FERRISBURGH — Gerianne Smart first got to know Walter Hacks in the milking parlor of a Waterbury Center dairy.
Moving among the cows, dairy farmer George Woodard told his friend about Hacks in fits and spurts: The fictional character was 11 years old, a tenacious Vermont farm boy infatuated with Westerns and a speed demon on a bicycle.
It turned out that Hacks and his story had been rattling around in Woodard’s head for some time — and it wasn’t long before Smart, a Ferrisburgh resident, was equally infatuated.
Soon, she found herself periodically calling up Woodard, brimming with ideas for the story that would eventually become “The Summer of Walter Hacks,” a movie that premiered at the Green Mountain Film Festival in March and is continuing its march through various local film festivals this spring.
“I told him, ‘We’ve got to write this down,’” Smart said, remembering one early conversation in Woodard’s barn.
To her surprise, Woodard pulled out a manila folder, thick with the “teat wipes” traditionally used to clean a dairy cow’s udder in the milking parlor. Over the years, he’d scrawled notes on unused napkins, filing them away for the day when someday he’d get to make the film he’d been dreaming of.
Together, Smart and Woodard co-wrote the script for the film. With Woodard in the director’s chair, and Smart serving as producer, the two forged ahead on a shoestring budget to take Walter’s story from the milking parlor to the silver screen.
Smart is a newcomer to film, but her training is in the dramatic arts: She attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, and performed in many off-Broadway productions while living in New York. Once in Vermont, Smart played a pivotal role in the renovation of the Vergennes Opera House — a job that prepared her, she said, for becoming the producer of a feature-length movie.
Woodard had a history in the theater, too. He’d performed in plays and films, and had started a theater company, called the Woodchuck Theatre Company.
That neither had ever made a film before wasn’t an obstacle, as far as Smart or Woodard could see.
“Life prepares you, without you knowing it, for the next thing,” Smart said.
The film will include plenty of familiar sights for Addison County viewers. The exterior of Vergennes and North Ferrisburgh buildings, including the Vergennes Opera House, feature prominently. Another scene was shot in Charlotte at a railroad overpass.
The faces are familiar, too. In a church scene shot in Ferrisburgh, regular parishioners stare out at the camera. The film’s leads are all Vermonters as well.
The movie stars Woodard’s son, Henry Woodard, who was Walter Hacks’ fictional age when filming for the movie began. Smart said that Henry took after his father, who worked as an actor for years before returning to run his family’s farm.
As the film’s title suggests, the movie follows 11-year-old Walter over the course of one summer. It’s 1952, and Walter and his older brother live on a dairy farm in rural Vermont. Their summer is turned upside down when tragedy strikes on the farm, and Walter and his brother find themselves growing up fast.
At the heart of the story is Walter’s transition from childhood to adulthood, and the murky line he walks between the two stages of his life. Though saddled with running his family’s farm, Walter remains a child at heart: He slips off to town to watch Westerns, imagining his bicycle to be his trusty steed and his slingshot to be his pistol.
“He never loses his playfulness,” Smart said.
Smart said she was drawn into the project in large part because of the “grittiness” of the story: Walter’s coming-of-age story is tinged with true sadness, something Smart thinks has largely been erased from the anesthetized stories told to and about children today.
“This is real,” she said.
Henry’s main companion in the film is the young actress Francesca Blanchard (how old? 10 or 20?), who plays Margaret. During the filming of the movie, Henry and Blanchard’s friendship blossomed in much the same way that Walter and Margaret’s relationship evolved; Smart said that natural evolution added depth to the two young actors’ rapport on screen.
Though the child actors took to the screen naturally, there was one particularly large challenge involved with shooting such young main characters: Henry kept growing.
Filming began in the summer of 2004, continued that winter with indoor scenes, and concluded the following summer. Over the course of that time, Henry outgrew Walter’s distinctive overalls and beloved bicycle.
That made for some creative filmmaking as the shooting wore on. Sometimes it meant recruiting a neighborhood kid to play Walter in a long shot, pedaling like mad down a city street. At one point it meant Smart herself donned the overalls to jump from a hay bale in a distant frame.
A COMMUNITY EFFORT
At times, the project ran into seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Smart remembers calling a movie-industry insider in Hollywood and describing one of the film’s pivotal moments, which had not yet been shot.
The elaborate scene included chasing a train along a set of tracks. (In reality, the shoot was perfectly safe, Smart said, though it ends up looking daring and risky on screen.)
“That’s a million-dollar shot,” the film executive told Smart.
Instead, the film was financed with favors and volunteers. The owners of old 1950s cars and farm equipment stepped forward to volunteer their antiques as props. Old clothes salvaged from musty closets were used for costumes. Those authentic details, plus the fact that the film was shot in black and white, contribute to the authenticity Woodard and Smart strove for. According to Smart, they wanted the film to feel as though it were actually made in 1952, tucked away in a tin for decades, and just discovered.
Between the actors, the volunteers and the help and generosity of the community, Smart said the film was simply “the right convergence of people and talent.”
The film came with its costs. Altogether the filmmakers spent about $6,000 shooting the movie, and close to $30,000 in post-production. (The largest expenses were incurred in getting the rights to film clips and songs included in the movie, like a section of the classic Western “Red River.”)
Some of that money came from Woodard’s Woodchuck Theatre Company. Some came from Smart and Woodard’s own piggy banks. But the investment was worth it, Smart said. Not making the film wasn’t an option, particularly after a reading of the script early on. At that point, something clicked.
“You just know,” Smart recalled. “We said, ‘We’ve got something here.’”
So far, audiences agree. Smart and Woodard screened “The Summer of Walter Hacks” in St. Johnsbury last weekend, and Smart was astounded when one movie-goer returned after seeing the matinee to sit through the two-hour movie a second time that same evening, telling the producer that the film had restored his faith in filmmaking.
Other audience members marveled that each shot in the film was like a photograph, beautifully composed and visually arresting.
Now, Smart and Woodard are sending the film out to various film festivals. They hope that a distributor might pick up the film for more widespread distribution — but until then they’re simply excited to share the story with audiences. Locally, that will mean a “sneak peek” preview of the film on May 22, with showings at the Vergennes Opera House at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Smart’s been moved to see how emotional the film makes many viewers, too. Walter’s story gets at what she called a “universal truth”: At some point, every child lets go of the child within themselves. In “The Summer of Walter Hacks,” Walter is walking that line with resiliency and spunk.
“Everybody was an 11-year-old kid at one point,” Smart said. “You root for Walter.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com.