Oscar-nominated director starts shooting latest film in La Porte County
By Andrew Tallackson
GALENA TOWNSHIP – Grace Tarnow stands at the edge of a pond, silent at first, then singing a haunting melody. She turns to face Dorothy Tristan, who sits at a nearby picnic table.
Tarnow, still singing, heads over to the table when Tristan interrupts her, offering a bit of constructive criticism. Tarnow appears defensive, but minutes later, the two hug, neither one letting go.
The ensuing silence is broken by Director John Hancock, who shouts, “Cut. OK. Let’s do it again.” Hair and makeup crew arrive to touch up the actresses, while First Assistant Director Ryan Juszkiewicz shouts out a reminder for everyone to remain quiet on the set.
The action is part of the first day of shooting for “Swan Song,” the latest movie by Hancock and Tristan and their fourth production shot in the area after “Prancer” (1989), “A Piece of Eden” (1999) and “Suspended Animation” (2001). Upwards of 70 cast and crew were at Hancock’s Galena Township farm on Friday to shoot six to seven scenes.
Produced through FilmAcres, the director’s La Porte County production company, the screenplay was written by Tristan, who also plays Karen, a former star of stage and screen who may be suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. When her 13-year-old granddaughter, Julie (Tarnow, who attends La Porte’s Kesling Middle School), comes to live with her, the two find themselves at odds. Then, Karen discovers Julie has a powerful singing voice, one that helps her score the lead role in a stage production of “Alice in Wonderland.” That triumph bonds grandmother and granddaughter together in ways they never imagined.
The eight-week shoot, which runs through Aug. 13, will include locations in La Porte, Michigan City, South Bend and Three Oaks, Mich.
Save for Tristan, whose screen credits include “End of the Road” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” the cast is made up of regional talent.
In fact, featured in the first scene shot for the movie early Friday was Vicki Cash, a frequent performer with Michigan City’s Footlight Players. Cash plays Marge, Karen’s closest friend. She arrived on the set at 6:15 a.m. for the 7 a.m. shoot. Her scene involved hanging clothes on a line, an image Hancock wanted to capture as the sun rises.
Cash admits to having been nervous while driving to the set, but once there, everyone put her at such ease, she felt no anxiety once the cameras were rolling. In fact, with her scene completed, she was filled with good humor.
“Imagine, an actress of my stature hanging laundry. Seriously,” Cash said with tongue firmly planted in cheek before erupting with laughter.
Cash also experienced something she found meaningful, a Russian tradition carried out by Hancock’s longtime cinematographer, Misha Suslov, who broke a plate as a sign of good luck, then handed out pieces of the plate to people as a gesture to inspire more good luck. Cash received one of those pieces.
“That was really neat,” Cash said.
For Tarnow, any signs of first-day jitters natural for a teen who has never acted before were nowhere present. Relaxed, she joked around on the set with Tristan and chatted with her mother, Laurie.
Moments before her first scene was to begin shooting, Grace Tarnow still appeared at ease. Her main goal, she said, was to come across as real as possible.
Laurie Tarnow, however, was bursting at the seams.
“This is so exciting,” she said.
With the camera focused on Tristan and Grace, the two then let the action unfold by the pond. They would end up doing the scene numerous times, particularly so the crew could position the cameras at different spots to capture the drama.
By the time Hancock wrapped up the scene, Grace was all smiles.
“That was awesome,” she said. “I’m so relieved.”
Hancock was pleased as well. Asked if he had any first-day jitters, even after more than 40 years of directing movies, he let out a chuckle.
“Sometimes on a picture, my nerves would act up while driving to the set. But as you can see,” he said, gesturing to his house just feet away, “I didn’t have that problem this morning.”