Getting a Close Up

An upcoming movie about St. Louis native John O’Leary, a burn survivor turned motivational speaker and author, is the first to take advantage of a new state tax credit helping to revive the local film industry.

Culture

Story By Valerie Schremp Hahn
Visuals By R.J. Hartbeck

Along the green of deep right field in Busch Stadium, on a sunny, mild day in early December, scenes of John O’Leary’s life unfold before him.

Film director Sean McNamara stands before a group of extras filling a section of the stands. He holds up a pole with a tennis ball stuck to the end, which serves as a focal point for the extras.

“It’s a pitch, and it’s a homerun. Yeah!” he shouts from behind the cameras, arcing the tennis ball pole above his head. 

The crowd cheers.

“All of a sudden now, they’re bringing John O’Leary around the bases,” McNamara calls out. “It’s just so nice. A nice round of applause. We love you, John O’Leary!”

“We love you, John O’Leary!” the crowd shouts.

O’Leary, 46, does not stand transfixed. His attention is elsewhere. He stands on the sidelines, chatting with extras and visitors. He puts his arm around them and poses for selfies. 

The film, called On Fire, and based on his first book, recounts O’Leary’s life since 1987, when he was burned at age 9 on 100 percent of his body during a fire in the garage of his family’s home in Town and Country.

Film director Sean McNamara (pictured left) and John O'Leary on set at the Salus Center at Saint Louis University.

The book and movie recount his recovery and life leading to his career as a public speaker and motivational coach. The movie wrapped up filming in early December many O’Leary family friends and family members served as extras, and local celebrities made cameos and is in post-production. It’s slated to be released in fall 2024.

It was the first movie to be created using Missouri’s new film tax credit, which backers of the On Fire film pushed to get signed. Filmmakers will receive 25% of what they spend in the state as a tax credit.

The movie would have been made regardless, O’Leary says, in someplace like Illinois or Vancouver, which already allow credits. 

“It would have been all extras and it would have been fine, but it would have lacked the heart of the story, which is not about John,” he says. “It’s about the people who showed up for him. And there’s a big difference there. I’m the recipient of all of this goodness.”

John O'Leary on set during filming at Saint Louis University's Salus Center.

Stretching and Saying Yes

Twenty years ago, O’Leary was working as a real estate developer. Back then, he didn’t talk much to others about his accident or his scars. He was asked to talk to a group of third grade Girl Scouts about his life his first speaking gig. He was a perspiring, nervous wreck, but stumbled through a short speech about his life.

“No paycheck for it. No fanfare,” he writes in “On Fire,” which was published in 2016. “No, they didn’t even give me a box of cookies. But that phone call, that one speech, changed the entire trajectory of my life. All because I was willing to look up, stretch courageously, and get uncomfortable.

“I said yes.” 

St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck got wind of the little boy in the burn unit of St. John’s Mercy Medical Center (now Mercy Hospital St. Louis) and visited a few days after the accident. He promised a John O’Leary Day at the ballpark. He gave John an autographed baseball, and said that if John wrote a thank you note, he’d send another. It was his way of getting John to learn to write with amputated fingers. 

As John wrote more notes, Buck mailed more baseballs. By the time the Cardinals played in the World Series that October, Buck had sent 60 baseballs, and O’Leary had written 60 thank you notes.  

Actor James McCracken (pictured left), who plays young John O'Leary in the film, poses with O'Leary on set in St. Louis.

Starring St. Louis

William H. Macy plays Buck in the movie. John Corbett plays O’Leary’s father, Denny, and Stephanie Szostak plays O’Leary’s mother, Susan. James McCracken plays young John O’Leary, and Joel Courtney plays O’Leary as a grown man.

And St. Louis plays St. Louis, which is the first reason filming here was a big deal, O’Leary says. 

The places he loved that played important roles in his life played important roles in the film: Saratoga Bowling Lanes in Maplewood, where he and his future wife, Beth, bowled with friends; Saint Louis University, where he got his degree; the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill., where he and Beth got married; and Busch Stadium, where he celebrated John O’Leary Day with Buck in 1987 and again 30 years later to mark its anniversary. Even the O’Leary home and garage scenes, where the fire took place, were filmed in the same home in Town and Country where O’Leary grew up. Set designers revamped the house and garage to its 1987 look.

“All these places that we filmed were landmarks in our life and remain landmarks in our community,” O’Leary says. “That was awesome. It was a surprisingly cool thing for the film.”

Second, the filming here generated a buzz in the community. People loved being a part of it, he says.

“I’m just shocked at how much St. Louis loved the fact that St. Louis is part of this thing,” he says. “That would not have happened in Illinois. It would not have happened in Vancouver. It did happen here.”

Third, the movie brought out the area’s potential. Crew members who live locally but normally travel for work thanked O’Leary for the opportunity to stay close to their families. Local actors and extras got their chance to shine. 

Spencer Milford, 28, who plays Mike, one of O’Leary’s best friends in the movie, lives in Chicago and is from Webster Groves, and grew up acting here. He says the whole movie has been like “a love letter to St. Louis,” with cast members wearing Cardinals and Blues shirts and drinking Budweiser. 

“It’s been honestly a dream come true,” Milford says. “And I’ve always dreamed about being in a movie, and I thought to do that, I would have to go to LA or New York. Then I got the call to do this film, and I had to jump at it.”

O’Leary’s eager to see what grows from here. 

“It’s probably bigger than our movie,” says O’Leary, who lives in Webster Groves with Beth and their four children. “It’s maybe the beginning of an entire industry now in our backyard.”

A peek behind the scenes during filming at Saint Louis University's Salus Center, including equipment used by St. Louis-based film production rental company Bad Dog Pictures and actor John Corbett's chair.

Growing a Local Industry

Mary Kay Sheets is the co-founder of St. Louis Filmworks, a nonprofit that helped raise money to film the movie. She knew O’Leary personally and knew people would rally around telling his story in a film. 

“It was just a perfect, perfect project to come in to be our first tax incentive,” Sheets says. “The community already is around John and what he represents because the story isn’t about John, it’s about all the heroes that helped him survive and impact him. That’s what he’ll tell you. He’ll always defer and deflect that it isn’t about me.”

The St. Louis Film Office helped with permits, locations, and production needs. FILM IN MO is an all-volunteer group that was key to lobbying and bringing in the tax incentives. The Missouri Film Office worked to promote St. Louis film production and connect producers to resources. All of them want the film industry to come and shine here, Sheets says. 

“We’re on the cusp of really being able to compete in this industry again,” she says. “In the next year or two, as we continue to attract, it’s going to be important we prove that these tax incentives are worth it, and that they’re doing good and that we’re building the right infrastructure and pulling in the right projects to keep steady work here.”

She says the crew of On Fire was excellent to work with, patient with the fact that they might have to buy instead of easily rent equipment, but also impressed by the area’s lower costs and ease of things like getting a permit to close a street.

“The other thing that is so cool about St. Louis is we have so many great looks and feels that can be morphed into about any other city or country,” Sheets says. “And so outside of having a beach scene, there’s not too much you can’t find between south, north, east, and west of Missouri to film. When we had filmmakers come in looking, that’s what they said. The first thing they say is, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool. I can go two miles up the road and we’ve got that look, we can go over here and get that real industrial look.’”

Filming on location at Saint Louis University's Salus Center on December 1.

Hope, Pain, and Growth

When O’Leary speaks to groups, he tailors the conversation to their needs. During one recent morning, he talked to a group of kids at Green Pines Elementary School in Wildwood, who got the message that they have the ability in their life to be a hero to someone else, O’Leary says. 

But regardless of what a group wants to hear, O’Leary tries to remind people that their life matters, and that they have agency to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. 

It’s a lesson he learned from the people who loved and supported and prayed for him and his family, from a St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster who gave him hope to the nurses and therapists who urged him to stretch, heal, and walk. 

With pain, he says, comes growth.

“The very best of my life is the result of an explosion,” he says. “And I’m not willing to trade the blessings to eradicate the struggle.” 

St. Louis underestimates itself, he says, unfairly comparing itself to cities like Chicago, which has its own problems, or to a World’s Fair, which happened in 1904. 

“I think what we should do is celebrate who we are, who we can become, and then take the next right step towards that,” he says.

To this day, St. Louisans tell O’Leary that they were on duty at the hospital the day he arrived, or prayed for him during a service at their church or synagogue, or cheered for him along the street with fire trucks to welcome him home. 

“It’s not like it’s a historical story that happened somewhere in a time long, long ago, in a place far, far away,” O’Leary says. “This is us. And in some regards, the best of us. And it’s ultimately who we can become going forward again.”

John O'Leary watches the monitors during filming.

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