'The Pardon' brings La. story to screen

Married independent filmmakers Tom Anton and Sandi Russell are releasing their second feature film this week. The Pardon, a 1930s and ’40s crime drama, tells the story of Toni Jo Henry, the only Louisiana woman executed in the electric chair.

The Shreveport area-shot The Pardon opens Friday, March 22, in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Orleans, Lake Charles and Shreveport.

Based in Brevard, N.C., former New Orleans residents Anton and Russell have been promoting their film throughout Louisiana for weeks. They’re also distributing the project.

The period drama stars Jaime King (Pearl Harbor, Hart of Dixie) as Henry. John Hawkes, an Oscar nominee for his role in Winter’s Bone, and co-star with Helen Hunt in last year’s much-acclaimed The Sessions, co-stars as Henry’s accomplice, Horace “Arkie” Finnon Burks.

Hawkes won the 2013 Independent Spirit Award for his role in The Sessions, beating Bradley Cooper, star of the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook.

“John was great to work with,” director Anton said during a promotional visit to Baton Rouge a few weeks ago. “He’s the most humble actor and he gave it his all. It was a joy working with John, Jamie King and T.J. Thyne. We had a great cast and crew.”

Thyne, whose credits include Mr. Brooks, The Jacket, Brothers and Sisters and Sex and the City, co-stars as Claude “Cowboy” Henry, the boxer who falls in love with and marries Henry after they meet in a Shreveport brothel.

A producer brought Henry’s story to the filmmakers, Russell said.

“It intrigued us,” she said. “So we started to research it. We got our hands on court documents. We read the court transcripts. And because it was such a sensational story, it got a lot of news coverage.”

Henry was held in a jail cell in Lake Charles after her arrest for the murder of Joseph P. Calloway. Henry and Burks abducted the Texas car dealer and stole the new Ford coupe he’d plan to deliver to a customer in Jennings. Calloway ended up shot to death outside of Lake Charles.

The story of the young woman who’d endured a tragic childhood and then been charged with murder went national.

“After that one reporter did a story,” Anton said, “her side of the story started coming out. People responded to that. We have photographs of the Lake Charles courthouse, when people were hanging on the windows, in the courthouse aisles. They’d bring their lunches and camp out. It was the biggest event Lakes Charles had ever seen.”

Sympathetic people throughout the country sent furniture, clothes and money to Henry.

“They felt sorry for her,” Anton said.

Like Anton and Russell’s 2006 film, the New Orleans-set romantic drama At Last, The Pardon is based on a true story.

“When you have a film based on a true story,” Anton said, “people are like, ‘This really happened?’ There are so many interesting stories in real life that you just can’t make up.”

Anton and Russell have more film projects in the works.

“I’m pinching myself that I get to do this,” the 60-year-old Anton said. “It’s a passion. All my friends are getting ready to retire but I’m just starting.”