When filmmaker Scott Thompson contacted Zumbrota’s powers-that-be in the late summer of 2013, showing great interest in utilizing their humble town for a movie backdrop, the town of 3,200 people made a strong, successful effort to raise the funds and rally the support necessary to make something that would normally sound like fantasy into a reality. They quickly learned, however, that that would be the easy part. Once Zumbrota was selected as the location for His Neighbor Phil, the project became a labor of love for a town that prides itself on art, culture, values, and a lot of hard work.
Thompson searches the Midwest countryside for his production company, My Town Pictures, looking for locations to fit his scripts, and he knew he had found a gem the first time he walked the streets of Zumbrota. Since 2004 he has made 50 community movies, and Phil is his fifth feature-length film. He uses a very simple premise: partner with a town to make a quality movie.
After announcing their decision to partner with Thompson, local people stepped to the plate as donors (they needed $80,000 before the film would begin), actors, cooks, gophers, extras, and photographers, creating makeshift hotels, and filling the miscellaneous roles Thompson needed to keep costs down while not skimping on talent and production. By utlizing the talents and generosity of residents, My Town Pictures could control vastly diminished production costs compared to the usual Hollywood production. It’s a clever concept, and one that Thompson created to keep true to his love for writing, movies and hands-on control.
Because of that, His Neighbor Phil completed on time, on budget and as a work of art. From the first setup to the final cut, everyone involved in the filming worked long days, sometimes putting in as many as 12 hours. The cast was extraordinary in their respect for their craft and the town itself. They embraced the people and the hard-working crew, mixing in well with small-town Minnesota, and otherwise destroying the myth of the “Hollywood Attitude.”
“I think we thought the fundraising aspect would be all there was to it,” said Pam Potter Langley, a board member of the Zumbrota Area Arts Council for close to 20 years. “We didn’t understand the ramifications of it all until they arrived. But we learned so much about the makings of a movie and making new relationships with those that came in and with people we didn’t know as well in our own community. I looked at it as a project to jumpstart other things in our community, and it did that beyond what we expected.”
The townsfolk received a whole new perspective on the world of movie make believe, especially after watching all the behind-the-scenes work done by the people who do the acting, directing, photography, lighting, sound, artistic design, makeup/dress. For everybody involved, no one person was perceived to be more important than another. Everyone knew that all the wheels on the bus needed to roll as a single unit to pull Thompson’s vision together.
Phil is about a woman in her late 50’s diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and the affect it has on family, friends and a community. Although a serious subject, Daniel Roebuck (of Matlock fame), who was cast as Harvey - the husband of Alzheimer’s patient Mary - supplied humorous moments, keeping cast, crew and onlookers in stitches as he kidded between scenes. Mary was played by Stephanie Zimbalist of Remington Steele and countless films and stage roles, and was a delight as she shared stories of her family, friends and feats in Hollywood; Ellen Dolan of As the World Turns played Mary’s sister, Charley, and was the most down-home person of the group (but also grew up in Decorah, Iowa); and the final piece to the puzzle became Sally Kellerman, of much film and stage bravado, but probably best known for her role as Hotlips Hoolihan in Robert Altman’s landmark film, M*A*S*H. Her role as Bernadette wasn’t decided until five days before shooting ended, but she had performed in Thompson movies before, and was able to bring true professionalism to the role. Rachel Storey of The Crazies played one of daughters, Irene. It was indeed a treat to interact with these movie/television stars. Thompson’s close, family-style production easily allowed for moments like walking Kellerman back from lunch to the set, sharing small talk on the way.
Thompson is the calm among the storm. His even-keeled approach allowed everybody involved to complete the movie as one big happy family, despite the star power.
“One would think when you bring in these bigger names, that they are ‘above’ everyone else,’ he said. “That certainly is not the case with those I choose to be in my movies. Everyone is approachable and willing to take that extra step to be kind and friendly.”
Actually observing how a movie is made is a wondrous thing. The way the preparation, professionalism and parameters evolve is amazing. Before the actors show up for their makeup call and then their set call, the crew has been busy setting up the scenes -which are not shot in the order they appear in the movie. That alone was a juggling act for Thompson, as sets changed from the State Theatre to Harvey’s House (a local home), to Bridget’s Café to Phenomenally Yours, to the Covered Bridge to the downtown sidewalks and local spots that made up the rest of the scenes. Moving equipment for scenes proved difficult at times, but the seasoned crew pulled off their duties effortlessly.
Thompson said, “It really seemed like there was a lot of movement between scenes and shots, but this movie wasn’t bad. Most of the scenes were within three blocks of one another. In bigger towns you may have miles to travel. This crew does a great job.”
It wasn’t always easy. The weather flirted with 30s and 40s, and Mother Nature decided to drop nine inches of snow one night, compounding the setup problems. The crew was congenial at all times, though, and their patience never wore thin. At one point, crew member Mike Kieler was asked to remove nine inches of snow from behind an old Suburban used in a scene. When he was finished, cohort John Van Allen radioed out to Kieler saying he had changed his mind, and to put it back. The crew was serious about their job, but had time for jovial pranks here and there. A little too much glare? Possible copyright problems with hanging pictures? A little too much ambiance? No problem. This crew had the answers right down to making sure the clothing worn was consistent through continuous shots.
Watching makeup artist Lauren Jenkins jump at a moment’s notice for a touch-up here and there was inspirational, as the young 26-year-old Minnetonka native kept actors primped and pretty in preparation for their scenes. She also helped with wardrobe, willing to fill in wherever she was needed, mirroring Thompson’s everyone-pitches-in philosophy.
My Town Pictures’ mission is to write, produce, and screen original, feature-length films in small communities, using local people as cast, crew and even musicians. It’s not only a lot of work and fun scrunched into three weeks, but it’s also an opportunity to form bonds between those who come to town to make the movie and those who share their time and talents to complete it. Thompson’s recipe has garnered 15 national Telly Awards, numerous regional awards including several from the Iowa Motion Picture Association, and numerous appearances at film festivals around the country.
His formula is simple, and successful. “When you think about it, shooting a 100-minute movie in 16 days seems ridiculous,” he chuckled. “I trust the professional actors to do a good job, which they do, and we fill in with local people, who also do well.
“If the story means something to the audience, the rest is not as important. People want to see a good story, and if you tell it in a good way they will come. When we’re done we see a lot of relationships formed, good friends made and a good movie.”
Thompson will give the movie continuity while editing, and then it’s on to find a distributor to market the movie. A premiere of the movie should happen sometime this fall at the very State Theatre that is central to the film.
There are more My Town Pictures on the horizon as Thompson continues to search for the right town with the many scripts he has waiting to become productions. “Let the bigger films go to the bigger guys,” he added. “This has been successful for me and those I’ve worked with. I believe if it’s a good movie, then we all share in the success.”
Elsie Slinger is a freelance writer and photographer living in Faribault. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org