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Jerry Davich: Lights, camera ... ‘Swan Song’

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Updated: August 11, 2013 6:35AM



The “Swan Song” movie set reflected its home-spun alias, “The Town That Made a Movie,” on Day 14 of its eight-week shoot.

Local crew members set up lighting, audio and tents. Local producers and assistants hustled to keep everyone on the same page of the 117-page script. Local child actors rehearsed their lines. And makeup artists applied cosmetic enhancements to young performers on summer break.

Amid all this, 73-year-old Academy Award-nominated director John Hancock, of LaPorte County, worked his movie-making magic with a warm smile, gentle advice and a pair of suspenders that belied the dozens of younger faces who swarmed around him.

This lights, camera and behind-the-scenes action took place on a humid day when a gentle sprinkle turned into relentless rain at Dunes Summer Theatre in Michiana Shores.

On Monday, I visited the movie shoot to get a feel for what it’s like to film a scene on location, which in this case is entirely in Northwest Indiana, including sites in LaPorte, Michigan City and Hancock’s farm near Rolling Prairie.

For Hancock and his wife, Dorothy Tristan, it’s their fourth production that will be shot in this region, following “Prancer” (1989), “A Piece of Eden” (1999) and “Suspended Animation” (2001). His other films include “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death,” “Bang the Drum Slowly” and “Weeds.”

“Swan Song” features Tristan, who wrote the screenplay, portraying a grandmother trying to impart her performance-artist legacy to her young granddaughter, although the movie’s title hints at a double meaning for the older couple, Tristan and Hancock.

Produced through FilmAcres, the couple’s local production company, Tristan plays Karen, a former star of stage and screen who may be suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. When her 13-year-old granddaughter, Julie (played by Grace Tarnow of LaPorte), comes to live with her, they don’t see eye to eye about many things until their hearts later connect.

Karen soon discovers that Julie has a commanding singing voice and it leads her to land the lead role in a stage production of “Alice in Wonderland.” The audition scene is filmed at Dunes Summer Theatre, which turned into a summertime movie set the past couple of days.

“Things are going great,” Hancock told me before shooting scenes on Monday.

As an adolescent, Hancock was an accomplished violinist and concertmaster of the Chicago Youth Orchestra. He became interested in the theater while attending Harvard College and directed a number of plays there. Because of the promise he exhibited, he received a grant from Harvard to study theater in Europe.

Filmmaking is only part of his artistic gift, but he’s been warmly embraced by Northwest Indiana for many years because of it.

“Since John has highlighted this area with his previous films, it has really endeared him to the people here,” said co-producer Drew Tallackson, a former Post-Tribune writer and student from the Emerson School for Visual and Performing Arts in Gary. “It’s their devotion to John that makes it possible to say ‘The Town That Made a Movie.’ ”

The movie shoot runs through Aug. 13, headquartered at FilmAcres, located in Rolling Prairie inside an old hardware store that’s been converted into a production office. Months ago, Hancock rallied the community by inviting them to the LaPorte Library to kick off the project. The place was standing room only.

“Part of it is the showbiz factor,” explained Orville Stoeber, who’s been writing music for Hancock’s films, including “Swan Song,” since 1968.

All of the actors and the 60-member crew reside in this region, working alongside production staff fixtures who’ve been with Hancock for many years, such as Stoeber and longtime cinematographer Misha Suslov.

“The movie is not a musical, but there’s a lot of wonderful music in this film,” said Tallackson, who co-founded the Young People’s Theatre Co. in LaPorte County and who will appear as a music director in “Swan Song.”

On the day I visited, it felt like controlled chaos as everyone seemed to know their mark, including the many kids on hand. The behind-the-scenes vibe was youthful, spirited and passionate with a warm communal feeling among the crew, staff, and performers. They obviously know they are a part of something much greater than any of their roles.

“An umbrella, anyone?!” yelled one staff member, asking for temporary shelter from the downpour for the 13-year-old Tarnow and older colleague, Tristan.

Within seconds, an umbrella materialized, no questions asked, illustrating how this movie came to be in the first place.

On Monday, the daily “crew call” sheet warned of a 30 percent chance of rain that day, but no one planned for such record-breaking rainfall during the shoot to date.

“No amount of rain will stop this production!” stated the film’s Facebook page.

“You’d think this movie was being filmed in Seattle,” Tallackson quipped as the heavens opened up yet again.

Fortunately, it’s not. It’s being made right here in Northwest Indiana, with plans to show it at film festivals next winter followed by a theater release later in the year.

To see more photos and a video clip, visit www.post-trib.com or my Facebook page. For more info on “Swan Song,” or daily updates of the movie shoots, visit www.FilmAcres.com or www.facebook.com/Filmacres.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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