Bluegrass and related forms of old time and mountain music have long figured prominently in film. Perhaps it is the honesty and organic nature of the music that lends itself so well to use as a score, or the fact that it can be played anytime, anywhere that musicians congregate, without the need for a sound system that conveys something that filmmakers recognize. In any event, documentaries about the music and the people who play it are legion these days when technology has democratized the process of film production as it has so many other things.
There is a new film currently in production that takes the power of this music and harnesses it to tell a story about Appalachian culture over the course of five generations in a single family. But instead of a documentary told in pictures and sound, this one is a narrative drama using a particular fiddle handed down across multiple generations as the arc of the story.
The Mountain Minor comes from the mind of Dale Farmer, an old time music playing native of eastern Kentucky. His goal with the film is to demonstrate that there is more to the Appalachian experience than coal mining, drug addiction, and poverty, and that the region has produced many hard working people who built strong families doing what people do everywhere else in the world.
The story starts in Ohio as a farming family makes plan to migrate from Jackson County, KY in 1932. One of the items they bring on the trip is an old fiddle which is given in turn to young members of each successive generation. Over the course of the story, it goes with them from Kentucky to Ohio, then down to North Carolina and back up to being played on stage in modern day Cincinnati.
Farmer’s film is a fictionalized telling but based on many true events. He stresses, though, that it isn’t a real family history but a more general history of the time and the migrant families who came from the mountains during the depression.
It started life envisioned as a short, but Dale says the story was just too big for that format.
“The Mountain Minor will be a feature length film. I want to try and highlight the music, the scenery, and the culture throughout. We started off seeing it as a 30 minute short film, and I had hoped to get it into some film festivals, but we couldn’t really keep it short enough to be a short. The actors and the film company encouraged me to fill in some of the holes, and now I can’t imagine it without them.”
One particularly interesting aspect of this film is Farmer’s decision to teach experienced old time musicians to act rather than hire actors to try and “fake” being musicians. String players know the difficulty with suspension of disbelief when watching a film scene where an actor’s hands are moving along an instrument without any relation to the sounds being produced, or when all you see is close ups of the hands without ever seeing the character actually playing. Given the centrality of music to the story, he considered it crucial to see them making music together on screen. It’s a tough call for a filmmaker, but Dale says it is working for them.
“I figured that if I took professional musicians who are used to performing, that musicians would make better actors than actors make musicians. When we started they weren’t so good, but things have gotten much better and I think they will do very well. At this stage we are working on dialect coaching in preparation for final filming.
He is filming this project in North Carolina, using the services of a film company called Wonderland Woods. Paul Hallach is the Director of Photography, Jerry Sebastian is doing Sound Design, and Eitan Abramowitz will serve as Editor.
They have created a trailer though final production isn’t scheduled until this fall. Old time music fans may recognize several of the performers.
It is set for a premiere next year at the Appalachian Studies convention in Cincinnati, OH in April of 2018. After that first screening, Farmer plans to take the film on tour, bringing along some of the actor/musicians to both talk about the process and play some of the music from the film in person for the audiences.
He also makes plain that the film’s name isn’t meant to conjure up a play on words for “miner,” one of the chief images many folks have of Appalachia, but instead to reference the somber sound that the old mountain tunes can evoke.
“The movie says a lot about the Appalachian culture, and the breadth and depth of the migrant culture. Not everyone was poor or drug addicted. I’m highlighting that aspect of the migrant culture, hard work and strong families.
My grandfather quit playing the fiddle after he grew up, and I asked him why. He said that he was working two jobs and was living a hard life ,and he just didn’t have the time. I went and got an old fiddle, put some strings on it, and took it to one of our family bluegrass jams. I put it in his hands and old him, ‘play it!’ He retuned it into some cross tuning and played a very haunting modal tune that just went through me. I think the title came from there. The transcendence of the music that affects people through the generations.
He had told me once that as a kid he had three things – work, church, and music. That’s the life I’m trying to convey”
More information about The Mountain Minor can be found on its web site. Dale promises to update us as the film progresses.