to film scenes there, which was important since the main characters in the movie were studying theatre.

While he was reluctant to try and name all the businesses and people who helped him defray production costs for fear of leaving somebody out, Warr said many are seen in different scenes of the movie. “Their generosity really helped get us going,” he said.

Mark Rupp, a friend and executive producer of “College Debts,” was a close friend of Celeste Holm and asked Warr if he would like to have an Academy Award-winning actress in the film. “I couldn’t believe it when she agreed to do it. I mean, instant credibility. And with her came others with Hollywood experience, actors with their SAG (Screen Actors Guild) cards. That’s when it really became a SAG project,” he said. “SAG had to approve everything. And SAG members had to be paid SAG rates.”

Other actors in the film include Derek North, Randy Jones (the Cowboy from Village People), Richard Pryor Jr., Wendy Kaufman, and the grandchildren of Lucille Ball, Katherine and Joe Luckinbill.

Some of the local performers in the film include community theatre veterans Cheri Beever, Helen Englebrecht, Matt Stubbs and Steve Katz.

Warr himself appears in the movie, as well.

The entire Peoria-area filming was done over 21 days in April 2009. Shooting included The Hub in Edelstein and the Haddad’s Market in West Peoria, both of which burned down after the shoot. Haddad’s rebuilt but The Hub did not. “Both of those buildings were captured on film before they burned down, so we have that,” Warr said.

Three cast members have died since filming, as well. Celeste Holm, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for “Gentleman’s Agreement” in 1947 and received two subsequent Oscar nominations, passed away in July 2012. She was 95. Her husband, Frank Basile, is in “College Debts,” as well.

Janet Carroll, whose film, television and stage work credits were extensive and include the mom in “Risky Business,” died in May 2012 from a brain tumor. She was 71.

Quentin Elias, French singer, actor and model, died in February 2014 from heart failure. He was only 39.

“Those deaths were tough to handle. They were all great people and we became great friends,” said Warr, who now has the distinction of being the last director for Celeste Holm.

Work on the film “was always a madhouse, with keeping everything together. There is so much you can control it can be maddening, especially constantly redoing schedules. We just had to keep going and getting over the speed bumps. But I learned and will keep learning.”

Warr, who still has family in the Peoria area and makes his way home several times a year, said he doesn’t have one city he calls home. “I live sometimes in LA, sometimes in Chicago. Wherever I’m working is where I am living,” he said.

He intends to be in Peoria just a while longer on this trip, but said he will be back as he works on his next project, a film called “American Criminals” about the famed Leopold and Loeb kidnapping case. Warr said there hasn’t been much film treatment of the case, which involved Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnapping and murdering the teen-age son of a wealthy Chicago watch manufacturer. Marcel Bridges, grandson of Lloyd Bridges, is confirmed as one of the performers.

Warr plans to shoot the film next spring, mostly in Chicago but with some filming to be done in Peoria.

Other writing projects include a spec for HBO about the lives of blue collar workers in the Midwest called “The Collar” and work on the reality series on H2 called “All You Can Eat.”

That he has no roots, including no time for marriage or a relationship, “is part of the sacrifice I’ve made. I know I’ve missed out on a lot of things most people have in their lives, but this is what I’ve chosen to do and I have no regrets. And I feel like I’ve been lucky.”

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).