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How a Dallas Filmmaker Suddenly Became So Prolific During the Pandemic

Jon Keeyes has produced or directed eight films in the past 15 months, including the low-budget thriller The Survivalist, which opens this weekend.
By Todd Jorgenson |
Quiver Distribution

Jon Keeyes’ latest thriller is called The Survivalist, although that might also be an accurate nickname for the veteran Dallas filmmaker himself.

As many Hollywood productions have been plagued with delays and shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, Keeyes has enjoyed the most prolific period of his career, both as a director and a producer.

His longtime producing partners at Yale Productions were among the first to restart under the return-to-work guidelines established last summer by the Screen Actors Guild and other unions.

“Eight movies later, we’ve been successful, and we haven’t had any cases of COVID on any of the sets,” Keeyes said.

That’s right — eight movies in the past 15 months, three of which were directed by Keeyes. Small casts and crews, modest budgets, contained shooting locations, and other pared-down logistics are critical.

When Keeyes filmed Rogue Hostage with Tyrese Gibson and John Malkovich last August, it was among the first productions to receive union approval since the industry restart.

Malkovich also features in The Survivalist, a dystopian thriller set in the near future that happens to depict the aftermath of a deadly virus, leaving survivors fighting for land and resources.

However, Keeyes said the project from rookie screenwriter Matthew Rogers was in the works prior to the onset of COVID-19, and only had to be reconfigured slightly prior to filming.

“It was really ironic that this movie took place five years after a pandemic,” he said. “It wasn’t written COVID-specific, but as the movie started to ramp up, it made sense to change the name of the virus to make it more topical.”

In the film, former FBI agent Ben (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) tries to defend his family’s ranch, but finds himself outnumbered by a gang of marauders whose ruthless leader (Malkovich) has ties to Ben’s past and to a young woman (Ruby Modine) who has taken refuge inside his house.

Production took place on a New Jersey ranch in December 2020, but the setting is nonspecific. Keeyes said the entire cast and crew was housed in the same hotel, creating a self-contained bubble to ensure protocols and testing procedures were being followed.

“Being able to keep everybody sort of quarantined together really made everybody feel a lot safer. I joke that more often than not these days, I feel safer on a movie set than anywhere else,” Keeyes said. “The camaraderie among the cast and the crew is the strongest I’ve ever seen. When you have that mentality, it translates on the screen.”

With a directing career spanning more than two decades, why has Keeyes’ profile suddenly been elevated? He credits an ability to cautiously navigate the pandemic matched with eager distributors in need of content.

His next film is Banshee, starring Antonio Banderas and also written by Rogers, which wrapped filming in September and should be out next year.

“It’s a big, fun, nonstop, wall-to-wall action movie, but it’s also about family,” Keeyes said. “It’s got all the action tropes but it’s got a good character story running through it.”

Meanwhile, The Survivalist will be released this weekend in selected theaters, including the Studio Movie Grill in The Colony, and via on-demand platforms.

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