Filming for the third movie in the Fairfield History Series, this one on agriculture, is well underway.
Unexpected snowfall in early November put a bit of a damper on the camera crew, which was wrapping up its footage of the harvest.
“Most of our filming thus far has been on the farms, since that is the most time-sensitive element,” said producer Dick DeAngelis. “Now we’re moving indoors to film interviews. We’ve done about one-third of the interviews we need.”
DeAngelis expects to start editing the film in January, and to have it ready for public viewing in June.
He chose to focus this installment in the history series on agriculture because of the central role it has played in shaping Jefferson County’s economy and society. Today, more than 80 percent of the county is dedicated to agriculture in some form or another.
“If we don’t understand ag, we don’t really understand our county,” DeAngelis said.
DeAngelis hopes the film will connect viewers to their neighbors in the ag industry, and help them understand why farmers are such a tight-knit group. An example of that occurred recently when a farmer died, and his widow had no way to harvest the crop. A few brothers and their dad heard about the widow’s predicament and harvested her field for her. That story is in the movie.
DeAngelis wasn’t sure at first how eager farmers would be to talk to him, since he himself is not a farmer. But the success of his first two films, and his many years of running the All Things Italian Festival, have proven to be a great ice-breaker when attempting to secure shots or interviews.
He recalled one instance when he was trying to get footage of a farm from the road, and the landowner approached him, seeming a bit perturbed.
“Can I help you?” the man asked DeAngelis, who explained that he was gathering film for a documentary. “Oh, I know you! Come on over.”
The film will give viewers a window into the farming methods of Native Americans and early settlers. State historians and archeologists are helping DeAngelis do research for that part of the documentary. The film crew assembled a group of retired farmers who will share stories about growing up without electricity in the home or tractors, relying instead on horses to plow the field.
Modern farming is very much a part of the documentary, too. The film will show the various techniques employed today, including conventional and organic farming.
“Some farmers use cover crops while others don’t. Some use seeds that are different from their neighbors. Each farmer does it a little differently,” DeAngelis said.
Making the movie has been a learning experience for DeAngelis, too. While they were driving between shoots, associate producer Ann Gookin told him that a typical corn stalk produces only one to two ears of corn. DeAngelis was shocked.
“Dick didn’t believe me, so we had to stop the SUV on the side of the road to look at the corn,” Gookin recalled.
Gookin taught sixth-grade reading and language arts for 30 years at Fairfield Middle School before retiring last summer. One day, she delivered a package to DeAngelis’s house. Owing to her family’s deep roots in the community, DeAngelis asked if she’d like to help produce the documentary on ag.
“I had seen the first film, and I loved it so much,” Gookin said. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do in retirement, and I thought that if I could help promote Fairfield, that would be the greatest thing ever.”
Gookin’s father, Dwain Dooley, grew up on a farm and went on to become the principal at Washington Elementary School. He was interviewed for the film.
Gookin was the person who convinced DeAngelis to put the first two films on DVD. They started by ordering 200 copies of the second film, “Heroes of Fairfield.” They’ve sold enough copies to have covered their costs, so they just recently ordered DVDs of the first film, “Life Before Fairfield,” which were scheduled to arrive this week.
“If I were still teaching, I’d love to have these films in the classroom,” Gookin said. “I could use bits and pieces to tie Fairfield into the writing we’d be doing.”
After having done a few interviews, DeAngelis said he has a better sense of how to phrase questions to farmers. For instance, he once asked a farmer a seemingly innocent question about how many acres he had. The farmer bristled. DeAngelis learned the question was too personal, because it was essentially asking the man how much money he made.
One segment of the movie will touch on the Switzer family, who live on the oldest farm in Jefferson County. Decades ago, the family won an award for harvesting the most bushels per acre.
“At one time, if you got 100 bushels an acre, that was worthy of a celebration,” DeAngelis said. “Now farmers are getting close to 200 bushels an acre.”
Another segment will feature Roy Cowen Jr., who lives on the Jefferson-Van Buren County line and is one of the oldest farmers in the area. The production crew also got shots at Pine Creek Grist Mill outside Muscatine.
“The mill has four floors, all grinding corn, and they fired it up for us,” Gookin said. “That was pretty awesome.”
Jason Strong is the director of photography, so he’s usually the one behind the camera, working to set up the perfect shot. Other camera operators have chipped in, too. For this film, DeAngelis is employing extensive drone footage. He wants viewers to see the scale of the fall harvest, and to see the county’s beauty, its little ponds, picturesque farmsteads and vibrant colors.
Rene Holmberg owns the drone providing footage for the film. He and two assistants, Evan Masterson and Charlie Miller, operate the device. DeAngelis can see the footage the drone is getting in real time from a screen on the ground, and he uses that to give directions to the drone operators.
For one shot, DeAngelis wanted a time-lapse video of combines harvesting at night. He called in an expert in time-lapse videography, Sam Leib of the David Lynch Foundation. The local farmer stacked hay bales as high as he could in a stair-step pattern so that Leib could climb to the top. An hour of set up and an hour and a half of filming produced 20 seconds of footage.
No time to waste
Most of the outdoor filming in 2018 has focused on the harvest, because filming of the planting was done the year before. In fact, some footage in the documentary was taken as early as October 2016, before the first film was even done.
That’s been par for the course in this documentary series. DeAngelis’s goal is to produce a film every eight months, a breakneck pace considering other documentarians spend years at a time on a single film. That means he’s often thinking of shots for one or two movies in the future.
For instance, during the filming of this documentary on ag, DeAngelis has interviewed five alumni of Parsons College, the focus of the fifth film in his eight-part series. The next film, the fourth, will be about business and industry. DeAngelis has even interviewed someone for the sixth film, about Maharishi University of Management.
“When you’re doing history, you’ve got to grab it while you can,” he said. “We can’t afford to wait three years for these interviews.”
First two films
DeAngelis estimates that about 2,000 people have viewed the first two installments in the series. And now that they are both on DVD, that number will only grow.
The first film in the Fairfield History Series debuted in 2017 and was called “Life Before Fairfield.” It spoke to the area’s history before the arrival of Europeans, covering the Native American tribes that called the land home and showing audiences what the landscape looked like thousands of years ago.
The second film in the series came out over Memorial Day weekend and was called “Heroes of Fairfield.” It focused on locals who participated in the Underground Railroad, and others who have performed acts of heroism.
Even though the films focus specifically on Jefferson County, they have attracted plenty of attention from outside. The State Historical Museum of Iowa was so impressed with them that it plans to add the films to its collection in early 2019. DeAngelis said people from as far as Hawaii have written to him to say how much they enjoyed the documentaries, and how they hope a similar series could be done on their town.
DeAngelis is thankful for the donations and support that have come in, though the project can use more. He has received grants from the Local Option Sales Tax and the Greater Jefferson County Foundation.
“Lots of volunteers have stepped forward, and I’ve gotten checks from people I don’t even know,” he said. “We’re hoping the business and farming communities will support us. We’re getting recognized by people around the state. The more participation we get, the better the project will be. We want this to go down as something truly special.”
DeAngelis described the history series as providing a service for the community similar to what Susan Welty did in her 1968 book “A Fair Field.” The book chronicles Fairfield’s early history. In fact, the book’s title, splitting the town’s name in two, was the inspiration for DeAngelis to call his film company “Fair Field Productions.”
DeAngelis sees himself as “standing on the shoulders of giants,” such as Welty and her father Charles Jacobs Fulton.
“They were great historians,” he said. “I’m an aggregator. I bring historians together.”
To learn more about the series or to donate to it, visit www.fairfieldmediacenter.com/fairfieldhistoryseries.