Shooting "Little Beeri's March" in Haverhill, N.H.
On a recent Saturday morning, a covered wagon sat on the side of a dirt road that bisects a harvested cornfield in Bedell Bridge State Park in Haverhill, N.H. Lanterns, canteens, and assorted pots and pans hung from the sides of the wagon, which sported a metal stovepipe for good measure. The faces of the occasional motorists who crept past and rubbernecked at the wooden conveyance invariably displayed puzzled curiosity.
It was day three of a six-day film shoot. "Little Beeri's March" is a loose adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's 1939 antiwar play Mother Courage and Her Children, about a peasant family that tries to profit by selling its wares during the Thirty Years' War. John Griesemer of Lyme, N.H., wrote the screenplay and is codirecting the film, which is being shot in widescreen black and white.
"Little Beeri's" is set in the fictional country of Bolostoknivjia during an unspecified era. It's a musical, with all of the dialogue and song lyrics spoken and sung in unsubtitled Bolostoknivjian — a made-up language that sounds like a mélange of various Slavic tongues. Codirector Whittaker Ingbretson said the movie's visual style was inspired by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman. In particular, he cites the influence of Bergman's stark 1957 classic The Seventh Seal, which was set during the Black Death period of the 14th century.
This one-of-a-kind project is just one product of an urbane filmmaking scene thriving incongruously in the pastoral setting of the Upper Valley, with the Bradford-based Cohase 48 Hour Film Slam as its focal point. Founded in 2010 by Newbury resident Richard Waterhouse, the slam competition has proved to be a fertile incubator for local film talent.
The bulk of the "Little Beeri's" company — most of whom are in their twenties or thirties — consists of veterans of the contest. "Little Beeri's" shares its cast and characters with "Journey to the American Cinema," an award-winning nine-minute short created for the slam by the film team Now Shooting. The earlier short was codirected by Ingbretson and Evan Marsh; Griesemer wrote the story and served as assistant director.
For "Little Beeri's," Griesemer and Ingbretson also recruited members of rival film slam teams. Crew members Drew Peberdy and Chico Eastridge are part of Team Malone. Assistant director Liam O'Connor-Genereaux — whose feature-length rock opera Zephyr premiered in May at the White River Indie Festival — is from a team called WalrusDice Productions.
Waterhouse, who also founded the Green Mountain 48-Hour Film Slam in Montpelier, said he's pleasantly surprised by how successful the Bradford event has been in connecting Upper Valley filmmakers of all ages. "It brought together a lot of people that may never have known that each other existed," he said.
Griesemer, who will turn 69 next month, compared the current youth movement in Upper Valley cinema to his experiences as a young theater actor in the 1970s. In those days, he moonlighted with the Parish Players in Thetford while working as a reporter for the Valley News.
"Nobody could make movies [in the 1970s], because nobody could afford the equipment," he recalled. "But everything flipped with video and digital technologies, and now everybody's making movies and hardly anybody's making theater anymore."
On the morning Seven Days visited the makeshift film set of "Little Beeri's," the cast and crew were busy preparing for one of the movie's most important sequences. It's a crane shot of the approaching wagon that introduces the family and its imposing matriarch, played by Griesemer's wife, 67-year-old Faith Catlin.
Griesemer noted that everyone involved with the shoot was participating on a volunteer basis. "People have taken vacation to do this, so they're a pretty devoted bunch," he said.
The company's members hail from various small towns near the Connecticut River in Vermont and New Hampshire. Its overall spirit is one of selfless collaboration, with cast and crew wearing as many hats as needed. Ingbretson also served as director of photography. Marsh constructed the wagon in addition to playing the father of Little Beeri, who's portrayed by Marsh's 18-year-old cousin, Deric Farris. Composer Matt Summers doubled as a foot soldier. Digital media specialist Eastridge performed various grip duties. He was also tasked with making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
On a movie with a $2,000 budget, using an actual film crane in that key introductory shot was out of the question. The solution involved suspending Ingbretson from the boom of a bucket truck with a rope-and-pulley system. Three wranglers slowly lowered him as the wagon approached, and the camera shifted from a long shot to a close-up of Catlin. In a manner typical of Brecht's practice of epic theater, the actor then broke the fourth wall and sang a bawdy marching tune directly to the camera.
The company had made three unsuccessful attempts at the tricky shot before darkness fell on the previous day. At 10:14 a.m., after more than two hours of prep work, the scene was set for another one.
"Roll fog," O'Connor-Genereaux ordered into a walkie-talkie. As smoke wafted from the wagon's stovepipe and an abandoned barn in the distance, the AD barked, "Action, everyone."
The wagon approached, and the wranglers lowered Ingbretson, the camera harnessed to his torso. Griesemer started Summers' music track, which resembles a cross between Eastern European Romani music and Weimar-era cabaret songs. The wagon hit its mark, and Catlin belted out "Mother Beerishma's Song," which begins: "Bodroyov in slopsin / Kondittor ron boskin / Belonga par onzoy domo ooff." According to the script, that translates as "Drop your cocks / And pick up your socks / Your sergeant calls to you."
Griesemer and Ingbretson huddled under a blanket to watch the digital rushes on the camera screen. The verdict: Catlin was briefly underlit and the song started too late. Time for another take.
Welcome to Parmalee
The past year has been a busy and creative period for Griesemer and Catlin. On November 10, season one of their web series "Parmalee" went live. It's a dark comedy about the small-town scandal that erupts after a webcam accidentally captures footage of a local suicide. A group of teens posts the clip online, and it goes viral.
Griesemer codirected the series and served as head screenwriter. Catlin handled the bulk of the producing duties, while Waterhouse codirected; both also played supporting roles. Matt Bucy, a prominent real estate developer in White River Junction, was director of photography and editor.
The quartet literally formulated the story at Griesemer and Catlin's kitchen table. "It used to be that maybe knocking over gravestones was the worst that a bunch of knucklehead kids in a small town might do," Griesemer said. "And now it can be something like this, which is less physical damage but can have way more horrible implications."
Bucy noted that season one of the series was originally conceived as four distinct episodes. He edited them into a single piece for exhibition at this year's White River Indie Festival, where "Parmalee" played to a full house.
"One of the great things about doing local films is that, for every person you engage in the film, they'll bring, like, five people to watch it," Bucy said with a laugh.
Waterhouse, who teaches film acting at Brown University, said he was particularly impressed with the community engagement of Lyme, where a good chunk of the series was shot.
"All of Lyme just basically opened themselves up to us because of John and Faith," Waterhouse said. "Lyme was our studio, so that was just incredible. I mean, the police department would, like, pull up in a car when we needed one."
The "Parmalee" pilot was shot on a $6,800 budget, mostly self-funded by the filmmakers. The cast includes Waterhouse's husband, Dan Butler, who's perhaps best known for his role as macho sports-radio host Bulldog Briscoe on the TV series "Frasier." Norwich resident Gordon Clapp, who appeared as a detective in all 12 seasons of "NYPD Blue," plays the police chief of the fictional Vermont town of Parmalee.
Season one ends in cliff-hanger fashion, with several narrative threads left hanging. Griesemer estimated it would take a minimum of $10,500 to start production on a second season. Just in case benefactors emerge, he's already begun writing scenarios.
Bucy is skeptical that season two will ever get off the ground.
"I would be shocked if it happens," he said, citing doubts about fundraising prospects. But, he quickly added, "If John and Faith are game," and the money materializes, "I'll definitely be there to shoot it and work on it."
With the lunch hour fast approaching, O'Connor-Genereaux informed Griesemer and Ingbretson that they had time for just one more attempt at the "Little Beeri's" opening crane shot. Any further tries would force them to drop a different shot from the film altogether. Take five had again been foiled by poor music synching. Take six was nearly perfect, but Catlin briefly moved out of the light.
The wagon was rolled into its starting position. The actors took their places. The fog machines started billowing.
"Action!" the assistant director called.
This time everything clicked. Griesemer started the music earlier. The lighting never faltered. Catlin sang her heart out.
"It will work," Griesemer announced to no one in particular when the scene ended.
There was no time for backslapping, though. O'Connor-Genereaux told the codirectors they had five minutes to plan the next shot.
Griesemer knelt and began tracing lines in the dirt. Using pebbles as stand-ins for the actors, he and Ingbretson blocked the scene, which involved the pickpocketing of a soldier. In less than five minutes, they had their shot, and the "Little Beeri's" cast and crew marched down the road to the next camera setup.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Valley of the Dollies"