Joel Paul Reisig, a former professional horse wrangler, directed Rodeo Girl, which he wrote, produced and directed, from horseback in 2016. Rodeo Girl was filmed on location at the Roanoke Ranch for Kids in Lowell, Mich.
Joel Paul Reisig, a former professional horse wrangler, directed Rodeo Girl, which he wrote, produced and directed, from horseback in 2016. Rodeo Girl was filmed on location at the Roanoke Ranch for Kids in Lowell, Mich.

Movie producer Joel Paul Reisig’s quest for holiday rom-coms lands him at historic Holly Hotel.

Growing up in Birmingham, Joel Paul Reisig celebrated both Chanukah and Christmas with his family, making him perfectly qualified to be an equal-opportunity movie producer.

On Dec. 4, Reisig’s latest film, Christmas at the Holly Hotel, will have its world premiere at two red-carpet screenings at the Redford Theatre. With more than 2,000 tickets sold, Reisig says that it’s the largest film premiere in Michigan’s history.

Julie Smith Yolles Contributing Writer
Julie Smith Yolles
Contributing Writer

Those who don’t already have tickets to the Dec. 4 premieres will have two more opportunities locally to see Christmas at the Holly Hotel. On Friday, Dec. 16, the Detroit Historical Museum will host a fundraiser screening and strolling dinner to benefit the Holly Hotel and the Detroit Historical Society. And on Sunday, Dec. 18, the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township will present a screening and Q&A with Reisig and members of the cast and crew.

Reisig multitasks as producer, director, writer and even as a cameo actor in Christmas at the Holly Hotel.

“I always wanted to do a Hallmark-style Christmas movie where people could sit back and enjoy without being preached to about politics or religion,” said Reisig, who, in the past 15 years, has produced more than  30 feature films, mostly in Michigan; directed 15, written 13 and acted in 25.

On location at the Holly Hotel are, from left, Dennis Doyle Jr. and Colleen Gentry, who play real-life Holly Hotel owners George and Chrissy Kutlenios; Christmas at the Holly Hotel producer, co-writer and director Joel Paul Reisig; and Jesi Jensen, who stars as fictional daughter Kathy Kutlenios.
On location at the Holly Hotel are, from left, Dennis Doyle Jr. and Colleen Gentry, who play real-life Holly Hotel owners George and Chrissy Kutlenios; Christmas at the Holly Hotel producer, co-writer and director Joel Paul Reisig; and Jesi Jensen, who stars as fictional daughter Kathy Kutlenios.

“My next seasonal movie that is ruminating in my head is a feel-good romantic comedy with Jewish leads and a Chanukah backdrop,” Reisig adds. “What I dislike about seeing a Chanukah movie on the Lifetime or Hallmark channel, is it’s always trying to teach you about Chanukah as if you’ve never heard of it, or it has over-the-top Jewish jokes. I just want to make a normal movie where the people just happen to be Jewish. And I’m looking for investors.”

STANDUP KIND OF GUY

With a dual major in business and English from Hope College in Michigan, Reisig didn’t have a set career plan post-graduation.

“I started as a standup comedian in Chicago and fell backwards into movie producing,” said Reisig, a single father of three living in Bloomfield Hills. “My buddies used to get drunk on Friday nights and watch the National Lampoon and Animal House movies. They would always say to me, ‘You’re so much funnier than these guys; why don’t you write one of those movies? So, I went to Borders bookstore and, for the next three days, I would sit on the floor and read The Idiot’s Guide to Producing — I didn’t even buy it. I decided, ‘I can do that.’ I’ve never had a class in film. I learned by doing.”

To pay the bills, Reisig got a job as a licensed horse carriage driver in Chicago and briefly considered a career in boxing on the Golden Gloves circuit. He would perform stand-up and improv comedy nearly every night and went on to be a cast member at Second City and ImprovOlympic. He would also audition for every independent film that he could as an actor.

“I grew up watching Seinfeld, and I simply thought it was the funniest show ever created — I still do. Seinfeld was a show for everyone, but it was, indeed, a Jewish show. I don’t think I really knew what that meant back then or what ‘Jewish humor’ was. It was just humor,” Reisig said.

“But I can say that I loved it. I wanted to be just like Jerry. Other than my father and my two grandfathers, Jerry Seinfeld — a man whom I have never met — probably had the biggest influence on my life. I literally started in standup because of my admiration for that show. I really believe that I would not have my current career if it weren’t for that show.”

All Roads Lead to the HOLLY HOTEL

For about a year, Reisig drove across the country, performing at small clubs as a professional standup comedian, usually as the opening act. One of his stops was at the basement club of the historic Holly Hotel in Holly, Michigan, where he first met owners George and Chrissy Kutlenios.

Jesi Jensen and Joe Kurak star in Christmas at the Holly Hotel, filmed entirely in Michigan.
Jesi Jensen and Joe Kurak star in Christmas at the Holly Hotel, filmed entirely in Michigan.

Once Reisig started producing movies, he received permission from George Kutlenios to film a scene for Reisig’s movie Mary’s Buttons. Almost two years after Mary’s Buttons, he filmed again at the Holly Hotel for his movie Jack London’s Son of the Wolf, Reisig’s passion project.

“The Holly Hotel had become one of my favorite places for a special dinner in the greater Metro Detroit area. When I was there for my mother’s birthday, I looked around and simply thought, ‘This would be an amazing location for a Christmas romantic comedy,’” said Reisig, who drew up a brief outline and presented it a few days later to George and Chrissy Kutlenios.

“Honestly, if they weren’t 100% into the project and willing to help, then I just wasn’t going to do it. But they were as excited about the project as I was.”

Within a few weeks, Reisig had the script, which he co-wrote with Trevor McCall. He assembled the all-Michigan cast and crew (except for the male lead, Joe Kurak, who hails from Ohio). Holly House Inn owner, Mary Ray, donated rooms for some of the cast and crew to stay at her Bed and Breakfast.

“And we were in business,” Reisig said.

Filming took place in January 2022 over five days at the Holly Hotel — three during a full shutdown and two days while the hotel was open to the public. Holly Hotel kitchen and waitstaff were extras in the film along with local actors. Reisig even used George and Chrissy Kutlenios’ names for the Holly Hotel owners featured in the script.

The premiere of the first Horse Camp movie, produced, written and directed by Joel Paul Reisig, was held at the historic Redford Theatre in 2016.
The premiere of the first Horse Camp movie, produced, written and directed by Joel Paul Reisig, was held at the historic Redford Theatre in 2016.

“George and Chrissy’s entire staff was very nice and easy to work with. The most amazing part was the food — they actually cooked their four-star meals for my cast and crew every day. Nobody around here has ever been on a film set that serves roast duck with twice-baked potatoes and all the sides. The biggest problem I’ll have in the future is telling my crew that we’re not filming at the Holly Hotel and that we’ll all have to go back to eating normal food,” Reisig laughed.

The remaining two days of the seven-day shoot were ambience shots around Holly and in Royal Oak at the ImaginATE restaurant, which serves as a posh Manhattan restaurant in the film. The Holly Hotel, Holly Police Department, Holly House Inn, Battle Alley Coffee and Battle Alley Arcade Antiques Mall were all supporters of the production of Christmas at the Holly Hotel.

The charming town kept up its Christmas decorations for a few extra weeks in January to add to the magic backdrop of the film.

“If you watch a Hallmark holiday movie, they spend a lot of time on set decorating. But for us, Christmas had already exploded at the Holly Hotel. We were able to walk right in and have it decorated at the level of a large budget movie,” Reising said.

Just six months after filming wrapped, the Battle Alley Arcade Antiques Mall burned to the ground on June 21, 2022. The adjacent Holly Hotel had significant fire damage as well. As co-producers on the film with Reisig, George and Chrissy Kutlenios plan to use the proceeds from the movie to help rebuild their historic landmark and support their staff retention fund.

WORLD TRAVELER

“Writing was my first creative outlet,” says Reisig, the author of four published comedic adventure travel books. “I started writing long before I ever thought about acting, standup comedy, directing or producing.

“I’m a pretty solitary, introverted guy who has learned to be extroverted. As writers, we possess a lens where we can look at the world in a slightly different way than everyone else. We can see something and put a unique twist on it.”

Joel Paul Reisig and his parents, Martin and Julia Reisig, at their Birmingham home.
Joel Paul Reisig and his parents, Martin and Julia Reisig, at their Birmingham home.

At 27, he went on a Birthright trip to Israel. In 2014, he took a trip to Peru and hiked the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu.

“I took notes the entire time, and when I came home, I wrote — and finished — my first true adventure story, all through the lens of a former standup comedian,” said Reisig who titled it the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Sixteen Strangers and the Quest for the Holy Facebook Photo.

Famed actor Robert Redford wrote to Reisig: “Best wishes as you continue on your adventures.”

Those adventures — the basis for the next three books — include entering the world’s longest kayak race, dog sledding in Michigan’s U.P., bull riding, driving in a demolition derby, alligator wrestling, a turn as a rodeo clown and boxing on the Golden Gloves circuit.

“I’ve been called the ‘Jewish Jack London,’ but I prefer JPR,” Joel Paul Reisig laughed.

FOR MOVIE SCREENING TICKETS

Christmas at the Holly Hotel will have local screenings at the Detroit Historical Museum on Dec. 16 and at the Maple Theater on Dec. 18.
Christmas at the Holly Hotel will have local screenings at the Detroit Historical Museum on Dec. 16 and at the Maple Theater on Dec. 18.

Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Friday, Dec 16, 5:30-9 p.m. $125
Strolling dinner through the streets of old Detroit exhibit, including beer and wine, followed by Christmas at the Holly Hotel screening. Meet Detroit historians, George and Chrissy Kutlenios, owners of the Holly Hotel; film producer Joel Paul Reisig and star Jesi Jenson. Benefit for the Holly Hotel and Detroit Historical Society. Visit https://bit.ly/3GNX8lO

Maple Theater, 4135 W. Maple Road, Bloomfield Hills, Sunday, Dec 18, 6:30 p.m. Screening with Q&A and meet-and-greet with Joel Paul Reisig and cast and crew. $15/person. Visit https://bit.ly/3XCHijQ

TO ORDER BOOKS BY JOEL PAUL REISIG:

Midnight Run, Reisig’s second adventure travel book, hilariously details his month in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as a dog sled racer in 2014.
Midnight Run, Reisig’s second adventure travel book, hilariously details his month in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as a dog sled racer in 2014.

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Sixteen Strangers and the Quest for the Holy Facebook Photo Midnight Run: One Comedian, Eight Sled Dogs
I Just Want Dry Underpants: An Average Joel Enters the World’s Longest Kayak RaceThe Man in the Arena: True Adventure Stories of Joel Paul Reisig
See more, by visiting https://amzn.to/3U8Razc

CAMP FOREVER FUN

Joel Paul Reisig’s Camp Forever Fun, a summer camp for adults ages 21+ in Bloomingdale, Michigan, will be held Aug. 25-27, 2023. Reisig started the adult summer camp in 2016.
Joel Paul Reisig’s Camp Forever Fun, a summer camp for adults ages 21+ in Bloomingdale, Michigan, will be held Aug. 25-27, 2023. Reisig started the adult summer camp in 2016.

And if Reisig doesn’t already have a jam-packed schedule, he established Camp Forever Fun six years ago. Camp Forever Fun is a weekend summer camp experience for adults in Bloomingdale, Michigan, about 2.5 hours from Detroit.

“In my opinion, anything that you did when you were 14 can still be fun today, given the right attitude and group of friends. It’s everything you loved as a kid — plus craft beer,” said Reisig, who set out to recreate his camp experiences growing up at Camp Algonquin, run out of the Ann Arbor YMCA.

Reisig’s camp, horseback riding and wrangling experiences growing up led to him producing, writing, directing and acting in his four-part Horse Camp film series. Horse Camp: A Treasure Tail just wrapped filming in September at the Black River Farm and Ranch in Croswell, Michigan, and should be released in 2023.

“It’s an epic weekend of fun,” he adds. “We sleep on bunk beds, eat in the dining hall and have activity periods during the day and bonfires and ghost stories at night. Best of all, we never have to worry about counselors telling us to go to bed,” he said.

The next Camp Forever Fun will be held Aug. 25-27, 2023. $399/person for the weekend session, ages 21 and over. Horseback riding, arts and crafts, swimming, sports, zip line, canoeing, archery, ropes course, yoga, climbing walls, bonfires, s’mores and all meals.

www.CampForeverFun.com.

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