Upcoming movie weaves together history of what lies beneath Lake Lanier with modern-day story delving into societal issues such as generational trauma to both educate and entertain
A town with a dark history lies submerged beneath the waters of Lake Lanier — Oscarville, a rural community that was home to primarily Black residents, once stood in northeastern Forsyth County near the border of Hall on a portion of land later used to construct the lake. According to historical records, in 1912, the 1,098 residents of Oscarville were driven from their community after three young black laborers were accused of raping and murdering a white female.
In his non-fiction book “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” Stanford University professor Patrick Phillips, who grew up in Forsyth County in the 1970s and ’80s, combines archival research and interviews with townspeople and their descendants to detail the history of the town that would end up beneath the waters of Lake Lanier.
Phillips’ book would serve as research material for William Eric Bush-Anderson, writer, director and producer of “Lanier,” an upcoming horror-thriller movie that combines the story of Oscarville with modern-day fears associated with a lake that, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, claimed more than 115 lives just from 1994 to 2018. There have been five deaths attributed to drownings or boating fatalities on the lake in 2023.
“Once you are familiar with the history of the lake and see how many people have lost their lives there, it was clear to us that Lake Lanier must be haunted,” said Cindy Kunz-Anderson, who wrote, directed and produced “Lanier” alongside Bush-Anderson. “Of course, that’s up to each individual’s beliefs, too. But we as creators believe the lake is haunted, which makes it a perfect blueprint for a horror film.”
Lake Lanier is an approximately 58-square-mile reservoir constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which required the acquisition of more than 50,000 acres of private land. According to Gwinnett County, 250 families, 20 cemeteries, 15 businesses and six churches were relocated to accommodate the construction. The reservoir, which began to fill in early 1956 with the completion of the Buford Dam, reached its full pool in August 1958.
Ali Ashtigo, a lead actor in “Lanier” who also served as a producer, approached Bush-Anderson about an idea for a horror movie surrounding the story of Oscarville and Lake Lanier about two years ago.
“We know there hasn’t been a movie made over Lake Lanier yet, so it was about time to go ahead and intertwine both ideas into one another,” Kunz-Anderson said.
The film, which was shot on Lake Lanier, follows a local detective who specializes in drownings and a fellow law enforcement officer vacationing at the lake as they confront the dark history of what lies beneath its waters.
“Writing a film inspired by true events can be both difficult and easy at the same time,” Kunz-Anderson said. “It’s somewhat easy because you kind of have an outline of events that have actually happened. Now we had to create an entire world — a modern-day world, since ‘Lanier’ is a modern-day movie — around those events and the people in those events. That’s the harder portion of it.
“We needed to intertwine the history with a modern-day story in a way that makes sense but also highlights the issues that come with said history and how those issues are still present to this day,” she continued. “I can confidently say that we did that. … (’Lanier’) touches on various topics of today’s problems in our society such as generational trauma. It’s definitely more than just a horror film.”
Midtown Atlanta resident John M. Johnson plays the role of James Wilson, a character central to the historical aspects of Oscarville that are presented in the film.
“You may not see me as much as other characters, but I am always present in some capacity,” Johnson said. “My character somewhat creates chaos, inner conflicts that seem impossible to be solved.”
Johnson said from the first table read of the script, when he had an opportunity to interact with some of the other cast members, the role just felt right.
“This was the type of role I’ve been looking for since I’ve been acting for the last seven years,” Johnson said. “It’s something that is based on a true story with a beautiful twist involved with it being a horror movie.”
“Lanier,” which is not yet rated, is slated to premiere Sept. 9 at Mode X Studio in Atlanta and Sept. 10 at Focal Center Theatre in Cumming before being released for video-on-demand Sept. 16. A digital release through providers such as Amazon, YouTube Movies, AppleTV and others is planned for October. To get tickets to either premiere, click here.
“I hope viewers enjoy the movie first and foremost,” said Jarrett Michael Collins, who plays Daniel Wilson. “I hope they are moved by the story and reflect on how the experience makes them feel. Given the film is inspired by a storied location and its interesting history, its connection to many is important and that’s not lost on the folks that put their best into this project.
“And hopefully it encourages people to continue to research about it, create more content and stories around it and generate more convo that informs,” he continued. “I think viewers can look forward to not only being educated a bit, but also really entertained.”
“We hope that people will understand that if you don’t believe in history — you’ll either become a part of it or it will continue to repeat itself,” Kunz-Anderson added. “… We’d love for people to acknowledge that there are really cities under Lake Lanier, like legitimate full houses, roads, and graveyards that make the lake also a dangerous place to swim in, which the countless deaths that have happened there can back up.”
Watch the official trailer for “Lanier” here.
FEATURED PHOTO: Donning a fedora, actor Chris Johnson, who plays Reed Johnson in the film “Lanier,” stands next to Lake Lanier to film a scene for the movie as crew member Jacob Wasden holds a boom mic overhead. Looking on are film investor Mike Schillis, center, who also portrays Andre Biggins in the film, and Cindy Kunz-Anderson, left, co-director, writer and executive producer for “Lanier.” Photos courtesy of “Lanier” movie.