Executive Producer & Director, Joe Sapienza II—a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a freelance producer and videographer for independent films, NFL Films, & QVC Studios—was intrigued by Centralia in 2002 when a friend from Columbia County told him about the “borough on fire”. Several years later, he read David DeKok’s book titled, FIRE Underground—The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, and became attached to the people and its story.
In the summer of 2013, Joe saw a whole feature documentary in his head from beginning to end that featured people from the book and decided to start shooting a short documentary about the town. Joe and his crew went out to scout the borough and thought that there was a potential story, but how in the world would they show it? There wasn’t much left in Centralia. He reached out to author David DeKok, one of the lawyers Don Bailey who filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania in favor of Centralia, a few former and current residents, former state representatives and coal mining officials.
Only David DeKok and one former resident, Tom Dempsey, a historical figure and former resident and postmaster of the borough were interested in talking to Joe. The residents who lived in the borough and many former residents were not interested at the time. It was through an on-set production assistant, Isabell Dzwonczyk, whose mother, Colleen Dzwonczyk and maiden name of Coddington, happened to be a former resident of Centralia who changed the setting of the future of the film.
Four months into production in March of 2014, Colleen Dzwonczyk (maiden name- Coddington), whose father was a former mayor of the borough, agreed to an interview and brought up her entire family and neighbors. The documentary was originally one sided and originally titled – The Commonwealth’s Plight before the Coddington’s arrived, but after their interviews, it was renamed America’s Lost Town and changed the entire format of the film, now available on-line.
The Short That Started It All
After the short film was made and released in June 2014, Joe began to expand the documentary with more crew beginning in July 2014 and shot more interviews and more b-roll. He established relationships with more residents after two clean-up events for the borough in association with the non-profit EPCAMR, under director Robert Hughes. Illegal dumping has been an issue in Centralia for years and Robert Hughes & Joe Sapienza continue to work together to put forth more clean-up events in the future. Joe reached out to Hughes to establish clean-up efforts in the borough after one of his camera operators filmed the trash that was dumped in the back woods and vacant streets throughout Centralia. From 2014 – 2017, four successful clean-up events have been established with hundreds of volunteers and with the help of Tom Hynoski, the borough fire chief, also featured in the documentary. You can watch the videos here: clean-up video 1 and clean-up video 2.
As a result, a new feature and new title arose—Centralia, Pennsylvania’s Lost Town. Released in Pennsylvania theaters on May 2017 with an overwhelming audience approval, this feature documentary focuses on the history, the mine fire, the environment and the lawsuit of Centralia. The story is told through former and current residents, lawyers, state and mining officials and focuses on the people’s struggle against the state and federal government who neglected to put out the mine fire in a timely matter.
Twenty-three interviews were filmed utilizing two film crews to shoot every inch in Centralia with seven different cameras over three and a half years, and over 25 trips out to Centralia, Byrnesville, Pottsville Historical Society, and Harrisburg for interviews, b-roll and research. Eight news clips from channel 16 WNEP were used, and over 450 photos were licensed from David DeKok, and the Renee Jacobs book—Slow Burn, A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania. The film also covers the village of Byrnesville, a village that sat just below Centralia and was re-located due to the mine fire.
The Final Edit
Many shots were cut from the documentary, including two crane shots with intros by author David DeKok who would introduce the opening of the film and other segments throughout, replaced by title cards. It wasn’t until October 2015 when Joe got the idea to shoot David DeKok and former resident Tom Dempsey to do an opening together for the film up on Centralia’s hill, which overlooks a large portion of the town.
They spent the entire day walking around the borough and spoke of what life was like in Centralia and what used to be at specific locations. They also filmed a closing of the film which was cut before the final edit. Joe decided to use the original ending from America’s Lost Town for Pennsylvania’s Lost Town which was a shot of Tom Dempsey explaining his years at the original location of the Centralia Post Office and his time spent there.
Two editors—Rachel Tinkelman & assistant editor Ariel Benton—worked on the edit from December 2015 to October 2016 while Joe and his crew continued to film and bring in more footage and interviews. The editors began cutting down footage and segments from 6 hours to 2 hours leaving some of the following segments on the cutting room floor and saving them for a potential extended mini-series: The 2016 Time Capsule, The Clean-up Efforts, Christmas in Centralia, The Silent Hill Era and St. Mary’s Church interview, a larger Byrnesville segment, a longer Highway 61 segment, additional interviews of state officials, additional news clips, a longer portion of the last standing business in Centralia, the 150th Reunion Celebration, the Byrnesville Shrine, a walk & talk interview with DeKok and tourists, a walk & talk with resident Harold Mervine, the Centralia curse (restored), additional interviews with lawyer Andy Ostrowski, a young girl’s murder in Centralia that shook the town, and a disturbing murder suicide that shocked the town during the relocation decade; a segment that Sapienza cut and promised former residents would never return into the mini-series nor the feature documentary.
After a private screening in November 2016 was reviewed and approved by many former residents of Centralia, the film was then re-cut and parts were re-arranged and cut down to 1 hr 32 mins. After Joe attended the first official premiere at the Majestic Theater in Pottsville on May 6th, the last 20 minutes felt repetitive and a new theater cut was released in June with about 6 minutes cut out from the last 20 minutes of the film. The Centralia Curse was originally cut from the entire film but was put back after the Lewisburg Theater screening in August.
The documentary was also going to be shelved three times, never to see the light of day, but friends of Sapienza and Sapienza himself were persistent, and pushed harder to make the documentary possible. Although the documentary went through many changes and set-backs due to weather conditions in the winters and a few setbacks financially, the producers – Joe Sapienza & Allyson Kircher are proud to present, a feature independent documentary for future generations about a thriving town and its slow sad demise.