Midwesterners are naturally suspicious of too much praise. When heaped on too high, it makes us question whether flatterers are being genuine. Once we are convinced of their sincerity, we then proceed to question their judgment.

When we watch DVD interviews and commentary, we are certain that the circlejerk of praise going round is some kind of mass kiss-up. Every movie ever made cannot possibly be the most talented and dedicated people in the history of film working together in harmony for the good of Art. And yet the commentary on any random movie DVD invariably describes it this way.

So as I wander around the set of Leading Ladies, an independent movie being shot here in C-U, I wonder what to think. Everyone exclaims how great it is to be in Champaign, and how great the shoot is going, and how great it is to work with the most talented and dedicated people in the history of film working together in harmony for the good of Art.

It makes me suspicious, and yet, here they are, working 12 hours a day, six days a week, and continuing to smile and laugh and enjoy themselves. There are no scowls or hissing or self-righteous outbursts. No food is being angrily thrown at anyone. Melanie LaPatin and Benji Schwimmer can be seen chatting amiably in a corner. During a break, some guys are throwing a football and kicking a soccer ball up and down Church St. They aren't even tackling each other in a passive-aggressive sort of way. The main vibe is one of relaxed camaraderie, with good-natured people milling about, seemingly happy just to be involved.

But let's back up. Did I just say that major ballroom dance stars Melanie LaPatin (over 100 dance titles over a 20 year period) and Benji Schwimmer (winner of So You Think You Can Dance) are in town to shoot a movie?  In a town whose most famous dance is a now banned piece of half-time entertainment? How did that happen?

According to former University of Illinois dance professor Erika Randall Beahm and Champaign native Jennifer Bechtel, it started with two friends taking a walk at Allerton. They worked out a story about an overbearing dance mom and her two daughters during a 4½ hour walk through the park. So the next time you are enjoying the scenery at Allerton, know that you could also be doing something productive.

It took two years to write the script while juggling jobs and moves and babies, and a total of four years to get into production. Bechtel says they chose to shoot it in Champaign because "Having lived here my whole life, I knew this community was very supportive of the arts, and would be open and kind and giving and supportive of a project like this."

Randall Beahm added "Because we wrote it here, it felt natural to come home to here. With Chicago as a big film town so close, we had access to the big city without the expense. As producers, it was a wonderful place to land."

So how did they snag big-time dancers? One day Bechtel and Randall Beahm were watching What Not to Wear, and saw someone who looked exactly like the character Sheri they wanted in Leading Ladies. Erika recognized her as Melanie LaPatin. It turned out that Bechtel was already in contact with LaPatin because LaPatin was coaching a dancer they had been interested in casting. But Bechtel had never seen a picture of LaPatin, so had no idea what she looked like. They immediately switched gears and after some enthusiastic begging, LaPatin agreed to be in the film. Once she was in, it was easier to attract Schwimmer and then a host of other dancers followed suit.

With the acting/dancing side of things taking shape, it fell to Dan Beahm, producer, co-director and husband of Erika, to find a crew to shoot the movie. Although they now live in Denver, he found Peter Biagi through some of his Chicago connections. Biagi has been a cinematographer for over 36 films, and did the camera work for Robert Altman's The Company and A Prairie Home Companion.

"I called him up and he said he might be interested, but couldn't meet for two weeks because he was in Denver on a shoot.  I asked him where he was, and then chuckled because he was 10 minutes away from our house. We grabbed a burger and talked for three hours. This whole production has been filled with that kind of serendipity." As with LaPatin, the involvement of the well-respected Biagi attracted other crew members to the film.

Although Champaign-Urbana is not directly mentioned in the movie, location manager Dave Ward has worked hard to find distinctive locations. One is the old Rialto Theater, hidden within Bill Capel's photography studio across from The Art Theater. Capel has generously allowed the production to turn the Rialto into a temporary nightclub so they can shoot a big dance scene there. They are also using different spaces in the same building for a dance studio and an apartment set. Others generous benefactors of locations around town include Village Inn Pizza and Jerry's IGAs.

"The town has really opened their arms for us," says Beahm. "We are on such a tight schedule and budget, and people have really come through, with free locations, cheap dorms for the cast and crew, and even office space."

So, C-U wins high marks for generosity. What about local paparazzi and fame-seekers?

LaPatin and Schwimmer say that many folks recognize them on the street, but they aren't being obnoxious about it.  Says Schimmer: "I grew up in a university town, so this feels like home. I'm not used to living in a big city, and I like walking to places I go to."

Biagi added "People don't seem that star-struck. There's not a lot of standing around and gawking."  It's heartening to know that if there is one thing C-Uers know how to do, it's not be all that impressed with other people.

"Let Love Lead" is the tag line for Leading Ladies, and it appears the cast and crew have taken the concept to heart. One would think a movie with and about a bunch of ballroom dancers would be a huge Diva-fest. The closest this production has mustered so far is that LaPatin is mildly disappointed that Champaign doesn't have any Pinkberry frozen yogurts, and Schwimmer once really wanted to soak in a hot tub, which was promptly provided by some local citizen.

On a personal note, I brought my 14-year daughter to the set with me last week. I had to leave for half an hour, but I decided to let her stay, if she promised to be very quiet during shooting. I ran my errand, and came back during a break in shooting. When I re-entered the set, I saw Melanie LaPatin, goddess of ballroom dance for 20 years, sitting next to my daughter, talking to her like an old friend so she wouldn't feel out of place. She is as graceful in person as she is on the dance floor. And that seems to be the general rule for people involved in the production.

It makes me wonder. Perhaps this really is the best group of the most talented and dedicated people the history of film working together in harmony for the good of Art. That, or my judgment is all out of whack. Either way, this production seems to be a fine fit for Champaign-Urbana. 

Laurel Vail plays Toni, the lead character in the movie, and she is blogging about the experience at http://www.laurelvail.com/You can also follow the movie via its Facebook page.

Also, extras are still needed, especially for a big dance competition scene on Saturday, June 20th.  See the movie's website for more info.

All photos courtesy Keri Boyce and Leading Ladies.