Boebel's "Red Betsy" portrays a different Wisconsin
In the star-studded 1999 film "Dogma," Ben Affleck and Matt Damon portray ex-angels banished to a place considered "worse" than Hell by current angel Metatron (Alan Rickman). That place is Wisconsin.
As one of the religiously oriented comedy's greatest laugh lines, the comment is about standard when it comes to references to America's Dairyland in feature films. That attitude makes the flattering and compassionate look at a 1940s Wisconsin family all the more unique in the Lang Films production "Red Betsy," a movie that hits Wisconsin theaters Fri., Sept. 19.
"For people on the coast and people who work in film and television, there's a tendency to think of the Midwest as flyover country," says writer and director Chris Boebel, who based the 98-minute narrative feature on a short story written by his father, Charles. "Unfortunately, when you do see a Midwestern story on screen, very often there's sort of a mocking edge to it. You almost never see a portrayal of the Midwest that isn't digging at its remoteness."
Boebel says he made a conscious effort to buck that trend in his tale, a story that attracted actors such as Alison Elliott ("The Wings of the Dove"), Leo Burmester ("The Abyss"), Lois Smith ("Minority Report"), Chad Lowe ("Unfaithful") and William Wise ("In The Bedroom"). The film also includes Wisconsin-based actors Carrie Van Deest and Nathan Connor, among others.
"Everything turns out differently in some way or another, because the actors bring so much to it, so much that you don't imagine or imagine differently," Boebel says. "It's sort of the humanity of Winifred (played by Elliott) and Emmett (Burmester) that makes certain scenes work because they're based on such tiny moments. That humanity comes from Alison and Leo. On the page it's nothing compared to what they make it."
Pivoting around the relationship between the intelligent and ambitious Winifred and her father-in-law Emmett, a gruff and stubborn traditionalist, "Red Betsy" captures a time surrounded by looming progress during and shortly after World War II. Connected by the loss of Dale Rounds (newcomer Brent Crawford), Winifred's husband and Emmett's son, in the conflict, as well as the birth of Winifred's daughter Jane, the two central characters face the challenge of reconciling their differences within the tightly knit farm community they consider home.
"I've lived in New York for the past 15 years and it seems like every time I mention Wisconsin, people mention cheese or 'Laverne and Shirley,'" says producer Andrew Lang, who also considered Wisconsin home for 19 years. "And there's so much more. The film really portrayed the quality of the people of Wisconsin."
It was Lang who suggested the film be maintained as a feature film after Boebel had scripted two versions -- one full-length and one for PBS as a one-hour telefilm. The move allowed greater exploration of the characters initially created by his father, composites of people he had known during his childhood on a farm in Boscobel, Wisconsin. Charles Boebel initially wrote the story to forge a link with his past, and Chris Boebel said the task of bringing his father's work to life was daunting.
"It was intimidating," Chris Boebel says. "The first time I gave him a draft of the script, I was really nervous; he was a little enigmatic about it after the first draft. Accuracy was most important -- he has a very vivid memory, he knows what people said how they behaved and what they would and wouldn't have done."
Lang says local residents of Delafield, where the film was shot last winter, assisted in providing clothing and other objects from the time period, a response that helped thaw the bitter weather facing the cast and crew.
"It was incredibly cold," says Crawford, currently a New York resident. "I had lived in Atlanta for seven years, so I'd gotten completely out of winter mode, and it was my first real winter back [in the north]. I thought it was going to be easier because in New York you have to walk everywhere ... I thought 'I'll be in a car or some sort of van.' But when we would shoot outside and you're waiting for lots of things to take place, you're out there for hours and hours."
Crawford, who legitimately flew in the hand-built airplane known as "Red Betsy" that his character pilots at the outset of the story, says he thought the film chronicled the atmosphere of war-minded America perfectly.
"It's such a strong time period, such an on-the-nose portrayal of a time period of lost innocence," he says. "For a lot of people in this film, this isn't their first endeavor, but it's the one that they're hoping to take them to the next level."
Lang says attaining that next level is a difficult task. "The whole process is extremely challenging but anything that's important to you in life often becomes challenging," he says. "Often people think making a film is glamour, and there are parts of that to it, but the glamour is what you see on 'Entertainment Tonight.' The nuts and bolts of actually producing a film is not glamorous, it's a lot of sitting around and construction.
"Yet the entire process is all very magical, from script to distribution. Whenever you see a film being made, there's a crowd all around it, and there's a magical lure."
Boebel hopes the lure translates well on screen, particularly for Wisconsinites.
"We really see it as a midwestern story," Boebel says. "Obviously it's made about the people of Wisconsin and the upper Midwest more generally, and we feel like that's its natural home. The decision was made to open it in Wisconsin, and I would be thrilled if it found a wider audience -- there's universal themes and ideas that appeal across geographic boundaries -- but the idea of starting in the Midwest is appropriate."
Having already earned praise outside of Wisconsin after receiving the "Best Narrative Feature" award at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson, Miss., as well as a glowing review in the Wisconsin State Journal, the film's trailer also preceded viewings of recent box office smash "Seabiscuit" in state theaters. After its premiere as a whole film in September, the film's distributors will seek to market the film outside the state.
"It's been a really exciting experience, it's like a five or six year journey at this point, and to finally see it on screen is tremendously exciting," Boebel says. "I hope the audience can come away with something and I hope we manage to communicate."
"Red Betsy" runs again at Landmark's Downer Theatre, Fri., Oct. 19-Fri., Nov. 6.
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