A native of Augusta, Maurice Johnson has played a variety of characters throughout his career, including roles in the TV series The Vampire Diaries and the film Billionaire Boys Club.
The actor then heard about an opportunity for a role in the new family adventure film The Skeleton’s Compass, which is being filmed in Georgia with a strong presence in the Peach State.
“I jumped into it because of the subject matter,” said Johnson, who graduated from Glenn Hills High School and plays a character’s father. “I thought it would be a cute, family-friendly thing. I have some others that my nieces and nephews can’t see.”
Reminiscent of family adventure movies from the 1980s and 1990s, The Skeleton’s Compass – now available on streaming platforms including Apple TV, Amazon Prime and Vudu – is a coming-of-age film with undertones of The Goonies and Jumanji . .”
The film began in the mind of Suwanee-based screenwriter Cris Loveless after watching her three sons play with their friends near creeks behind their home where gold was once discovered.
Her family lives about 45 minutes from Dahlonega, home of America’s first great gold rush in the late 1820’s. Her husband Mark served as executive producer on the film and the two also have small roles in the film. Directed by Sandra L. Martin.
“We’ve got a lot of that fool’s gold down there, and it stimulates the imagination,” Loveless said of the land behind her house. “And listening to the kids play was a lot of fun. Children have a great imagination.
“It just kept evolving. It originally started out as a 30-page short screenplay.”
She sent the screenplay to others for feedback, and they encouraged her to develop it into a full-fledged screenplay.
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“I just wanted one that would be fun for the whole family so people could relate,” Loveless said.
One of her sons, Luke Loveless, also stars in the independent film. The young actor’s films include roles in the 2019 Netflix-era crime thriller The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson and Kathy Bates; the Hallmark Channel movie “Love at the Shore”; and minor roles in the dystopian sci-fi films The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay – Part 2 (2015) and The Divergent Series: Allegiant (2016).
Luke Loveless, 16, said there were times on past film sets when he wanted to contribute but couldn’t.
“On this one, she actually stood next to the principal and helped me,” he said of his mother. “It was nice to have someone in my corner.”
Luke Loveless plays 13-year-old Champ Brown. While playing in the woods, Brown and his friend Stryker (portrayed by Caleb Baumann from Atlanta) find an old prospector’s journal and compass, which has the Cherokee word “Sidanelv” written on it, meaning “family”.
Along with two other middle school friends, the four embark on an adventure that involves time travel.
“The Skeleton’s Compass” delves into the history of the American Indians. Prior to the 1830s, the Cherokees nation included northern Georgia, where the film is set. State and federal government agencies encroached on their country until U.S. troops finally forced the Cherokees to leave and the “Trail of Tears” began to move west. Gold had been discovered on their land in Georgia.
Filming took place in three locations: Suwanee, the Loveless actual home and grounds, consolidated gold mines in Dahlonega, and the ghost town of Auraria.
In addition to Johnson and Cris and Luke Loveless, The Skeleton’s Compass also stars other actors with ties to Georgia.
“Just a good story”
Joey Thurmond, the actor who plays Champ’s father, Tim Brown, grew up in Dallas, Georgia. His connection to Augusta is ominous. In 1992, Thurmond was a wrestler in World Championship Wrestling, or WCW, and during a match in town, another wrestler threw him to the mat, fracturing Thurmond’s back.
He survived the fall and switched to an acting career, starring in dozens of films and television shows.
Thurmond said playing the character in The Skeleton’s Compass was “just a real breath of fresh air.”
“Once I got the script I started reading it and it was just such a good story,” he said. “There’s no innuendo, no swearing, and I think the viewer can relate to that.
“And the fact that it ties Georgia into Dahlonega and America’s very first gold rush and the Cherokee gold and what happens when they step into the gold mine is just a good story.”
Not Enough “Family Friendly Movies”
Loveless and Baumann were joined by the other two treasure hunters from the two films: Reagan Shumate (Jennie) and Abby Grace (Pip) from Suwanee.
“Personally, I love family-friendly movies,” said Shumate, 16, of Wilmington, NC, who had a role in the 2021 coming-of-age horror thriller The Black Phone, starring Ethan Hawke.
“This theme is really good because it reaches more people, more diversity than some other genres.”
15-year-old Grace said The Skeleton’s Compass was her first film acting role. The Lambert High School freshman, who plays lacrosse and other sports, said she auditioned and got the part. Her only other acting experience was in school plays.
“It was kind of surreal to me,” she said. “I could see 4 year olds watching this film and my family and grandparents sitting down and watching it.”
As a Georgia kid, Baumann said it meant a lot to him that the film explored part of the state’s rich history.
“Most people don’t know there was gold here,” he said. “It was an amazing experience. I made a lot of friends during his time.”
Revive childhood fantasies
One of the more interesting characters in “The Skeleton’s Compass” is Jedidiah, played by actor Chris Cleveland.
Jedidiah serves in scenes as the agitator of the 1828 prospector camp, quickly drawing his gun and covering his mouth.
“It was fun bringing my cousins and uncles and all the in-laws and outlaws to my deep southern roots,” said Cleveland, who grew up in Westminster, SC, near the Georgia border.
“This guy was interesting,” he continued. “I kind of invented his voice, kind of developed his laugh. I think he has a big heart behind all that facade he’s trying to put out there. Deep down he’s a good guy.”
Cleveland – who starred in Bruce Willis’ last three films – said The Skeleton’s Compass reminded him of films he grew up watching.
“’Goonies’ is one of my absolute favorite films. I watch it every time I flip through the channels,” he said. “There’s something about the nostalgia of being a kid, ‘Stand by Me’, Goonies, ‘ET’, it just brings back your childhood that’s so fleeting and we wish we could go back to it.”
He added that he believes the film received good omens early on. Cleveland said he saw a rock glistening in the sun near a creek, looked down and found a perfect arrowhead.
“And that was the first day of shooting, and from there I felt this overwhelming sense of calm and we were on sacred ground and we lived up to it,” he said.