A young boy spends the fall of 1973 on his grandparents' farm in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. They are terrorized by a presence emanating from the miles of cornfields surrounding their home. His grandmother constantly admonishes, "Stay out of the corn." So of course, he wonders, what is in the corn?
This is the premise for a new suspense thriller movie, "The Fields," written by Harrison Smith of Kunkletown. It is based on an incident that happened to him as a young boy while living on his grandparents' farm. He turned the experience into a screenplay for a full-length film, all shot in and around his home and nearby towns.
Smith says the characters of Gladys and Hiney are based on his real grandparents but the other main characters are loosely based on their real selves.
"The film is a tribute to my grandparents, Gladys and Harrison Kline, both now gone. They were a huge influence in my life. The actual incident took place in the early 1970s and it stayed with me ever since. I don't want to divulge too much about it, but I can say, you will never look at cornfields again without thinking of this film and the possibilities of what might be in there. The incident stayed with me as a story and I would tell people and someone once said, 'That would make a great movie' and I thought, 'Yeah, it would.' So I started writing the script for it."
He finished the script in March of 2007. Then he had to find a director. After a detailed search, he focused on Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni. Their first film was "The 4th Dimension."
"It was a cult hit and acclaimed on the festival and critic's circuit. I heard it was a solid atmospheric suspense film. I was NOT looking for a horror expert. 'The Fields' is NOT a horror film. I had heard great things about these guys and their film so I contacted them, pitched the idea and they said send the script. They sent me 'The 4th Dimension.'"
He and his wife, Brandi, a huge supporter of her husband's endeavor, watched the film.
"The last minute of the film had me in tears. Their deft handling of atmosphere, suspense, tension ... I knew they were the guys for the job. I just hoped they wanted it," says Smith.
Mazzoni and Mattera were making films since they were kids growing up together in Philadelphia.
"We use to run around with our parents' camcorders and improv short films, recreate scenes from Hollywood films such as 'Rounders' and 'True Romance' and write scripts," says Mazzoni.
They both went to Temple University.
"Our last year, we wrote our first feature length screenplay based on a film that we made on the fly called 'Mectl.' We were messing around and shot a Russian gangster scene. We had no expectations whatsoever. Then we watched it and we got really excited about the scene and immediately we were brainstorming the next scene. The next night we were driving down to Boat House Row in the city and shooting a drug transaction scene with one of our buddies. The film ended up clocking in at 50 minutes," says Mattera.
In Project Greenlight's second season, the guys decided to enter "Mectl" as a feature screenplay for competition. They read the rules, bought Movie Magic, pressed some buttons, made some adjustments and sent it off.
"We were shocked we made the first cut in the contest," says Mattera.
They were in the top 250 out of 6,000 scripts. The guys were so excited that after they graduated in 2004, Mazzoni, as a President's Scholar, summa cum laude and Mattera with a B.S. in civil and construction engineering, they both went right back to Temple and earned bachelor of fine arts degrees with a concentration in film and media arts. Six months later they were shooting their first feature film, which they wrote, "The 4th Dimension." It premiered at the CineVegas Film Festival in 2006 and won an award. It toured fests for a year and a half winning more awards, got picked up by TLA Releasing on DVD, then iTunes and Sony PlayStation for VOD.
After Smith saw the film, he felt that Mazzoni and Mattera were the right fit for the style and tone of the film he wanted to see brought to the screen from his script.
"Working with Harrison was great. He was a key asset to have all throughout the process. Being that the film is based on the account of his childhood, he was a wonderful resource and sounding board for Tom and I. We were always hung up on the authenticity of the environment in which he grew up and wanted to make sure that the characters/interactions rang true with him. Most importantly, he was very open to our ideas and suggestions and allowed us to take his script and play it out in accordance with our vision. It was a truly collaborative process and as a screenwriter, he was a pleasure to work with," says Mazzoni.
But it was a lot of work getting Smith's screenplay to a movie screen.
"Almost too much to tell. I can say this. It took a lot of perseverance. You have to run this out and see where it leads. It took a lot of searching, scouting crews and most of all finding investors," says Smith.
The film has a private investor who wishes to remain anonymous.
Smith met Faust Checho through the investor.
Checho, 31, was raised in Bangor. He earned a MFA graduate degree in Acting from the New School for Drama in New York City in 2008.
"The possible investor, a longtime friend and associate of mine, asked me to read Harrison's script. I remember sitting down to read it, being about 20 pages in, and thinking to myself, that this was surely written from memory. The details were vivid and palpable. The dramatic elements intense and grounded. I also remember laughing out loud at the comedy inherent in the story. About 30 pages in, when the action and suspense ramped up, I thought, 'This is a diamond in the rough.'"
Checho was given the part of Barry because at their first meeting, Smith told him, "Man, when I first saw your picture, I knew. You look just like my dad did."
Smith says of Checho, "We really hit it off. I was the founder of the Mr. Big Productions but we teamed together to officially form Mr. Big," says Smith.
Mr. Big Productions is named in tribute to his best friend, Joe Bilicic, a Pleasant Valley High School teacher who died of cancer at age 39 in 2008.
Smith had an actor for the part of Barry, now he had to find the right actors for the other characters.
"It was a collaborative effort between myself and Faust, my co-producer, and the directors, Tom and Dave. There were a lot of things to look into and most of all the reality of getting the people you want on the budget you have," says Smith.
He was thrilled to get Academy Award winner, Cloris Leachman to play the part of his grandmother, Gladys, who he says did a spot on performance.
Leachman, 83, nominated for an Emmy 20 times, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the 1971 film, "The Last Picture Show."
She majored in drama at Illinois State University and Northwestern University. Her career began in television and film shortly after competing in the 1946 Miss America pageant as Miss Chicago. She has appeared opposite such film giants as Paul Newman and Lee Marvin. She appeared in three of Mel Brooks films as Frau Blucher in "Young Frankenstein," nurse Charlotte Diesel in "High Anxiety" and Madame DeFarge in "History of the World: Part I." She was Timmie's adoptive mom on "Lassie" but is probably best known for her role as Phyllis Lindstrom on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which led to her spinoff/spin off show, "Phyllis" for which she won a Golden Globe Award.
She received Emmy and SAG nominations for her performance in the HBO special, "Mrs. Harris." She had a seven-week long run on the hit television show, "Dancing With the Stars" last season, had "Cloris: My Autobiography" released in 2009 and recently launched Cloris Line, unique elegant clothing and accessories for women.
Leachman says when she read the script, she loved it.
"A role like this for older people doesn't come along often. The role of Gladys moved me and has stayed with me since I completed shooting. It truly is one of the best roles I've had since 'The Last Picture Show.' I've seen two versions of the film and loved it. It's such a special film and needs to get out there and be seen. I hope people will support it and love it as much as I do," says Leachman.
When Smith wrote the screenplay, he always envisioned Tara Reid to play Bonnie, the part of his mother. Reid is known for her roles on "Saved By the Bell: The New Class" in 1994, a recurring role on the daytime soap, "Days of Our Lives," feature films "I Woke Up Early the Day I Died," "The Big Lebowski," "Urban Legend," "Cruel Intentions," "American Pie," "American Pie 2," and "My Boss's Daughter."
"It was a pleasure working with them. Cloris entertained, Tara was gracious and accessible. Both celebrities ate with the crew, talked, hung out and laughed with everyone," says Smith.
Bev Appleton plays, Hiney, his grandfather.
Appleton, 63, splits his time between Philadelphia, D.C. and Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, where he was born and raised. He has appeared in such films as "The New World," "The Contender," "The Locket," "Dracula's Widow" and "Vanishing Son." He has performed on stage here and abroad. He was an associate Artist at Theatre Virginia for nine seasons and for the past five years has worked in Philadelphia and New York with the Manhattan Theatre Club, Walnut St. Theatre and Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival. He has produced and/or directed over 80 productions, has taught musical theater classes on the university level, and been on the planning team since 1998 for Renewal Arts Forum held in Caux, Switzerland.
"I am a dyed-in-the-wool theater actor who supplements and supports his theater habit by doing occasional film work," Appleton says.
He thinks the film looks and sounds great. As for working in the small town of Kunkletown, "The entire ambience of that rural area helped me 'get into character.' So every day being on that farm, breathing the house, the fields, the garden, was a tonic and got my Hiney centered, pun intended."
Joshua Ormond plays the part of Steven, based on Smith as a young boy.
"Our lead star, Josh Ormond was loved by everyone. He was professional and had a great sense of humor and seemed to have a great time. We certainly enjoyed him," says Smith.
Ormond, who was 9 years old and in fourth grade at the time of the shooting of the film, has been acting since he was 4 years old. His first film was "Bittersweet," and he has done eight national commercial and several regional ones. He says he wanted to do the part of Steven because he seemed like someone he could understand and portray.
"I also liked a lot of things he did like shooting a BB gun, catching a mouse and going out exploring. I also like that this was a serious role and most of the commercials I do are funny, so it is different from what I am used to and I liked tyring a new kind of acting."
Ormond and Smith spent some quality time together on the set.
"Working with Harrison was great. He even helped me with some of my school work. He also took the time to show me how much he liked Godzilla as a boy and gave me one of his Godzilla figures. He told me that some of the scenes were so real to him as we were filming them."
He got to know his directors, Mazzoni and Mattera, before shooting the film began.
"They were awesome. They took the time to get to know me before we started filming. They came to hang out once a week during the summer and we played hockey, played with a lot of my toys like my light saver and nerf guns, hung out and ate and spent a day at the beach. We also talked about some of the scenes for the movie. This made us all comfortable with each other once we started filming and they were able to relate things to me since they knew me better. They were very thoughtful, as they had lists of all the foods I liked and brought me Pizza Hut stuffed crust pizza many times. They really took the time to discuss things with me as we filmed each scene and spoke to me like an actor, not just a kid."
He thought Cloris was very funny.
"She kept us all laughing. She was going around singing and teasing a lot of the crew. I got lucky and was never asked to eat any of her peanut butter, mayonnaise and pickle sandwiches. She took right to the role of being my Nanny and was very affectionate. She even got protective of me when I was getting my hair cut and it was hurting as they tried to comb my curls."
He thought Tara Reid was nice, down to earth and kind and showed concern when he twisted his ankle.
Bev Appleton felt like his real grandfather. He got to know him a little better before filming began and says he told cool stories and was really funny as Hiney in dealing with Nanny and all her yelling.
"He gave me a Steelers hat at the end of filming that he signed and had Dave and Tom sign it, too."
"Faust was really cool. We took time together in Kunkletown and played on my Xbox 360 between shots whenever we got the chance since we liked a lot of the same games. I liked hanging out on the roof with him to film the BB gun scenes."
"I am very proud of the entire cast," says Smith.
The movie was filmed from Sept. 15 to Oct. 27, 2009, in a little over a month, but the entire process started in 2007.
Smith decided to film the movie in Kunkletown, where he and his wife live.
"We thought Kunkletown landed itself to the look of the time period. We also felt we could count on the help of many of the residents as we got the community involved. There are so many people and businesses to thank. Working with the residents of Kunkletown was a heartening experience. A lot of people have misconceptions about the movie world and think all movies are made for tons of money and everyone connected is wealthy. I can tell you that is not true. The people of Kunkletown got behind us, literally opening their homes to the cast and crew. Cloris Leachman loves the town and Tara Reid said repeatedly how nice everyone was and how she could go out in public without having paparazzi trailing her everywhere. She felt free while here.
"Cloris entertained guests with her piano playing at the Jupiter Tavern one night. That was a real hoot. I've got pictures to prove it.
"The Kunkletown Car Club loaned out classic cars for the time the film was shot. A particular shout out to Karen Fuls and her husband, Kenny, who literally made their upstairs the headquarters for the production office. Amy Yaple loaned out her rental home and store, Amy's General Store for location shots and was always there for the cast and crew. Penny Young opened her doors to let us shoot a great scene in Penny's Place and the crew loved the food and hoagies from Kunkletown General Store. Rachel Weidman and Laurie Bealer helped with anything we needed. Bob Field in Stroudsburg let us shoot at his dairy farm. There are so many more that allowed us to rent their homes, use their land, donated props, materials and food. The warmth and generosity of the people of Kunkletown can't be underestimated."
Smith hopes "The Fields" will do for cornfields what "Jaws" did for the water.
He also has a very special request of everyone.
"We are creating a community, grass roots movement, since the film was shot this way. Smaller films have to fight harder for national theatrical release. We would like to get a petition of 100,000 signatures to demand that the film receives that theatrical release. We feel this would be a powerful tool to show potential distributors, in addition to all our other strategies and dealings we are doing."
The petition can be found at: http://thep.us/btlpBQ.
Making "The Fields" has been a learning experience for Smith.
"It has not made me rich, nor is it likely to. Your first film is always the learning curve you do for experience."
So does that mean there will be more films?
"Who knows? I've learned to take life one day at a time."