Illusion Islands: Cincy Roots

Illusion Islands: Cincy Roots
Photography by Kerri Hines

Elliot Hebeler and Jack Cook, both Cincinnati natives and founders of the Hollywood production company Illusion Islands, define luck as preparation plus timing. Their journey began six years ago, and now they’re gearing up for their upcoming film projects in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

The first on the list is their horror movie, “A Soul to Squeeze,” for which they’ve already secured the Kentucky State Tax Incentive.

Cook, a 2007 graduate of Princeton High School in Glendale, and Hebeler, a 2008 graduate of LaSalle High School in Colerain, met on a Hollywood film set in 2014. Despite their shared roots, it was here that they discovered their mutual passion for filmmaking and a shared strong work ethic. Along with their friend, successful restaurant owner and attorney Alex Kagianaris, they founded Illusion Islands. The production company, which has offices in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, opened a third office in Cincinnati in October 2023.

Cook’s directorial debut, “The Private Eye,” is set to premiere at Cincinnati’s Esquire Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. The film, a mix of mystery, romance and comedy, features comedian Matt Rife, Clare Grant and Hebeler, as well as veteran actors Eric Roberts, Denzel Whitaker and Erik Griffin.

Casting Director and Hollywood mogul Eliza Roberts is also part of “The Private Eye.” Both Eliza and her husband, Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts, have expressed their admiration for Cook and Hebeler’s work, stating, “Since meeting Elliot, Jack, and Illusion Islands, we knew we needed to be a part of all their projects. This team has truly revitalized the essence and foundation of Hollywood, and we can’t wait for the world to witness this rarity through their upcoming movie, ‘The Private Eye.’”

Cook says they greatly appreciate local sponsors Delta Hotels by Marriott Sharonville, Luxe & Art, Peppe Ramundo, Paolo A Modern Jeweler and Franchesco Ferrucci. “We want the world to see what we’re doing, but especially the people who were there from the beginning,” the duo notes.

Twist of fate

Cook and Hebeler’s collaboration on “The Private Eye” began with a twist of fate. “We had three big projects lined up the first week of March 2020. Then COVID happened and we lost all three, so we had to adapt,” recalls Cook, who had started writing “The Private Eye” eight years earlier. He and Hebeler, along with movie producer Hope Ayiyi and Rife, saw lockdown as an opportunity rather than a setback and decided it was the perfect time to make the film. Over the next few months, while the world was effectively closed, the four of them got busy. Production started in September 2020 during the height of the pandemic.

“It was like the Wild West, never knowing what would happen tomorrow,” says Hebeler. “Yet it was also perfect timing because everyone was available.”

Navigating through daily COVID protocols, the team persevered and wrapped up shooting within a month. Their resilience paid off. “The Private Eye” was one of only 15 films that managed to complete shooting during the pandemic without any shutdowns, according to FILM LA.

Another example of perfect timing: As “The Private Eye” was wrapping up post-production, Rife was becoming a comedy sensation. His first world tour in June 2023 sold a whopping 600,000 tickets in less than 48 hours. The film marks his first lead role in a theater-released movie.

Movie-making city

Greater Cincinnati has become a popular movie-making area, hosting the filming of at least two major movies annually. Recent productions filming here include “Alto Knights,” starring Robert DeNiro, and “The Bikeriders,” starring Tom Hardy and Austin Butler.

Several locally connected trailblazers have invigorated the city’s film industry. Among them are Kristen Schlotman, executive director of Film Cincinnati; Doris Owens, founder of The Owens Group; costume designer Nancy Collini; Aymie Majewski, founder and executive producer of LotusShark, a Cincinnati-based production company; and Lynn Myers, who heads D. Lynn Myers Casting.

Actors Elliot Hebeler and Eric Roberts stand near a promotional poster for “The Private Eye.”
Actors Elliot Hebeler and Eric Roberts stand near a promotional poster for “The Private Eye.”

“If you come to Cincinnati as a filmmaker, you’re going to get the same high-quality treatment as in LA, Atlanta, New York or New Orleans,” says Cook. “We want to bring more of the Hollywood nightlife and premieres to Cincinnati.”

Visit Illusion Islands’ Cincinnati office at 5 Village Square, Glendale, for movie merchandise and information on upcoming projects. Check out their website at for more details.

Venue Cincinnati