“FALLEN BRANCHES” DIARY
On December 23, 2011 my agent received this inquiry from Matt Kane, Cinematographer- Producer, for “Fallen Branches”, a film to be shot in Minnesota in February 2012:
“Fallen Branches” tells the stories of a widely dispersed Minnesota family that is brought together–perhaps for the last time–to mourn the death of their matriarch. Under this story of past hurts renewed and old ties severed is a narrative that charts the boundary between love and resentment.
Our director, Andrew Gingerich, was very impressed with Mr. Russell’s performance in the film adaptation of A Prairie Home Companion (and of course the weekly broadcast), and if he’s interested, I’d like to schedule a reading for the part of “Sam Allcott”.
After reading the script by Andrew, I was excited to be considered for the part. The script was intelligent, insightful, very well written. I told Amy, my agent, to put my name in for consideration with some concerns: “I read the script and it’s something I’d be interested in, drawing on my inner “Richard Jenkins” (actor). Not sure about climbing on a barn rafter and leaping from one to another, I’m no Tom Cruise, they’d need some serious movie magic there”.
I was asked to audition on tape with a scene in which I eulogize my departed mother at her funeral. It must have gone well because several days later I got the part.
A couple of weeks later I met with Andrew to discuss the role and to get to know each other. The costume designer Sara Jean Shervin came to our house to see about wardrobe and my wife Judy and I found her a kindred spirit when it comes to scrounging at Estate Sales. We found a few farmer-like plaids and jeans in my closet, which she enhanced with several other options on my first day of shooting.
We met on January 27th for a rehearsal session with most of the cast in attendance. Andrew explained his shooting philosophy and broke us up into groups to rehearse certain scenes. A few of his scenes involve Robert Altman-like group dialogue so we got a chance to improvise in character. I had an opportunity to rehearse my argument scene with my on screen wife, Rosie (Colleen Barrett) with the instruction that we should make it so over the top that the actors in the other room would stop what they were doing. We let it all out, with Colleen tossing a few books off the shelf for good measure. The other room fell silent at the verbal violence of it all, very therapeutic.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 2012
This was my first day of shooting. The main location for filming is a farm in Webster Minnesota, about 40 minutes south of Minneapolis, not far from I-35. The farm belongs to a very nice guy, Grant ,and it was a perfect set. Grant was in the process of remodeling the upstairs so the rooms were very flexible for shooting, but the biggest asset of the farm was a magnificent Oak in front of the house, an Oak Tree that symbolizes the history of the Allcott family. My character Sam has purchased the farm from his Minister father and has dealt with the caring and death of his parents. A strained marriage to his wife Rosie, his children leaving the nest, in addition to a threatened farm foreclosure and, finally, a diseased Oak Tree that needs to come down.
Our first scene was a complicated group gathering with relatives and family arriving for the next day’s funeral of Brownie Alcott, Sam’s mom. He has not seen much of his Pastor brother, Blair (Steve Hendrickson) or sister, Louisa (Cynthia Uhrich), who have lived lives in distant states and left Sam to deal with his ailing parents and the farm. Sam’s son Luke (A.J. Sass) has arrived with his two kids (Eva and Janel Justin) and his wife Destiny (Judy Justin). Melissa (Brit Slater) is Sam’s college age daughter. Her cousin Roger (Josiah Gulden) is Blair’s college student son. Tyler (Xander Krohn) is Sam’s High School aged son, who is considering entering the ministry. Assorted other relatives are all assembled in the living room awaiting the arrival of Blair and Louisa who are delayed by a Chicago snowstorm and are arriving the next day by bus, hopefully in time for the funeral.
Andrew shot several setups of all the disparate conversations and it will be fun to see his editing magic at work when it’s all put together. It was a challenge for our sound man Owen Brafford, a genial, ever patient, part of a crew that inspired complete confidence in the project. Matt and Andrew had amazing chemistry and were so in synch with what they wanted to accomplish that all of us felt very comfortable throughout the filming that we were in excellent, competent hands. All we had to do is know our lines and hit our marks and Andrew had a way of reminding each of us what our character was going though in the moment, to keep our performance on track. The first day included me bringing a dead Peacock into the kitchen (a real frozen bird slated for taxidermy. By the way, they weigh a lot), having a violent confrontation with the fallen branches of the Oak Tree, and saying grace before the family dinner, not in that order. It was a long, but fun day.
MONDAY FEBRUARY 6, 2012
The next day took Steve Hendrickson and I to a Chicken farm, a piece of Minnesota’s rural history surrounded by suburban townhouses in the middle of Burnsville, MN. Steve and Xander (Blair and Tyler) will have to hypnotize some chickens in the story, so we had to go where the chickens are. My scene involved driving brother Blair (Steve) to the Airport. So I got to drive a truck down the highway with the camera attached to the driver’s door, the Director and Cinematographer in the bed of the truck and the sound man, Owen, in the back seat. It was like “Fast and Furious”. Okay, more like “Slow and Deliberate”, but nonetheless fun.
We then relocated to yet another farm location, one with a working barn, to stage my jump from one barn beam, 20 feet in the air, to another, my first stunt. Andrew and Matt had hired a stuntman to do the actual leap and the beams were actually on a rig created by a carpenter about 5 feet up from a loft floor, but with creative camera angles and photographic magic it looked like I actually made the leap. We had to re shoot the landing on the other beam my second to the last day of filming and I padded my jacket with a car cushion but nonetheless ended up with some nasty bruises on my arm and leg. I’m no Harrison Ford; instead of a stunt from “Indiana Jones and the Tower of Doom”, I’m sure my moves look more like something out of “Sam Allcott and the Tower of Metamucil”.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2012
Today I shot a scene with a tree trimmer (WWF wrestler Scott Broult). He hadn’t really seen the dialogue between us until he got to the farm, but he’s a performer so he quickly got the gist of the scene and we pretty much improvised the back and forth with Andrew’s direction.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2012
It’s Valentine’s Day. This day involves Sam and his siblings, Blair and Louisa, going though their parents papers in the Study and reminiscing about good and bad times.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2012
The halfway point for shooting. Andrew posted a behind the scenes look at the project so far. Watch for Judy coming to the rescue as “The Church Lady”, playing the piano.
The funeral scene is today at the historic Solor Lutheran Church (1870) in Webster Minnesota. I had asked my wife, Judy, if she wanted to be an extra and she invited our 80-year-old neighbor, Geri, too. This was an amazing day. The church was such a great set and the Pastor (John Edel), and Church Elder (Jim Westcott) were so authentic that it felt like a real funeral ceremony. There was a School Choir that was supposed to sing a hymn, but they couldn’t make it. The congregation was supposed to sing the hymn “Oh Love That Will Not Let Me Go” but nobody knew the tune. I mentioned that Judy could read music so she was conscripted to play the piano for us and did a superb job. Our neighbor was picked to do a scene where she talks to my character about how wonderful my mother was. It turns out that she always wanted to be an actor so she was thrilled to participate. My eulogy required some emotional moments that I hope will appear authentic, with my parents and my wife’s parents all gone I had plenty of experience to draw from. The night shoot this day was another family dinner scene, with cross conversations and a group scene in the living room where Sam and Luke watch a basketball game while the rest of the family uncover some genealogical secrets in the family albums.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 22. 2012
This was a long day of shooting, much of it spent in the kitchen with scenes with Rosie, Louisa, and Tyler. I had a scene with Tyler in the farmhouse basement that involved a rather violent Ping Pong match. I caught two wild serves in the face (thank God we weren’t playing handball) and retaliated with a serve to Tyler’s throat (sorry Xander). I hadn’t played Ping Pong in years and I’m certain the scene will verify that fact. Something else I haven’t done on over 30 years is smoke a cigarette and the next scene we shot involves me lighting up for a dialogue with my character’s son, Luke (A.J. Sass). Anyone who quit tobacco years ago will be glad to know that smoking again is such an unpleasant experience that the chance of becoming addicted again is virtually impossible.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2012
This was a big day for my character Sam and Rosie (Colleen Barrett). We started of with lots of small scenes for me. One scene involved me driving up and angrily rounding the back of my truck, reacting to something Rosie had done. On my way around the truck, I banged my shin on the trailer hitch- OWW! That made me cussing mad, for real, but I decided I better finish the scene, uttering a few choice expletives and throwing my hat on the ground while the camera was still rolling. Andrew intimated that my pain would not be for naught as he is inclined to keep that take, it was so authentic. After some shin bandaging we got set for the big bedroom fight scene between Sam and Rosie. We did about 10 takes with lots of coverage shots and were told by the farm owner Grant, who was listening in the living room, that it was a little too real sounding. Mission accomplished.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2012
This was a day for picking up a number of scenes that had been delayed earlier in the shoot. Once again, I had to light up in a scene in which my daughter Melissa busts me for starting to smoke again. We also reshot the end of my leap from one barn beam to another. I hope we pulled off the illusion. In the final take which seemed like a real winner, I forgot to take off my gloves. So, it may look like a continuity thing, or maybe it will just seem that I can don gloves in mid-air in less than two seconds. We’ll see. I also have a long dialogue with my semi-estranged brother, Blair (Steve Hendrickson) in which some secrets are revealed. This was the beginning of the scene we shot on the 9th with the tree-trimmer. The weather gods have blessed the whole shoot since we have had a non-event winter this year in Minnesota. So the conditions of Day1 in the story pretty much match those of Day 5 even though the shoot covered an entire month.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 2012
This was my final day of shooting and we and our first major winter weather event, but once again the weather gods have cooperated with us. The scene with Blair and Louisa stuck at O’Hare Airport by a winter storm was shot at the Lindbergh Terminal at MSP Airport with a timely snow burst outside the airport window. The next day the cast was able to film a very authentic scene depicting the storm affecting their bus trip to the farm. My final shot was mercifully inside and I made it home before the snow/sleet/freezing rain event got under way in full force.
“Fallen Branches” was a wonderful experience. The actors were a joy to be with. For example, A.J. Sass and Josiah Gulden are true renaissance men with an encyclopedic memory for film history and endless ability to impersonate their favorite performers. Colleen Barrett as Rosie, Steve Hendrickson as Blair, and Cynthia Uhrich as Louisa were all terrific and made my scenes with them a joy to do. It was fun to hear their enthusiasm for the film business. Everyone was aware that this was a special project, that Andrew was a wonderfully talented writer and director, that Matt was not only a great cinematographer but also a meticulous producer who organized a flawless month of shooting.
I have great hopes that this small budget independent film gets the attention it deserves and look forward to whatever these young talented filmmakers do next.