On March 31, 2000, Randy Simpkins came home early from the office to help his wife, Christal, pack for a vacation to the beach. Christal asked Randy to load their two year-old, Joe, into his car seat. Instead, Randy left Joe riding his tricycle in the driveway while he went inside to turn off the lights and lock up. They lived on a rural farm in a safe area. Their kids played outside all the time. Randy didn’t give it a second thought to leave Joe for a couple of minutes, figuring he’d be cooped up long enough on the drive to the beach.
When Randy returned outside, Joe was gone. His tricycle was laying on its side, motionless. Randy called for Joe and looked around the yard. He was greeted with an eerie silence. A sudden feeling of panic rushed over him like a wave. Randy did not realize it at the time, but the next eight hours would put him through a life-altering rollercoaster of emotions that would challenge his priorities regarding God, his family and community.
Seven years later, Red Five Entertainment’s Lance Dreesen and Clint Hutchison met Randy while filming their supernatural thriller CONJURER in Carrollton. As a county commissioner, Randy was approached by the producers to help supply resources for CONJURER. Randy visited the set a few times during that production and became friends with the filmmakers. At one point, he shared the story of losing his son Joe with Lance and Clint, and the filmmakers realized they had found the subject of their next production.
In January of 2008, Lance began work on the screenplay for THE WAY HOME, interviewing the Simpkins and many others involved in the search for little Joe eight years earlier. One of the most remarkable things he discovered was the story of Ed Walker, the man who found the missing child.
As Ed recounted the events of that day, he became emotional. “When I found out the missing boy’s name was Joe, I knew I had to go find that boy,” he said. Ed told of how he had lost a brother named Joe many years ago. Nineteen years younger than Ed, Joe Walker has been like a son to Ed and his wife Sylvia.
“We were at our family’s country store in Tyus and I asked Joe to go to the farm and get the battery charger to put on the farm tractor." On the way back, Joe was run off the road and killed. Although Ed had nothing to do with his brother’s tragic accident, he felt responsible. He told Lance that he kept thinking about Joe as he and his son Terry searched for little Joe Simpkins. Ed felt guided to keep searching that day, in remote and unforgiving terrain where no one else had yet ventured. He confided that finding Joe Simpkins helped him find an inner peace, and that it was the happiest day of his life.
Immediately, Lance knew that this was a very important part of the story of THE WAY HOME and sought Ed’s permission to include him in the film. Ed agreed and it is now one of the main storylines of the movie.
Once the screenplay was finished, the casting process began. They reached out to Dean Cain to star as Randy Simpkins in the movie. He signed on as the lead actor in THE WAY HOME.
A father himself, Cain was moved by the inspirational true story about how a community rallied around the distraught Simpkins family to search for their missing son and by doing so changed the lives of many of those involved.
The role was not an easy one for Cain. “It was a difficult project to shoot,” says Cain. “A very difficult head space to be in as a father, but ultimately very rewarding.” Cain was touched by the way the way the community galvanized around the parents during the ordeal. “It’s extremely uplifting to see the way a community came together and came to support these parents,” says Cain.
Cain said the script made him teary-eyed, especially since he’s a single father himself. “There are certain depths of experiences you have once you have a child,” he said. “You can sort of substitute your feelings. You can draw upon that.” He noted that the movie, with only very minor details changed, was the true story of what happened back in 2000. The film was shot in Carroll County, Georgia, in the actual locations the true events that were being depicted took place. “We searched in the same fields they searched in years ago,” said Cain. “It gave it some added weight.”
In much the same way the local community had rallied around the Simpkins family the day Joe disappeared, they turned out by the hundreds to help the production recreate the events. "The help we received from the folks of Carroll County was amazing", says Lance, who also directed the film. "We simply could not have made this film without the support of the Carroll County Sheriff's and Fire and Rescue Departments, and the hundreds of volunteers who showed up to be extras."
The film was completed on time and on budget. Once post-production was completed, THE WAY HOME screened at the historic Fox Theater in Atlanta attended by more than three thousand people. The film was a big hit with the audience. Randy Simpkins says, "An overwhelming number of people came up to me after viewing the film and thanked me for sharing my testimony, and let me know that the message of the film -- to make your faith, family and community the top priorities in your life , which is the same lessons that God taught me that day -- really spoke to them and made them reconsider how they were living their lives".
It is that type of reaction that the Simpkins family hoped for in agreeing to have their personal testimony made into a film, and one that also makes the filmmakers grateful for having had the opportunity to do so.