In 2005, Ben Hickernell released an experimental micro-budget feature called “Cellar,” which played in four North American festivals and won five awards, including two “Best Feature” prizes. A freelance producer and DP for various Philadelphia media companies, Hickernell juggled running his own production company – Reconstruction Pictures – with working on his next film: a full-fledged feature debut called “Lebanon, Pa.”
The hard work payed off – “Lebanon, Pa.” premiered earlier this year at the South by Southwest film festival to strong positive reviews, and will travel next to Traverse City to screen at next week’s festival. The film tackles some controversial issues, including teen pregnancy and abortion, with thoughtful humor and grace – as Hickernell himself said in a recent phone interview, “Not everyone agrees with each character’s decisions, but there seem to be people who relate to each character.”
Traverse City Film Festival: The tone and subject matter of “Lebanon, Pa.” is a significant departure from your first film, “Cellar,” which was a thriller. What inspired the concept for this film and made you to want to tell this particular story?
Ben Hickernell: It isn’t based on anything from my life directly. I wasn’t pregnant as a teenager, obviously. But it came from my heart, and I wrote it to tell a story I deeply care about. It was my attempt to explore some divisive issues in a personal way. People often focus on the division with topics like this – I wanted to zoom in and explore how these issues actually affect individuals. It’s not meant to be a political film. People can see it and draw their own conclusions at the end.
TCFF: The theme of morality is present throughout the film – characters having to decide what’s right or wrong and dealing with the consequences accordingly. How did your own moral values influence those portrayed in the film?
BH: (Pauses) I’m not sure. I tried to look at how each character views these issues and made sure their decisions make sense to them, rather than reflect my opinions. For example, Andy really cares about family, and his pro-life views come from the fact he’s had to fight tooth and nail to raise his kids, and he’s trying to be the best father he can. Each character has their own moral compass.
TCFF: Have you found that audience members’ personal beliefs have influenced how they react to the film?
BH: We’re just starting to get out there, so that’s a journey I’m looking forward to going on. But of those who have seen it so far, in the industry and at South by Southwest, there have been many people coming up or writing to us saying they were affected by it. The great thing about that is the diversity of people who’ve responded.
What’s unique about the film is that it honestly portrays what a women goes through when she makes this decision (how to respond to a pregnancy), rather than having her mind made up from the beginning like in many movies. CJ is a responsible girl – she’s a good student, a loving daughter. Not everyone agrees with each character’s decisions, but there seem to be people who relate to each character.
TCFF: Many of the reviews of “Lebanon, Pa.” have talked about its cinematography, which is quite polished compared to the low-budget aesthetic found in many independent films. How did the technical aspects of the film – the choice of camera equipment and cinematographer – help you tell this story?
BH: We used the Red camera, which is a great piece of technology. We were lucky to get it early on when there were only a few hundred of them out there. It was this new equipment most of us had never used, so there was a fun “OK, here we go” aspect to it. Ironically, we didn’t have the time or money to make it more “gritty.” We shot it in a way we thought best fit each scene – about 40% of the movie is handheld. Real life isn’t always rough and tumble, anyway. Sometimes you’re just sitting at the bar, having a drink.
I will say we did go for beauty in the film, because we were looking for those little moments of honesty that transform people. Will is returning to this town where his father died, a town that represents him. The beauty of the countryside after being in Philadelphia helps him reflect, so it was important to capture that beauty.
Obviously our DP MJ Schirmer and Gaffer Ben Kitchens had a lot to do with how well that beauty was captured, and we also worked a lot with our colorist in post, Rob Giglio, to craft the look of the film and give it that polished edge.
TCFF: Rachel Kitson will be joining you at the festival next week. Talk about your experience working with her on “Lebanon, Pa.” and what she brought to the film.
BH: She obviously brings a lot. She and Josh are the heart of the story. What’s amazing is that she had no experience outside of some high school and college theater. This is the only film she’s ever done. I was just lucky to find her, because she was originally at the bottom of the stack since she was non-union and hadn’t done anything else. But I think she has a great future of ahead of her. She’s confident but never arrogant, which is a wonderful quality.
TCFF: Do you have any other projects currently in the works?
BH: I have two scripts that I’m working on right now. I’d love to work on them more, but it’s kind of a one-man show here. As with anything with independent film, it all comes down to the money. (laughs) “Lebanon” was a house built brick-by-brick over five years, and I’m sure it will be the same with my next two films. But I do hope to tell more stories – it’s the thing I enjoy most in life.
Ben Hickernell will appear at next week’s festival with his film “Lebanon, Pa.,” which screens at Milliken Auditorium on Wednesday, July 28 at 12:00 p.m. and at Lars Hockstad Auditorium on Sunday, August 1 at 6:00 p.m. For ticket information, click here.