One year ago at this time, it wasn’t an anomaly to see camera crews lining the streets, businesses and homes of Zumbrota.
It was during this time that My Town Pictures, a production company led by film maker Scott Thompson, rolled into town with his crew to start filming the motion picture, His Neighbor Phil.
Actors Daniel Roebuck, known for his work in 1993’s The Fugitive and 1998’s U.S. Marshals, as well as television’s Matlock, and Touched by an Angel’s Stephanie Zimbalist also came into town to star in the film.
As for the rest of the film’s stars, well most of them didn’t have to travel far or even have to make their home in a hotel room for the three-week filming.
That’s because His Neighbor Phil features 18 local actors, many whom call Zumbrota home.
“Except for the professional actors, everyone had a Zumbrota connection,” said Pam Potter Langley, production co-manager who, along with Ronda Anderson-Sand, introduced the idea to the community.
His Neighbor Phil is the emotional tale of Harvey (Daniel Roebuck) and his wife Mary (Stephanie Zimbalist). Zimbalist’s character suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease and is only able to summon memories and step back into her life with music.
The City of Zumbrota raised the majority of the funds to bring Thompson and his crew to town. They started the process in September 2013, when Thompson was scouting out Midwestern cities for his film.
And now that the whirlwind adventure of producing a movie in a town of 3,300 is over and debut showings held back in October, His Neighbor Phil, didn’t disappoint, to the viewers or those who had a hand in making it happen.
According to Langley, over one thousand people showed up to view the show at Zumbrota’s historic State Theater (the theater was home to many of the movie’s scenes,) and two showings were sold out, resulting in turning people away at the door.
“It just kind of blew us away, the response that people had for it… for the most part we got really great feedback,” she said. “We were nervous, of course, of what the reaction would be.”
“I think people had a ball doing it, but I think watching it might have been even more fun,” said Marie Marvin, who played a small part and offered up her business- Crossings at Carnegie Art Gallery- to serve as a film site.
The showings, held in October, were considered “sneak peaks,” because the film still had final edits to undergo, a process that was still ongoing in January. Once those edits are finalized, decisions about the film’s distribution will be made.
Of course, not everything in the sneak peek will be apart of the distributed version, thus the reason for the early showings in town.
“We wanted the people who made it too see as much as possible,” Langley said. “To see it all put together, was pretty powerful for me.”
And that’s not just because she played a huge role in the film’s life in Zumbrota. It’s because His Neighbor Phil tugs at the heartstrings, elicits laughter and most of all, makes viewers think about just how very real a toll Alzheimer’s takes on not only the patient, but their loved ones, too.
“There was an element in it to touch people… whether it’s Alzheimer’s or anything, people really felt a validation about what the movie had to say,” Langley said. “In the months since (the showing), I’ll be around town and people will come and tell me something that touched them about the movie… Different people took such different things from it.”
“People laughed and they cried and that was just so much fun to have everyone share some of the same feelings,” said Tricia Stiller, a local actor who was a member of the film’s steering committee. “It was touching and poignant and sad, but it had its lighthearted moments, too.”
“People had a reaction to it,” said Bob Bird of Zumbrota, “Hopefully it brings a good awareness to Alzhemier’s.”
Bird played the character of Phil, Harvey and Mary’s neighbor whom the movie is titled for. He, like Stiller and many others, consider acting side-by-side the likes of Roebuck an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It was a great deal of fun, everything was so exciting and different. It’s hard to describe until you’ve been part of a process like this,” Bird said. “I’ m really thankful that Pam and Ronda worked so hard to bring this to Zumbrota.”
“During production, you wonder if it will all feel worth it in the end,” Stiller said. “It definitely was, after one showing I thought yes, I’m glad I did this.”
For weeks, the locals hobnobbed with the movie stars, but the diva moments associated with many of Hollywood’s stars were absent.
“They were gracious, down-to-earth and they knew our names and spoke with us,” Stiller said.
Though Roebuck and Zimbalist, along with Ellen Dolan of Guiding Light and As the World Turns fame, took the most screen time and lines, the locals made the film a success.
“The professional actors helped to carry all of the scenes, but the local actors did an amazing job as well,” Stiller said. “People even thought Kristi (Knudson) was a professional, not a volunteer.”
It was Knudson’s first time acting.
“I kind of stumbled into the whole audition/acting thing have never really done anything like that before,” she wrote in email.
Knudson, of Rochester, portrayed Isabel, the youngest daughter of Harvey and Mary, who was often fed up with the constant responsibilities and sometimes embarrassment that came with caring for her mother.
“The crew and directors were all wonderful to work with and helped us newbies figure out how the whole thing worked,” she said of the experience.
“As for Zumbrota, man, what a community!” she continued, “They were so incredibly hospitable. Everyone was so friendly and generous.”
“It was so fun and it was a very real collaboration,” Marvin said. “It was a Zumbrota made film… I have no doubt that people are going to talk about it for a long time.”
And though an Oscar might not be in His Neighbor Phil’s future, from start to finish, a community was able to come together to make the movie a reality and that might be the most powerful aspect of the entire production.
“People got to be a part of something and the community got to work together and create something great,” Langley said.