I had the unique opportunity to work on a short film called “Bulletproof Jackson” for the camp Zeno Mountain Farm a few days over the last two weeks. It was one of those things that I had no idea what it would be like when director Peter Lazarus had asked me about my interest in shooting a couple days of a Western for a special needs camp, but I told him it sounded like a great cause and I’d do it if I happened to be available. And when the time came around to shoot, I was available – and I am so glad that I was. Zeno Mountain Farm is a camp in Vermont for people of all ages and a wide range of disabilities. Every year they make a trip to Venice to shoot a short film to let the campers have an experience acting and putting together a short film. In years previous Pete and camp director Will Halby shared most of the filmmaking duties, but this year they decided to pull all the stops and add some production value to the shoot, and that is where I came in. Things were pretty vague as Pete and I started to prep and scout for the Western portion of the movie which they were bringing me on to shoot. We scouted a place called Pioneertown for our Western bar and town location which happens to be a little ways out of LA near Joshua Tree. It was a fantastic location, and I would find out more about how we would use it as we were still waiting on the script.
It wasn’t until a few days later that I received the script. It was about a young man who own a bar that belonged to his great great great grandfather Bulletproof Jackson – and his ownership is threatened by a professional poker player who wants to turn the bar into a casino. The story flashes back and forth between the creation of the legend of “Bulletproof Jackson” and his great great great grandson who is trying to make sure he holds onto the family legacy of the bar. The script initially struck me as rather ambitious – especially as I knew that the budget was barebones and finding crew to trek all the way out to Pioneertown was going to be difficult. Thankfully most of the Western portion took place in the old saloon, I was able to get equipment through Leonetti Company and was joined by camera assistant extrordinaire Stephen Taylor Wehr (Detention of the Dead, Drones).
While most of my concerns were based on the limited size of our production team (i.e. me and Stephen), many of them started to be relieved as I sat in on the read through of the script at the Zeno Venice headquarters. From that very gathering I knew that this was going to be a special experience that I would not regret for a moment, no matter what the challenges would be. The way that these films work is that they are cast with both campers (with disabilities ranging from Downsyndrome to Cerebralpalsy to Aspergers) and councilors (who were a mix of actors and models and artists). It was pretty special to see these people get to partake in the making of a movie that wasn’t about their disability – it was just a MOVIE and they were the cast! I cannot fully express how cool the experience was. It was stressful at times because I was trying to get as much production value as possible – so I was running around hanging points, placing lights and running distro. Not to mention controlling the look and camera operating. All the while there was a 7 man HBO Documentary crew shooting a doc on the camp and their movie! With help from another DP friend of Will’s we were able to get all the work done that we needed to out in Pioneertown and all that was left for me to help shoot was the final modern day poker game and the final shootout the following week. All of the actors did a great job, and even added some hysterical improv to round out their roles. The real backbones of this Western shoot were Jeremy Vest who played Bulletproof Jackson and a fellow named Zach who played his nemesis Grimm (Zach also played the role of the modern day card shark).
My portion of the shoot finished with getting a chance to play with the new(ish) Canon C300 with my Olympus Primes at 60FPS for the final modern day poker and Western shootout scenes which were being intercut. In an industry that is so inherently selfish as the entertainment industry, it felt so good to be a part of something with a larger humanitarian goal while still getting to practice my craft. The merging of those two things was extremely rewarding. I know that I am going to be looking forward to working on another short with this group next year, though we might have to bring in a little bit more pre-production and structure! I’m proud of all the work that the campers did, continually impressing me with their ability to stay focused and involved. I also got to meet some Middlebury College Alums who are involved with the camp – such a small world.