Herron grad debuts feature film

A shot from the teaser for the movie "Whelm."View print quality image
Enjoy a frame from the teaser of "Whelm," Herron grad Skyler Lawson's feature directorial debut. Watch the film's teaser trailer. Photo courtesy of Skyler Lawson

If you're a fifth-generation farmer in small-town Indiana, your career is typically predetermined at your conception. You're going to get up before the sun rises, toil in the fields all day and earn your livelihood by the sweat of your brow.

Skyler Lawson's career has been anything but typical, though farm life did instill in him the legendary work ethic the ones who feed us are known for.

For decades, Lawson's family worked a corn and soybean farm in Wabash, dating back to the Great Depression. That time of scarcity imparted virtues to his ancestors that were passed down to him over the generations.

"Take pride in your work, persevere in what you say you're going to do and don't be wasteful," Lawson said. "We need to realize the generation who lived through that time had virtues that would serve us well and tell us how we should be cautious."

Blazing his own trail, Lawson enrolled in the Herron School of Art and Design to earn a degree in painting, eventually graduating with a visual communications degree in 2012. From there he went into the advertising industry, but he found a love for making films.

Starting in short film, Lawson built a network of cast and crew members from across the country. After working with Lawson just one time, they would express interest in any future projects he had in the pipeline.

Having grown up in rural Indiana, Lawson wanted to tell a story worthy of its storied past. Without a big-studio budget, he reached out to his network of colleagues and asked if they'd be interested in shooting a movie in Indiana.

They were.

Even if there was no payday at the end?

It didn't matter. They respected Lawson's work and drive so much that they were willing to do it pro bono.

And what better place to film your directorial debut than in your hometown?

"Whelm" is the story of two brothers during the Great Depression, struggling to make ends meet, who get caught in a rivalry between a famous bank robber and a young upstart criminal.

You shouldn't have to think long about who that famous Hoosier bank robber is. In fact, he's been in the news lately because his remains are being exhumed at the end of the year.

"I'll come out and say it -- John Dillinger," Lawson confessed. "I grew up in a town where Dillinger spent a lot of time. He robbed a police station 10 minutes from my house, he hid out really close to where I grew up, and, in a lot of ways, we're filming where he was."

There's no shortage of tall tales about Dillinger's escapades in the region. Lawson's in-laws speak of a car tearing through the prairie in the 1930s, so fast that it had to be Dillinger's, because no one else had that kind of money.

"We were putting all these family stories together, and we threw in characters that don't exist in history and put them right next to people who do exist in history, linked them up to events that actually happened, and from there we let it go to be its own thing," Lawson said.

With a budget well under $100,000 and a crew so small he could count them on both hands, Lawson still needed help to create the film his script deserved.

And the people of Wabash delivered.

A shot from the movie "Whelm," featuring a group of men in 1933-era costuming.View print quality image
This scene was filmed in 2018, but it looks like you're in 1933. Photo courtesy of Skyler Lawson

After posting a callout in the town's newspaper detailing what he needed to shoot the movie, the responses poured in, with offers for everything from housing and preparing meals for the cast and crew to loaning 1933-era cars to be in the film. Lawson ended up with five classic cars, and the group enjoyed meals that his colleagues from New York called "the best craft services table we've ever had."

To repay the townspeople's generosity, Lawson credited them in the film and invited them out to see the film being shot.

"We had a crowd of people used to watching high school football games who got to see a movie being made," Lawson said. "Those were the streets I used to walk as a kid -- down the street from Eagles Theatre, where I'd go to see movies. That was a special moment for me."

Lawson's crew filmed the entire film, more than 110 minutes long, in just 14 days, sometimes shooting five scenes a day. The cast and crew all stayed in the same house, cooked for each other, and spent every waking moment with one another. In a region with suspect cellphone reception, it felt like going back in time to summer camp.

"Even though everyone would be exhausted after working 11- or 12-hour days, we'd still stay up late telling stories over a meal or watching a movie," Lawson said. "The morale was high, and it was the best two weeks of my life."

That camaraderie lent itself to making an emotionally compelling movie. Everyone was close and connected to each other, and that brought better acting chemistry.

Lawson prefers to shoot on film, and he ended up with almost 50,000 feet of it from the two-week span. He spent a year piecing it together, turning down paid projects to focus on his feature.

As a part of the Heartland Film Festival, the world premiere of "Whelm" will screen at 7:15 p.m. Oct. 13 at The Toby in Newfields. The film will be shown again at 7:10 p.m. Oct. 17 at the AMC theater in Castleton Square.