With an important Dec. 3 deadline for the Connecticut Studios project fast approaching, a South Windsor High graduate reminded the community recently that it doesn’t take a sprawling studio complex to get a movie made in town.
Director Justin Liberman, South Windsor High ‘98, recently wrapped up shooting “Tobacco Burn” in town as his Columbia University thesis film.
And though it was a 15-minute graduate film shot over the course of just six days on a $35,000 budget, the production was nothing short of impressive.
The film - a period piece set in 1830s Kentucky - tells the tale of a slave community that deals with the ramifications of a brutal killing.
Taking advantage of the generosity of several South Windsor families (including the Borduas and Shepards), Liberman and his cast and crew of about 50 people shot the film on tobacco farms located on Main Street near Strong Road.
The leads are professional actors Stephen Tyrone Williams and Julian Rozzelle Jr., whose credits include a recurring role on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
The Main Street locale is one that Liberman said that he has had in mind for a movie since he was in high school.
“It’s easy to be romantic about old Main Street,” Liberman said on the last night of filming on Nov. 9. “It’s so beautiful. I always came down here as a source of inspiration. I always knew the rich history that was down here.”
It’s also the culmination and combination of years of hard work and fantasy for Liberman.
“This is the closest I’ve ever operated to the dreams of being a filmmaker,” Liberman said. “That idea I had of being a film director as a little kid. This is closest I’ve ever gotten to realizing that dream. It feels like a dream come true.”
That dream could not have been made a reality but for two things: obtaining a $13,000 development grant award from Columbia University to film the project (the rest of the funds came from a Kickstarter campaign as well as personal money from Liberman and the producer) as well as the generosity of South Windsor residents not just in allowing filming on location, but also housing many cast and crew members along Main Street.
“The first phone call I made after calling Alvaro [Vaente, the producer], I called James King, who is a grandson of the Shepard family,” Liberman said. “I knew I needed his support and his cooperation. … It was a great opportunity to reconnect and get him excited about the project. His parents … they really responded to my respect and excitement about the tobacco culture here. All the people on Old Main Street appreciated my enthusiasm and my commitment to utilizing what they’ve grown up with.”
Valente said that the project could not have been made on the budget the team had without South Windsor residents “from Town Hall, to the fire department, to the Rotary Club to the Shepard family” stepping up to donate everything from set pieces to portable bathrooms.
“Main Street opened their doors and hosted the crew and cast; they gave us everything including food and drinks and snacks,” said Valente, who added that having access to the farms made the sets unusually high quality for a student film. “Without the town’s donations, this film would have been double the cost.”
Residents, in turn, got the opportunity to see how movies get made. They were treated to seeing the filming of one scene in which an actor was thrown into a fire - actually onto a bed set up between two fires blazing - by two other actors.
“It’s been a great diversion,” said Main Street resident Anne King, who had cast and crew members stay in her home. “It’s exciting to see the dedication and professionalism of this group. I’m impressed with the amount of work and the organization.”
King wasn’t the only one impressed with the project. Virtually everyone who commented on “Tobacco Burn” raved about the production quality - from the script to the sets to the acting and directing -as well as the professionalism on the set.
“It’s pretty intense,” said co-producer Nicole Delaney. “It’s been a lot of stress and it’s been a lot of work. You think you have enough experience, then you work on something like this. I have learned so much.”
Liberman also credited production designer Bridget Rafferty for her ingenuity in making “Tobacco Burn” look so good
But while shooting ended a couple of weeks ago, the work has only just begun, with the arduous process of editing still ahead. The film is set to open at the Columbia University Film Festival in May 2013, said Liberman, who also teaches film courses at Sacred Heart University.
“I’m going out to LA for two months, hopefully i’ll be able to produce a rough cut in that time, and then come back to New York in January and start tinkering with it,” Liberman said. “It’s all stressful. There’s nothing smooth or easy about this. But, like I said, if you are passionate and love what you do, then it’s all good.
“I’m happiest when I’m doing this.”