Cut! That's a wrap
STACEY SOLT/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS The main characters featured in the short film "Branches," shot at Crystal Spring Tree Farm in Lehighton, pause during filming. The actors are, from left, Cuyle Carvin, Samuel Kirk, Tom Bartos and Jody Ebert.
As the sun went down over Crystal Spring Tree Farm, there was silence. The three men gathered around a single camera stood quietly, watching the sunset in the small video screen.
Finally, the glowing sun finished its descent below the horizon.
"Cut! That's a wrap," said Chris Messineo, the director standing behind the camera. The men cheered as dusk faded to dark, celebrating weeks of hard work.
More than two dozen cast and crew members recently gathered at Crystal Spring Tree Farm in Lehighton to shoot the short film "Branches," a movie about friendship, holiday traditions, and a search for the perfect Christmas tree. They spent more than three days on the farm, scouting out locations for each scene the week before shooting.
With Messineo that day were assistant director Chris Furlong of New Jersey, and script writer Rick Hansberry of Lancaster. Messineo is also from New Jersey.
"We could probably shoot here another three days and find more unique angles," said Hansberry. "This is a great location. It gave us the opportunity to make such a simple visit to a Christmas tree farm a complete picture."
Director Messineo agreed, noting that the filming location was well chosen.
"There are not a lot of individual films shot at a location like this," he said. "There are some movies that you only pull out after Thanksgiving that say, 'It's Christmas now.' We want this to be one of those films."
Before filming could begin, there needed to be snow. After all, what fun is a visit to a Christmas tree farm without a fresh coat of snow?
The crew waited anxiously for news of snow in January. The area was unseasonably green throughout the month. But when Carbon County got hit with more than a foot of white stuff in mid-February, the cast and crew cheered.
"It was a huge leap of faith. People won't appreciate what a role of the dice this was," said Hansberry. "We felt that there was a reasonably good chance of snow, but we were getting worried in January."
The movie is to feature four main characters, all men. There was an enormous amount of interest from actors in the New York and New Jersey area. The crew received more than 1,800 headshots from actors vying for these four spots. They interviewed 40 people to find the best match for each character.
They eventually chose four men for the lead roles: Tom Bartos, Cuyle Carvin, Jody Ebert and Samuel Kirk. Each was chosen for his acting credentials, but also for his love of the holiday spirit. When the four actors began filming on Saturday, the crew knew they had chosen their cast well.
"You can plan all you want, but to have a cooperative attitude from everyone is rare, and it's special," said Hansberry.
Each of the actors felt a special connection to the film. Kirk's family sold Christmas trees when he was younger; Carvin could relate to the close bonds of friendship between the characters.
"I feel that the friendships I made growing up are the strongest that I will have," said Carvin. "I really connected to the story."
The four actors all agreed that the chemistry and friendliness of the cast and crew made a big difference during filming and that it is possible to capture this feeling on film.
"Finding that chemistry is so important," said Bartos. "I like the guys, I like the crew. I think that is going to translate well into the film. It's a sweet story, without being sappy. It's a simple, well-told story about friends."
In addition to the four main actors, "Branches" was able to secure big-name talent for the small-budget project. The main actors have no speaking parts. Instead, the narrator delivers the real message, said Hansberry.
"The characters are friends and equals, but at the same time the narrator carries the emotion of the film. We wanted to add a recognizable name, because this is the voice that people will associate with the film," he said.
Together, Hansberry and Messineo created a "dream list" of narrators that they'd like to work with. They sent proposals to the agents of several well-known narrators, including Daniel Stern, best known for his work narrating The Wonder Years. To their delight, Stern responded to their proposal.
"He responded to the story, and said that he would be willing to work with us," said Hansberry. "It created a real magnet for us, in terms of attracting other talent."
The crew was also able to secure the talents of composer Michael Whalen, a two-time Emmy winner best known for his work with the Discovery Channel.
Adding Stern and Whalen to the film creates a more attractive "package" for film festivals, added Hansberry.
"When people go to film festivals, they are aware of who is presenting the film. It creates a buzz this is someone that people can relate with, and who we have a relationship with," he said. "This raised the expectations for us as well, to make this the best movie possible."
Now that filming has ended, the work behind the scenes can really begin. The raw footage from the weekend's shoot must be edited down to usable clips, and then synchronized with music and narration.
"Branches" will be submitted to several film festivals and screenings throughout the country and the Pocono region this year. The short film will also be available for purchase at Crystal Spring Tree Farm for Christmas 2010.