“The Hamptons meet the Jersey Shore”: Ozark series plays to Missouri’s strengths

If you mention visiting the lake and no one has to ask which one you mean, chances are you are from Missouri. Like a veteran character actor, the Lake of the Ozarks has a quirky charm all its own.

“It’s the size of the lake, the intersection of local residents and tourists, and the economic boom of summer contrasted with the quiet of winter,” Bill Dubuque said. “Visually, the lake has everything — bass boats and go-fasts, mansions, mullets, rich and poor. It’s the Midwest version of the Hamptons meet the Jersey Shore.”

It also turned out to be the ideal setting for Ozark, the award-winning crime drama created by Dubuque and Mark Williams. The series stars Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as Marty and Wendy Byrde, a married couple who move their family to the Lake of the Ozarks for money laundering. The Alhonna Resort and Marina, where Dubuque worked as a dockhand while attending college, inspired the location. 

“My family’s owned a home on the lake for over thirty-five years,” he said. “Like any other place where you live, work and spend considerable time, you get a sense of what makes a location and the people who inhabit it distinctive.”

Dubuque believed the features he liked about the lake also would appeal to a national and international audience.

“I felt strongly that centering a story about ordinary people in extraordinary situations and flipping the preconceptions that come with the term `Ozark’ would make for good TV,” he said. “The success of the show is, in my opinion, due to one of the best showrunners in the business surrounding himself with equally talented writers creating life-and-death situations for arguably the strongest collection of acting talent on one show.”

Showrunner Chris Mundy agrees. The acclaimed producer, known for his work on Cold Case, Criminal Minds and other crime dramas, understands what makes the Midwest a fertile – and often untapped – source of stories.

“The main thing that attracted me to Ozark was that, on the surface, it’s a story about crime and money laundering and drug cartels,” he said. “But at its heart, it’s about a family and a marriage. I thought we could bring a certain universality to this very un-universal world. And then the fact that it was set on the lake — which is so specific and so different from anything being depicted on TV — was a huge draw. I’m from the Midwest — Omaha, Nebraska — so Midwestern stories hold a real allure for me.”

Andrea Sporcic Klund and her staff at the the Missouri Film Office helped immerse Mundy and the rest of the creative team in the lake’s distinctive culture.

“The Missouri Film Office folks were amazing,” Mundy said. “They showed us every nook and cranny of the Ozarks while we were scouting. Then they hosted the whole writing staff, fielded questions and gave us a crash course in the place by touring us around. They introduced us to local businesspeople, politicians and an amazing cast of characters.

“Plus, they helped facilitate when we did shoot there. And they were available anytime we needed them, whether it was questions about Missouri gaming laws or anything. I can’t say enough good things about them.”

As a result, the series is highly authentic, down to seemingly small details that may be noticeable only to lake residents.

“It was invaluable,” he said. “The people they introduced us to helped fuel stories for us, season after season. And small bits of dialogue and various nuances crept their way into everything we did. A whole storyline about a preacher on the lake was born out of a conversation we had driving around with our Missouri Film hosts. “

Much of the series is filmed in Georgia. Although some people speculate that it could have been shot at the lake if certain conditions were met, but that was never a feasible option.

“It would have been great to actually shoot on the lake,” Mundy said. “But realistically, in order to film at a business or a location, you need to essentially shut it down for the day. We would never have been able to do that, day in, day out. We were a show that wasn’t going to spend half its time on a soundstage. So it would have been too hard on those businesses and on us — at least in the summer season.” 

 Even so, the state has much to offer in the way of locations and talent.

“Missouri has such rich and diverse terrain,” Mundy said. “It can really be the backdrop to so many different stories. That’s incredibly valuable. And the people behind the film program are smart and truly care. If you put those two things together, good things happen. The more things are filmed there, the more other productions will start to look at it as a viable home. And then more crew will look at it as a destination. If you build it, people come.”

Dubuque also touts his home state.

“As far as attractive locations, Missouri is Georgia, only with four seasons,” he said. “If you have a story to tell and need teeth-chattering temperatures along with snow, we have it. Major urban areas, we’ve got it. Small towns, central location, forests, farms, we’ve got that covered. Missouri’s a beautiful state populated with hardworking, decent people.”

Dubuque, who grew up in St. Louis and now lives in St. Charles, is proof that it’s possible to build a successful career in the industry without leaving the state – if people are willing to do the hard work.

“Zoom calls aside, an aspiring actor has to go where the auditions and the jobs are,” he said. “That may not be in Missouri. But a writer dreams up imaginary dialogue for fictitious characters. You can do that anywhere. If you tell yourself you can’t have a career as a screenwriter because you don’t live in NYC or LA, you’re probably right. But it isn’t because of your location. Writers write. Get to it. “

Technology and the demand for content are leveling the playing field.

“If you create pockets of talented people, it always attracts more talent,” Mundy said. “So the more Missouri creates, the more it will keep generating even better content. There’s a real domino effect to how these things go.”

Written by Alan GoForth

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