As a little girl, enchanted by the magic of the movies available to her in her grandparents' video rental store in Goshen, Krista Bradley knew filmmaking was her life's dream. But she couldn't have imagined that in 2023 she'd be invited to Sundance thanks to a film she's written set in a cave in northwest Arkansas.
"I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker," Bradley says. "I'm pretty certain we still have a video somewhere of me explaining to my grandpa how I was going to be a filmmaker when I grew up -- at the age of like 4. It's a passion that's always been with me that I credit my grandparents for.
"My grandparents loved films of all kinds," she remembers. "We'd spend afternoons watching old Westerns, classics, and Disney films. Sunday after church, my grandmother would take my brother and I to the Sunday matinee, and we'd watch 'The Wonderful World of Disney' on Sunday evenings on ABC. I loved watching the old Walt Disney specials where Walt would explain how his films were made. I always knew movies weren't real, but that the magic that went into making them certainly was."
Now her script for a film called "Wonderland Cave," set in the underground dance club in Bella Vista in 1930, has earned Bradley an invitation to the renowned Sundance Film Festival Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Utah. She was invited based on her entry in the Inroads Fellowship Screenwriting Competition, where her script placed as a semifinalist, No. 54 among the top 100 writers.
In 1930, long before Bradley's time, C.A. Linebarger, general manager of the resort that was Bella Vista, developed Wonderland Cave as a tourist attraction and a place for local entertainment, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. It opened March 1, 1930, with an alcove for a 10- to 12-piece band, a 30-foot bar and wooden and stone booths around the perimeter, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas describes. It was an "exotic setting for dancing to big band and jazz music," advertised as "the largest natural place of amusement in America."
"I knew I wanted to make a 1930s jazz film back in 2019 and actually started the character development for the two lead characters before even deciding on a setting," Bradley says. "In my mind, I always had a clear picture of 'this jazz club' that I wanted to use as my setting, but I couldn't pinpoint where it was or where I had seen it -- if it was just a figment of my imagination.
"Flash forward to December 2020. It was a beautiful winter afternoon, and I found myself at the remains of Wonderland Cave. It was magical. I sat by the fireplace in the snow and just let my imagination take me where it would as I remembered being inside the cave (almost two decades ago) and what it might have been like in its heyday. That's when it clicked, and I realized I was sitting 500 feet above the jazz club I had been 'imagining.' From that point, my obsession with Wonderland Cave totally took over my life, and I really started to give life to the story."
In Bradley's script, a bootlegging jazz singer named Faye Chambers lands a job at Wonderland Cave and "infiltrates the club with her moonshine-makin' brothers."
"The Feds take notice of their scheme and send one of their best undercover agents, John Calderon (Heath Adam Cates)," Bradley explains. "Unaware of his true intentions, Faye finds herself madly in love with John, but must face the music and make a dangerous decision when she learns the truth.
"I was inspired to create a female character that's actually fun to play and would challenge me as an actress and filmmaker, which is SO the character of Faye," Bradley says. "She's someone just as mischievous as she is innocent; not fully ever bad and not fully ever good. She's a big dreamer, but at the end of the day she ... does what she has to do to survive."
The same might be said of Bradley. Passionate about filmmaking, she moved to Colorado after attending the University of Arkansas. There, she says, she met "mentors and colleagues who became my (film) family and helped me build a foundation in the Colorado and New Mexico commercial, TV and film markets -- the same core team of people who help me navigate the industry to this day."
By March 2020, Bradley was a full-time actress and acting coach, and life, she says, was good.
"I'm actually in Jo Edna Boldin's office auditioning for 'Stranger Things,' thinking 'this is it,'" she remembers. "I walk out of the audition, and I'm immediately notified by Marie, her assistant at the time, that production was put on hold indefinitely due to covid ... and one by one, that's what started happening to all productions. So work dried up incredibly fast for me.
"Even more scary, many people I knew were getting sick. My husband and I both have family members who are high risk, so in April 2020 he and I moved back to northwest Arkansas, and I brought my love of film with me."
Bradley admits she didn't go to film school, although she has taught and studied at some of the best.
"I would have absolutely loved to have gone, though. I tell every film student I can to not take their time at school for granted and to go make films! You have access to free equipment that will never be free again. Make your film!
"The film 'school' I attended was all hands-on experience, working on film and commercial sets and interning at studios, prior to landing a job as a producer and instructor in addition to acting," Bradley goes on. "Throughout my career I have worked with some of the best acting coaches in the business, as well as other mentors and artists who have so selflessly poured their time and knowledge into me and made me a better artist. An excellent example of this is when I was having doubts about directing and acting in 'Wonderland Cave,' my coach Joanna Baron -- who had been specifically working with me on acting and directing and was pretty upset about my self doubt -- got me on a Zoom call with Halle Berry, who had recently finished directing and acting in 'Bruised.' By the time Halle was finished with me, I was singing battle cries and ready to film! She's so inspiring!"
"I had heard about the cave from my grandfather, but what really sparked my interest was my husband," Bradley says. "In a valiant effort to impress me, he snuck us into the cave almost two decades ago. I love history and being inside the cave, seeing the ballroom and the bar, all still there and right in front of me, it just set my imagination wild. I remember standing in the middle of the dance floor just thinking 'this really is a Wonderland.'"
When she started to develop the "Wonderland Cave" script, Bradley spent three years studying the history of the Bella Vista attraction, C.A. Linebarger and club operator Whitey T. May. In addition to mountains of files from the Bella Vista Historical Museum, she was able to connect with the granddaughters of C.A. Linebarger, Ann Linebarger Boyd and Carol Linebarger, as well as interview the daughter of Whitey T. May, Constance (Connie) May Waddell.
"They provided amazing insight into C.A. and Whitey's life, what it took to make Wonderland a reality, and the legacy the cave has been for their families," Bradley enthuses. "They were each such a treasure to speak with! Both of Connie's parents worked at Wonderland Cave and ran C.A.'s resort. She shared stories of her beautiful mother dancing in the cave with such vivid descriptions that re-creating it on screen became a beautiful experience of celebrating the past while honoring the present. There's entire scenes based on details shared by the family -- even down to the dialogue. It's important to me that the family feels honored and proud of the film."
Bradley was also fortunate to find a cave where she could make the magic happen -- The Cave Bar & Grill just across the state line in Missouri.
"With the support of Theresa from The Cave Bar & Grill, an incredible art department (the father-daughter duo, Zak and Sam Morris), as well as just an amazing film crew all around, we were able to turn The Cave Bar & Grill into Wonderland Cave in 1930 and get jaw-droppingly beautiful footage," she says. "The Cave Bar & Grill has this gorgeous entrance with sweeping vines across the top of the cave and this HUGE flat floor that's just perfect for dancing! We were so grateful for such a perfect location and to have a sponsor who was so kind and supportive of the project.
"Filming so far has been an incredible experience," Bradley adds, but even though she shared the "first look trailer" at the 2022 Fayetteville Film Festival, there's still more to do.
"At Sundance I'll have the opportunity to share the trailer and network with major producers and other filmmakers, as well as pitch the film to studios and distributors," she says excitedly. "I feel like the reality for the film could actually be better than anything I ever dreamed. It's such a beautiful story and project, (and) I'm blessed that so many have recognized its potential at an early stage and that even more are buying into the project now with the 'first look trailer' complete.
"The ultimate goal is to share the film globally and for it to be the project that serves as a catapult for the careers of all who are involved."