Vermont Dairy Farmer Debuts Indie Film
06/04/10 4:50PM By Neal Charnoff
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(Charnoff) Today kicks off the sixth annual White River Indie Film Festival, in White River Junction.
Among the films being shown is a home-grown Green Mountain western.
"I'm a rovin' cowboy..."
(Charnoff) "The Summer of Walter Hacks" is the feature film debut of Waterbury dairy farmer George Woodard. The film tells the story of a young boy's coming of age in 1952. Two brothers lose their father, but keep his death a secret so they can stay together. The younger boy, Walter Hacks, is played by Woodard's son Henry.
Besides keeping the farm going, he takes a job working on farm machinery. Here he shares his knowledge with his summer sidekick, Margaret.
"First you gotta find the crank case....never mind, it don't matter."
(Charnoff) Walter also has a love of cowboys, and spends a lot of time seeing westerns at the local movie house. He even enters a local fiddle contest.
(Charnoff) The man behind the film, George Woodard, is known to Vermont audiences for his work with the Woodchuck Theater Company, and he's acted in several regional films.
For The Summer of Walter Hacks, Woodard went behind the camera as director and cinematographer. He also co-wrote the script.
Much of the film was shot on his family farm, where he still milks 25 cows. Like his main character, Woodard has always been a film fan, and has a particular fondness for Westerns, and their clear-cut sense of right and wrong. As a child, he was especially influenced by the television show, Gunsmoke.
(Woodard) "The hero, Marshall Dillon, was strong and by gurry, when he told you to do something there were no questions asked, you did it."
(Charnoff) Woodard's film career began in 1984when he spent 3 years in California. He snagged a few small roles, which gave him an opportunity to ask questions and help out behind the camera. But he still had the farm in Waterbury, and he came back to Vermont in 1988 with this mini film education.
(Woodard) "I thought, if I'm gonna do this, I can do it here too. And probably a lot cheaper."
(Charnoff) In between chores, Woodard managed to start a Vermont theater group.
(Woodard) "So there was several people from Burlington that came up, and they all rehearsed in the barn there, with the cows downstairs mooin' and the clatterin' and the clankin's and stuff....everybody seemed to really enjoy that."
(Charnoff) He began to get involved with Vermont film-makers, including David Giancola and Nora Jacobsen. While acting in their movies, he continued his behind-the-scenes filmmaking education.
The next step for Woodard was to buy a camera and practice shooting on the farm. He spent hours filming his son Henry riding around on a tractor.
(Woodard) "I tried dolly shots...so to speak, I'd be sittin' in the truck, steering with my knee, holding the camera out the window, trying to get these shots of Henry while he was going around in circles with the truck movin' around him and stuff, and that kind of thing..."
(Charnoff) The practice paid off. One of the big set-pieces in the film is a tractor versus bicycle chase scene.
(Charnoff) The script for The Summer of Walter Hacks came about in a classic Vermont fashion. While milking cows in the barn, Woodard scratched out his ideas on paper towels.
He then took his stack of paper towels to his friend, Gerianne Smart, who is the producer and co-writer of the film. Together, they organized his ideas.
(Woodard) "Well this paper towel worked really good but this one doesn't so we'll chuck that one..."
(Charnoff) Finally, they had a script for The Summer of Walter Hacks. He says he wanted to write a story set in the 1950's about a boy on a farm, and that he wanted it filmed in black and white for a true sense of the era. Woodard says one reason he set the film in 1952 is because it was a great time for western movies. Rather than make a western, he could evoke their spirit through the imagination of an 11-year-old boy.
(Woodard) "His bicycle is his horse, he has a fedora of his father's where he's curled up the sides to make it a cowboy hat, and he's got a slingshot. So he's got the ingredients of being a cowboy".
(Charnoff) Woodard cast his own son as Walter because he could milk a cow, drive a tractor and play the fiddle. Woodard says his collaborator, Gerianne Smart, played an integral role as producer, widening the scale of what was possible in a local film.
(Woodard) "I would all of a sudden just throw crazy stuff at her, I would say, You know would be great is if we could get a train, and the kids would jump on the back of train as it's going down the track. And she said, What?"
(Charnoff) Two days later, Smart found an available train, providing the film with a truly adventurous scene.
(Gimme the fiddle!)
(Charnoff) Sounds like music from a big western epic of the ‘50s doesn't it? Just what Woodard was aiming for. He hired Vermont musicians to help write an orchestral score, and asked the Vermont Symphony orchestra to record it.
For the action scenes, Woodard enlisted a film scoring company to enhance the excitement.
Producer Gerianne Smart says she is impressed that Woodard taught himself not only how to shoot a film, but how to edit it.
(Smart walking up stairs)
She takes me to makeshift editing room upstairs in the farmhouse.
(Smart) "This is where he's done the entire film. If you watch the film and it makes you feel something, because of the way it looks or sounds, it because of what he has done in this room."
(Charnoff) The "Summer of Walter Hacks" took George Woodard five years to make. The film sold out its premiere showings earlier this spring. Woodard says he hopes his old-fashioned storytelling will give audiences a welcome respite from Hollywood's computer-generated blockbusters.
(Woodard) "It would be nice to see teenagers see this film, and see how movies were done like they were done way back when, when it's not all special effects and science fiction....in the action stuff and the stuff we tried to do, we tried to make it like it really could happen."
(Charnoff) When asked what advice he has for aspiring filmmakers, Woodard says, "be patient".
(Woodard) "Learn as much as you can so you can do as much of it yourself as you can. Nobody else is gonna do it for you. You gotta do it. But it may take you 35 years like it did me. But in that 35 years...oh what a good time I've had."
(Charnoff) For now, George Woodard remains on his farm, milking cows. Occasionally he'll take out his guitar, and play one of the songs he used to sing to Henry when he was a child. He says for his next project he'd like to make a World War II movie. It will mean a lot of paper towels to write down those ideas.
The Summer of Walter Hacks will be shown tomorrow morning as part of the White River Indie Film Festival in White River Junction.
For VPR News, I'm Neal Charnoff.More Information: