Filmmakers Kathy Swanson and Vince O’Connell call their film “Farmer of the Year” a “coming of aging adventure.”
After selling his farm, widowed 83-year-old veteran Hap Anderson (Barry Corbin) is looking for some excitement.
And at first, a trip to a 65th World War II reunion seems to be just what he’s after.
But he can’t show up to the reunion without a date, “like some kind of loser,” so he, joined by his unemployed granddaughter Ashley (Mackinlee Waddell), decides to drive from Minnesota to California in his 1973 Winnebago, planning to pick up a former flame on the way.
Despite their impending deadline to make the reunion, Anderson and, reluctantly, Ashley throw their agenda to the wayside to stop at a handful of oddball tourist attractions, like the Corn Palace in South Dakota (“Corn I help you?” an employee asks Anderson).
During the trip, and with the help of a few eccentric characters, Anderson realizes he doesn’t have to be defined by his age.
The film will have its Pacific Northwest premiere Saturday at the Cutter Theatre in Metaline Falls, where Swanson and O’Connell once lived.
“Farmer of the Year” is Swanson and O’Connell’s first feature film, though the pair has made several shorts through their Yellow House Films since attending a yearlong film program in Nelson, British Columbia, in 2009.
It was during this time that the pair split their time between Nelson and Metaline Falls.
“We had always liked film. It wasn’t like we were born with a camera in our hands,” Swanson said. “If there was an indie filmmaker showing a film within 100 miles and there was going to be a Q&A, we would always go because they were really interesting.”
The story of Anderson and Ashley was personal for both Swanson and O’Connell.
A few years ago, O’Connell’s uncle lost his wife of 60 years. Around the same time, that uncle’s grandson graduated from college and was a little confused as to his next step.
“They moved in together and supported each other as buddies and helped each other get through that tough time,” Swanson said. “We were visiting, and I could see all that. It was such a wonderful situation, the two generations supporting each other like that.”
When creating the character of Anderson, Swanson also took characteristics from her father.
“People will ask ‘How did you nail aging so well?’ ” she said. “ ‘I have a bigger than life example right in front of me.’ ”
The pair shot “Farmer of the Year” in Minnesota and South Dakota in 28 days during the summer of 2016, following five months of pre-production work that found the pair staying with Swanson’s father in Tyler, Minnesota, where she grew up.
Swanson grew up on the farm that doubled as Anderson’s farm (her brother still works the land), and the pair used Swanson’s father’s home as Anderson’s home.
The pair filmed a new opening sequence during the summer of 2017, and filmed a new ending in January.
“It was blowing snow, but we made it look like summer,” O’Connell said.
“Farmer of the Year” star Corbin is best known for roles in “Northern Exposure,” “WarGames” and “One Tree Hill.”
The pair believes Corbin was interested in the role of Anderson because it was unlike the military or law enforcement characters he typically portrays.
“He’s a real pro,” O’Connell said. “We had a limited amount of time, and we had 37 locations, so the fact that he could nail it in one or two takes really helped.”
The pair estimates they had about about 60 actors and 25 crew members, a majority of whom came from the graduate film program at Ohio University they attended after their time in Nelson.
“It was a huge undertaking but there was a huge amount of community involvement,” O’Connell said.
For instance, the town’s electrician, who Swanson attended school with, let the crew use their boom truck for overhead shots, and the mailman in the film was played by the town’s mailman.
Swanson estimates about 18 members of her extended family appear somewhere in the film.
“What’s interesting is the film has that small town, local soul, but it has Hollywood production values so it’s a really nice combination, I think, of homegrown and Hollywood,” she said. “Audiences really are enjoying it.”
Some audience members, O’Connell said, think the film is a documentary because the acting and story seem so natural.
Critics are clearly enjoying it too, as the film has garnered a number of awards and nominations from several film festivals, including the Lady Filmmakers Film Festival in Beverly Hills, the Woods Hole Film Festival in Massachusetts and the Breckenridge Film Festival in Colorado.
Swanson and O’Connell are happy to see that no matter where they screen “Farmer of the Year,” audiences have taken to the film’s Midwestern sensibility.
They’ve been approached by a few distributors but are waiting to find the right fit. In the meantime, they’re screening the film theatrically, hoping to make it to as many screens as they can.
“We want as many people to see it as possible and we really believe in the project so it’s not that hard to sell,” Swanson said.
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