The Traverse City Film Festival is in full swing (I always overestimate the time I’ll have available to actually blog about movies during the festival, so look for reviews and interviews coming in the next couple weeks). But I wanted to be sure and post this great interview with Ben Hickernell, the director, writer, producer and editor of ‘Lebanon, Pa.’
It’s a great story about families, looking back, and moving forward, starring Josh Hopkins, Samantha Mathis, Mary Beth Hurt, and Rachel Kitson (pictured), who traveled with Hickernell to the Traverse City Film Festival. Read more about the film at the official site, and look for a review here soon.
Hickernell started off the conversation by saying he was excited to participate in the festival, calling it a “working vacation.” Yeah, that’s how I feel about living here, Ben!
Jane Boursaw: One of the things about this film festival is it seems pretty relaxed. Maybe not so much for the filmmakers, but even they say it’s a lot more relaxed than some of the others like South by Southwest or Sundance. We like to have fun up here.
Ben Hickernell: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. We were at South by Southwest, and that was our world premiere so we were so focused on trying to sell the movie and launch it. I only saw like four movies at South by Southwest, but I’m planning on seeing every movie I can while I’m [in Traverse City].
Jane: What’s it like for you to be involved with film festivals? For me and every other movie lover, we’re all there because we love movies. Do you get that vibe when you’re making the rounds on the film festival circuit?
Ben: The cool thing about a film festival is that people who program them like Michael Moore or anyone who runs a film festival do it because they love movies. They’re certainly part of the industry. They’re a way for you to get your film noticed, get it sold, get it launched into the world. At the same time, whereas a distributor may love your film, they’ll only buy your film if they think it can make money. The festivals don’t really have to worry about that. They’ll play your film just because they like it. There’s always politics, but to a large extent, [film festivals] are by artists for artists and for the audiences. I know that’s Michael Moore’s thing, too. He combines premieres with movies that have been out for years, and he does it just because he loves the movies.
Jane: Our little tag line is “Just Great Movies,” so you really hit it on the head there. I know that Michael Moore and Deb Lake screen hundreds of movies right up to shortly before the festival. Did they contact you before or after South by Southwest?
Ben: It was after. There were several film festivals that reached out to us and this was one of the ones that stuck out to me. Obviously, because of Michael Moore’s involvement, but also because Michigan and Pennsylvania have this great kind of connection. I thought it would resonate with people because it’s a film that’s not set in New York or L.A. Not that Lebanon isn’t famous, but it’s a movie that’s a little more appealing to people who are living their lives in America.
Jane: I don’t know the stats, but I’m guessing there’s probably a lot more of us out here in fly-over country that are sort of forgotten in the big picture.
Ben: Certainly as settings for movies. A lot of movies are set in other places, and it was important to me to specify the town. Lebanon is a town that I know because my dad grew up there, but it was always important to not have it be Anywhere USA. I wanted the movie to speak honestly to people, so I wanted to set it in a real place. I obviously wrote it so that they’re not real people, but I tried to make them as real as I could.
Jane: Do you still have family there?
Ben: My dad grew up there and moved to Baltimore in his twenties, and that’s where I grew up. I didn’t come from Lebanon, but I do have connections there, and I go back there pretty often.
Jane: Since a lot of the people in Traverse City probably haven’t seen the film yet, could you talk a little about the story?
Ben: It’s the story of two people primarily. Will is in his mid thirties, and like a lot of people, he’s working and living his life, but not really sure what it’s adding up to. A lot of movies are about a jerk with a heart of gold, and he’s more of the opposite. He’s just kind of a regular guy. He works in advertising and he’s a bit selfish, and I think that’s held him back from making a lot of deep connections, probably partially because his dad and his mom got divorced when he was pretty young.
His dad moved away to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and Will was raised by his mom in Philadelphia. He’s handsome and charming, but emotionally, he’s a bit shut off from people. At the beginning of the movie, his dad dies. Will has this awful day when he’s not really sure of what’s going on at work. He’s getting some competition from a younger up start, and he isn’t really sure what to do about that. He and his girlfriend have just broken up, and then he gets the news that his dad has died, so he goes out to central Pennsylvania to bury his dad. He’s been left the house and everything, because he’s the only offspring of this guy that he didn’t even know that well. While he’s there, he meets his extended family at the funeral, including CJ, who’s the daughter of his dad’s second cousin. There’s a line in the film where he says, “What does that make us?” and the guy says, “I have no idea.”
Jane: That sounds familiar. People never have any idea how the second cousin thing works.
Ben: Right, but regardless, they’re family and they come from different backgrounds. They’ve had very different experiences, but because they’re family going through this moment, they have to kind of figure each other out. That’s what a lot of the movie is about — people from different backgrounds. You know, America is a big country. We talk so much about the divisions in the country, but this film is really about, yes, people come from different backgrounds, but they still try to understand each other. There’s a lot of common humanity that we share. So, Will basically is going through this crisis, and then he meets this young girl CJ and she just found out she’s pregnant. Will’s dad’s house is across from CJ, so they keep accidentally running into each other and form this funny friendship while they go through these big moments in their lives.
Jane: It does sound like something that could happen to any one of us really. When you go back to that sort of slice of Midwest life, I could see that happening in Traverse City.
Ben: Exactly, it’s an experience that, sadly, almost all of us go through at some point. Unless we go first, we’re going to lose a close member of our family. It’s always a time for kind of figuring out what’s next, and that’s what happens to Will. People who’ve seen the film — some identify with Will, some identify with CJ, and some identify with Andy, who is CJ’s father. But a lot of people find someone in the film they identify with and say, “Yeah that’s kind of what happened to me.”
Jane: You’ve got some awesome people in the cast — Josh Hopkins, Samantha Mathis, Mary Beth Hurt … they must have really loved the story to want to get involved with it.
Ben: They did not come because of the money. They all came because of the script, because of the character they were playing, and because of the larger story that we were telling. We were really lucky to get the people that we did. It’s kind of a long story about how each person got involved. Josh is so perfect for the part and he’s done really well recently on ‘Cougar Town,’ but that’s a sitcom, and his performance in our film is very different. We actually got him last of our three main actors. Samantha was first, and I give her big props because she loved the script and stuck with us as we were trying to find other actors. She really helped make it happen, because at any point, she could have said, this isn’t going to happen. But she was in our corner as we were getting the rest of the actors together.
Jane: That’s cool when somebody like that gets on board and sort of evangelizes for you.
Ben: She loved the script, and her agent set up a phone call between her and me. We talked for like an hour and after that, she was onboard. She was there with us the whole time.
Jane: And this is Rachel Kitson’s first film?
Ben: It is. She really blew people away at South by Southwest. Before this, she’d done some high school and college theater and that’s it. She and Josh are the center of the movie, and she totally holds her own with all these seasoned pros. She’s really talented, and it also helps that she really kind of IS this girl and is just so right for the part. We were very lucky to find her. At first, we were just looking at union people, and because she’d done nothing, she was actually non-union. We found her late in the auditioning, and she stuck out immediately.
Jane: How did you find her? Did she have an agent and was she making the audition rounds?
Ben: No, not at all. We shot the whole film in Pennsylvania, so it wasn’t like a big New York casting call. We were doing a Philadelphia casting call through our casting director, and we did see some New York people who were union. She was in the third round of auditions, and she’d submitted a head shot to this casting agency in Philadelphia, but didn’t have an agent. We were still going through head shots and looking at people who kind of looked the part, and we threw her in the yes pile to look at. We probably auditioned 100 girls or more, and she was the only one who nailed it right away. I went and got coffee with her and sat her down and said okay, “I’m really thinking of offering you this part and can you do this?” She just shrugged and said yes, I think so. That was always her attitude. She was always very easy-going and just kind of made to do this. I think she has the right temperament for acting.
Jane: I bet her career is going to really take off now.
Ben: I really hope so; it certainly deserves to. She really impressed everybody at South by Southwest, so hopefully at Traverse City she can generate some buzz, too. She’s here in Philadelphia doing theater and stuff. She’s still in school so she isn’t off in L.A. She might be eventually, but right now she’s in Philadelphia. She’s going to Temple University, studying acting in the theater program.
Jane: People love those kinds of stories where you have an unknown who ends up being a break out star.
Ben: Yeah, it’s one of the most exciting things about the film, because people have never seen her before, and she’s really good. I would definitely encourage people to check out the movie. That’s a very good reason to check it out — just to see her.
Jane: It sounds like this film really started to gain steam earlier this year. I was reading your blog, and in March, you were awestruck at all the interest it was getting on Facebook and YouTube and then South by Southwest. Has it been kind of a whirlwind publicity tour for you since then?
Ben: It has. I started writing this film in 2005, so it’s been kind of a long journey. We made a Facebook page two weeks before South by Southwest, and suddenly we had like 5,000 fans. There’s been like 30,000 views of the trailer on YouTube. It’s been kind of amazing, but we’re not there yet. I’m thankful to you and to the people of Traverse City to help spread the word, because we want to be out in theaters, so we need to get as many people as possible to hear about the film. What’s interesting is that the film does start to have a life of its own compared to a play or other kinds of art forms. Movies are a very popularistic art form; they kind of appeal to everybody. I’ve been getting e-mails from film festivals in Europe, and it’s hilarious to think of somebody in Italy watching my film, but that’s just the nature of film. It’s this medium that can go anywhere and speak to lots of people. It’s humbling and very moving when we get emails from people who saw it in Austin, and now we’re talking to people in the industry because we’re trying to get it released. A lot of people are really moved by it, and you have people calling you and saying they were in tears and it really spoke to them. It’s gratifying because making independent film is always building a house brick by brick, and it’s been years of work. To actually hear people say it spoke to them makes it worth it.
Jane: So what happens now? If it gets enough buzz at the film festivals, are you hoping it will be picked up by a big distributor?
Ben: Yes, that’s the hope. As with most other businesses right now, the market’s tough. We have a sales agent in L.A., and they basically talk to all the distributors and try to find somebody to buy it. I can’t really comment yet on that, because we’re still talking to people, but what I can say is, I think we’ve won the battle that we have a good film. I think we have a film that people think is good, and now it’s just really trying to get enough buzz to make it so the distributors feel safe releasing it. Do they feel like there’s enough interest to put it out there … We don’t have Tom Cruise or Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
In this market, there are fewer and fewer films getting sold overall, especially these little films that are really just kind of dramas and touch people. It’s not a horror film. It’s not an action film. It’s not an easily marketable film in one way, but I disagree with that because I do think people are moved when they see it. It’s a film that speaks to people, and that’s what movies are all about in the end. You want to go to the movies and you want to feel something. I think our film 100 percent delivers in that arena. So, we’re just trying to get enough buzz and interest through the film festival circuit that some distributor says, “Okay we can make money on this, and we’ll put it out.”
Images: Jane Boursaw; Reconstruction Pictures