In 1982, author Byron Preiss released his book “The Secret: A Treasure Hunt” and along with it buried 12 ceramic casques containing a small sculpture and key throughout North America. The book features 12 verses and 12 paintings giving clues to the whereabouts of the treasure, but more than 30 years later only two of the 12 keys have been found.
“The Secret of Byron Preiss,” world premiering at the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival, follows director James Renner on his quest to solve the riddles in the book and unearth one of the remaining buried treasures. Audiences are taken on a roller coaster ride of breakthroughs, dead ends, frustration and excitement as Mr. Renner and his team travel the country closing in on the treasure.
Tyler Davidson, a Chagrin Falls High School alumnus and executive producer of the film, said he has known Mr. Renner since 2001 and was excited to finally partner with him on a project.
“I felt like the combination of such a compelling story with the idea of working with James, which had been a goal for so long, was something that I couldn’t pass up,” Mr. Davidson, 43, said. “So I sold the idea to my partners (at Low Spark Films) and we really pretty soon after got underway.”
While the main narrative of the film focuses on searching for the treasure, viewers also learn more about the man behind the hunt, as Mr. Preiss’ widow Sandi Mendelson, daughters Blaire and Karah Preiss and friends and colleagues pay tribute to his life and legacy. Mr. Preiss died in a car accident in 2005.
“I think that that became a much more fleshed out theme that I think now works in tandem with James’ personal story,” Mr. Davidson said. “There are some parallels and it just introduces a whole other dimension with what could’ve been a very linear idea about a treasure hunt. I think it brings a lot of richness to that idea.”
The film also explores the vibrant online treasure hunting community and features conversations between Mr. Renner and fellow treasure seekers via Skype video calls that makes the audience feel like they are part of the group.
“If we had had the resources to fly James around to interview in person every online treasure hunter he wanted to interview, we would’ve done it. But we didn’t have those resources, so to capture those Skype discussions seemed like the next best approach,” Mr. Davidson said. “We felt that that was a community that is at the same time large and enthusiastic but kind of hidden from public awareness.”
Mr. Davidson said producing the film alongside fellow producer Charles Moore “felt like a giant improvisation,” as there was no set beginning and end to the narrative and the clues took the crew all over the country, including New York City, St. Augustine, Florida, Boston, San Francisco and more.
“We were in charge of helping to organize the production plan, certainly help bring the financing to support the film and just to be collaborators,” he said. “This was a movie where we wanted to give James full latitude to really take it where he wanted to go. And really I think the film structure of the film mirrors that of the actual hunt.”
In his first experience producing a documentary, Mr. Davidson also had the new experience of having a significant on-camera role in the film, appearing in scenes of production meetings and on the hunt in San Francisco.
“This was definitely a first and James’ idea to involve me in the actual narrative of the film. It was fun, and I felt comfortable with it,” he said. “I hope that seeing a little bit behind the curtain of what those production discussions look like will be interesting to audiences.”
Northeast Ohio audiences at the CDFF will enjoy several local connections in the film. Mr. Davidson now lives in Aurora, Low Spark Films and Mr. Renner are also Cleveland-based and the film retells how one of the 12 treasures was found in 2004 at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens by treasure hunters Brian Zinn and Andy Abrams.
“I’m always looking to incorporate the region whether that’s as a story point, whether that’s as a location, whether it’s using people that are from Northeast Ohio. This is where I’m born and raised, where I reside now, it’s important to me to have this area figure in to my work one way or another,” Mr. Davidson said. “That’s one of the most fun parts about it.”
Mr. Davidson said having the world premiere at the CDFF, a festival he has supported and been involved with since its inception, is the icing on the cake of his experience producing the film.
“That’s a big deal to me to be able to present here at a festival that I’ve cared so much about for almost a decade now,” he said. “And just the idea that I’m getting to share a world premiere with a local audience is unique. There’s nothing quite like the very first time that audiences get to engage with your work, and this really is me realizing a goal that I’ve had for a long time.”
“The Secret of Byron Preiss” will make its world premiere Saturday (Oct. 6) at Chagrin Cinemas A and is also screening Sunday (Oct. 7) at 5:15 p.m. at South Franklin Circle.