Bender movie to film at Old Cowtown next week

A covered wagon drives through the rain down the streets of Cowtown during their Celebrate America event Saturday. (July 3, 2010)
A covered wagon drives through the rain down the streets of Cowtown during their Celebrate America event Saturday. (July 3, 2010) The Wichita Eagle

They were a family of murderers in 1870s Kansas, and now their story will be told on the big screen, partially from Old Cowtown Museum.

Independent filmmakers and longtime friends John Alexander and JC Guest, both 24, will shoot scenes for their upcoming feature-length film, “The Bender Claim,” about the “Bloody Benders,” at Cowtown next week.

The Benders ran a small inn and general store near Cherryvale in southeast Kansas. Typically, while one of the Bender women would distract a guest at dinner, the rest would sneak up and club the person over the head and slit his or her throat. The family left Kansas before law enforcement found out about their killings. Their disappearance is still unexplained. Legend says the family killed up to 21 people, although only 11 bodies were found buried in the yard, according to state records.

Alexander, the film’s director, said he first discovered the story when he and Guest were students at Harvard University. He said he was attracted to the story because it was “ultimately one of the best unsolved mysteries of the West.”

“Nobody knows where they went or where they came from,” Alexander said. “We don’t even know if they were a family at all. It’s a story that deserves to be told.”

He and Guest co-wrote the script whenever they found time while studying at Harvard. He said the two spent about four years on the script.

This is not the first time Cowtown has played host to a moviemaking crew, as there “just isn’t any other place like this,” for filming movies set in the late 19th century, said Teddie Barlow, Cowtown’s acting curator.

“It’s good for the whole city whenever people come and do something like this,” Barlow said. “You’d have to spend a lot of money to re-create it or find something similar.”

Barlow said most of the filming will be outdoors, though some scenes will use Cowtown spots like the general store and the barn. It will be treated as an “open shoot,” she said, so the museum will still be open while crews are filming.

“We try to make it as non-intrusive as possible – we are a museum, not a film studio,” Barlow said. “It’s always fun to see Cowtown on the big screen. It’s kind of a fun adventure for the guests who are there while they’re filming.”

Some of the scenes will be shot at Cowtown, and the rest will be shot near Junction City and at a private ranch near El Dorado, Guest said.

Alexander, a native of Los Angeles, said he first looked at filming in California, but quickly realized “it was not going to be the movie I wanted it to be.”

Guest said they “fell in love” with Cowtown after visiting last fall.

“We felt we had no choice,” Guest said. “Cowtown is such an amazing place.”

In the movie, Cowtown will be the town setting, “where the civilization is,” Alexander said.

“I would say a good portion of the movie will be set at Cowtown – about half of it,” he said.

Most of the major roles in the movie are being filled by out-of-state talent, except for local child actor Chance Caeden. Chance, 7, will be playing the part of “the boy” and is scheduled to show up for 14 of the 24 shoot dates.

A large majority of the extras and bit roles will be played by local actors, Guest said.

All of these roles have already been cast by the producers and assistant director Ginger Bynorth, a Wichita filmmaker. Bynorth said she sent out a call for auditions through Facebook months ago, while Alexander and Guest handpicked some of the supporting roles themselves. She said Wichita’s Old West re-enactors have been essential to complete the cast.

“If it weren’t for all the re-enactors in Wichita, we would be having a wardrobe hee haw,” Bynorth said. “They know the history, they know the period, and they’ve been very, very helpful.”

The film is expected to have a monthlong production, Guest said. Crews will edit film largely on-site, in their “mobile production wagon,” Guest said, a reconfigured ambulance-turned-production studio.

Alexander could not say how much budget the movie was working with, but said “we’re taking as much as we can get and working within that.”

About a year ago, IMDB reported that acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro, who most recently directed 2013’s “Pacific Rim,” also was producing a movie based on the “Bloody Bender” legend.

Alexander and Guest said that doesn’t really add pressure for them, because “every director’s vision is very unique.”

“That’s always a concern when you’re doing something creative, that someone else is doing the same thing,” Alexander said. “It’s not only the subject matter; it’s the interpretation of the material.”

After it is finished, the feature-length film is expected to be shown at the Tallgrass Film Festival, as well as other regional festivals, Guest said.

“Our expectations are set very high,” she said.