There's something magical about the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. It may be bitter cold with snow on the ground, but this rarely matters as you hike through acres of trees with family and friends.
Award-winning writer Rick Hansberry will attempt to capture this magic in his newest short film, "Branches," to be filmed at Crystal Spring Tree Farm in Lehighton. The movie will be available for Christmas 2010.
"I'm very, very excited about the project," said Hansberry. "It's been years in the making."
The opening scene for the movie invokes a simpler time, where friends journey onto tree farms with mittens, gloves and handsaws to cut down the perfect tree. Four friends make this journey, and we learn a bit about each friend in turn. But while each man is important and has a unique path through life, we learn that the bond of friendship is more important than any one individual. These are bonds that can last a lifetime, changing in ways that we've never imagined.
"At the holidays, there are melancholy moments when you think about past Christmases. There are a lot of elements of emotions during the holidays," said Hansberry. "This film just hit the right notes with me."
The script has also "hit the right notes" with several film critics, winning its first contest at MoviePoet in 2003. A Canadian producer optioned the script in 2003, but was unable to find funding to shoot the film. "Branches" has since gone on to receive favorable reviews and place in the top 10 at the DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition in 2008.
"The script is a personal favorite of mine and I've always wanted to see it done right," said Hansberry. "After having two of my scripts produced and made in Los Angeles without me, I was determined to have my next film made here on the east coast so that I could be a part of it."
He approached director Chris Messineo over the summer, and soon set up a production company, Oscar's Trailer, LLC, to begin work on the film.
Finding a site for the film proved difficult. Hansberry lives in Lancaster County, while Messineo lives in New Jersey.
"When we decided to shoot this film in February, we knew we couldn't count on snow locally. We knew we would have to go to the snow," he said. They began searching upstate New York and the New England states for an appropriate site, but soon realized that a Pennsylvania farm would be ideal.
"Upstate New York… would be a 4-hour drive for both of us. Given that we would need wintry weather, it seemed hazardous to ask cast and crew members to drive to a long distance location," he said. "I tried to go with an area that would be central to both of us that would have a reasonably good chance of snow in February."
This led him to the Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau, which recommended several tree farms in the area. Hansberry and Messineo visited Crystal Spring Tree Farm on a snowy December day, and they were immediately impressed by both the location and the owners of the family-owned farm, Francis, Margaret and Chris Botek.
"The atmosphere of Crystal Spring and the hospitality of the Botek's won me over. Margaret, Francis and Chris were so kind and generous with their time, and Chris (Messineo) and I both fell in love with the natural beauty surrounding the tree farm," said Hansberry. "I couldn't have found nicer people to work with."
The Botek family wasn't sure what to think when they first heard from Hansberry when he was scouting locations, requesting a visit to their farm. The two men came to look around, spending about three hours on a self-guided tour. Because it was the busiest weekend of the season, the Botek family wasn't able to spend much time with the director or producer – but they did hear from them before the men left.
"They were very happy," said Chris Botek. "They thought it was the perfect setting."
Crystal Spring's main farm in Mahoning Township includes about 65 acres, though the family uses nearly 200 acres of land in Carbon and Schuylkill counties. The current farm began in 1964.
Crystal Spring is a popular destination for both local and far-flung families, and continues to set its reputation by providing quality Christmas trees. They supplied the White House Christmas Tree in 2006, and have decorated Rockefeller Center and the state capital several times. The Boteks believe it is this attention to quality that brings both customers and now filmmakers to the farm.
"People come here to get a beautiful Christmas tree," said Francis. "They don't have trouble finding a tree - they have trouble choosing just one. If you were to go out there now [after the Christmas season], you could still find a nice tree."
Offering beautiful trees takes year-round effort, but all three members of the family believe the results are worth the effort.
"We take a lot of care and put our heart and soul into what this place looks like," added Chris. "I think people notice that."
Since his initial visit, Hansberry has been in frequent contact with Crystal Spring Tree Farm, working with the owners to ensure that everything is on schedule for when filming begins in February. Filming dates have been tentatively set, but will depend on the weather in Lehighton.
"We have a rather unique situation. We're depending on snow being on the ground," said Hansberry. Before filming can begin, the director and producer must also visit the site to plan the shooting schedule and decide where each scene will take place.
"It's the furthest thing from, 'Let's show up with our camera equipment and play out what's on the page,'" he added. "If we start walking around to find the best spots, there will be lots of footprints in the snow. It won't look like freshly-fallen snow."
Hansberry has finalized contracts with the film's composer, two-time Emmy winner Michael Whalen, and the film's narrator, actor and narrator Daniel Stern. He is especially excited about Stern's involvement. Stern is best known for his role as narrator of "The Wonder Years" and has been featured as an actor in films such as the "Home Alone" series, "Diner" and "Breaking Away."
"The characters are friends and equals, but the narrator carries the emotion of the film," said Hansberry. "Stern has a very distinctive voice. He's probably more famous for his voice than for his face."
Auditions for the four main characters and extras will take place on January 16 at the NJ Film School in Martinsville, New Jersey.
Hansberry is also encouraging people throughout the region to get involved with the film. Contributions are tax deductible through the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit Program.
"Branches" will be screened in film festivals throughout the area and around the country. Hansberry plans to submit the film to both the Black Bear Film Festival in Milford and the Pocono Mountains Film Festival. He is also working with area theaters to bring "Branches" to Lehighton for local viewers. The film will be available on DVD for Christmas 2010, and will be for sale at Crystal Spring Tree Farm.
"This will be a DVD that is kept by people, for years to come, to watch at Christmas time," he said. "My goal as a writer has always been to write stories that touch people's hearts and inspire them. That's my hope for what people will take away from watching this movie."
For more information on "Branches," visit www.branchesmovie.com.