This is the first in a short series of features drawn from Donovan Wheeler’s lengthy interview with Reparation’s director Kyle Ham and screenwriter Steve Timm. Writing for both National Road Magazine and NUVO News, Wheeler will later share the two-decades Ham and Timm spent bringing the film to life, the challenges modern day filmmakers face in the digital era, and the fundamental themes the two men raise in the movie. In this installment they talk about the benefits of shooting in Western Indiana.
by Donovan Wheeler
photos courtesy of Kyle Ham and Red Dirt Pictures
In 1980 I roller skated at a once popular rink in Boulder, Colorado. I couldn’t tell you the name of the place, but I do remember the deep red rubber urethane floor. I remember stepping onto it, rolling across it (sort of), flailing for balance over it, and planting my face into it…frequently…for three solid hours. A year later, sitting with my family at my grandparents’ Indiana farmhouse on a mid-winter Thursday night, we watched an episode of Mork and Mindy which had been shot at the same roller-rink. I don’t recall a thing about the specific show other than snippets of Robin Williams mimicking all of my textbook skating moves in front of the camera. But what I do vividly remember is that surreal feeling of seeing a place where I had actually been—a place you indiscriminately claim as your own—on a screen.
A year later, I would experience a repeat of this phenomenon when the family gathered around our Zenith for a TV rerun of Steve Tesich’s Breaking Away. I suppose that people who live up and down the coasts, and in heavily filmed states such as Pennsylvania, are probably accustomed to this sensation. But out here both my small Midwestern town and the bucolic vista which surrounds it are virgin grounds for Hollywood’s arsenal of steady-cams. For this reason my first experience watching Reparation, the cinematic brainchild of writer Steve Timm and director/producer Kyle Ham, evoked a discordant mixture of nostalgia and detachment. The former comes from seeing my local stomping grounds in real life transformed into something idyllic and ethereal on film—a kind of Oz where the sun never stops shining, and the streets always seem just a bit more clean. The latter stems from the action in the film itself.
Reparation tells the story of former Air Force investigator Bob Stevens (Marc Menchaca) who wakes up in an institution haunted by the immediate aftereffects of a three year memory gap. Over the next dozen or more years, Stevens moves on with his life, settling in Indiana with his wife and daughter putting the plaguing questions of his past behind him. But when a mysterious colleague from those vacuous days (Castle’s Jon Huertas) returns, Stevens’ new life unravels drawing his family into the chaos which follows. For Ham and Timm, the decision to shoot Reparation in Indiana was not only an emotional one, it was from a financial perspective, risky as well. Somewhat notorious for its recent history of tax-unfriendly costs, Indiana is largely passed over by film crews. The problem went largely unnoticed until 20th Century Fox bypassed Indianapolis—the setting for John Green’s megahit novel, The Fault in Our Stars—for a shooting schedule in the much more affordable Pittsburgh backdrop.
Donovan Wheeler: Given the punitive financial impact of shooting in Indiana, why did you make Reparation here?
Kyle Ham: “There was a time when we talked…briefly…about shooting the film in Maryland. We’ve got a covered bridge in Maryland, and they have some tax incentives as well. But when you really break it down, the community here was where we could make up whatever we lost in tax dollars. Here we were going to work with an involved, interested community who was going to enjoy the process.”
Steve Timm: “Two years after we started writing together we shot a short film in Reelsville…this was the late ‘90s, I believe. Kyle was coming back quite often in those days to help me edit and whatnot. So, when you look at this from the longer view I think we’ve always known that Putnam County was the place where this story was going to have happened. And when we made the decision to go independent, we took a long look at the resources we had here which we wouldn’t have had at other locations. A big advantage was the university. We got to use their buildings and the campus setting for nothing. I approached the vice president and laid out everything we were going to do, and he supported us.”
DW: In what other ways does an interested community make up for lost dollars?
ST: “Well, for one thing, we had four interns who we absolutely relied on for tasks big and small. If we were shooting somewhere else, those four interns would have been assistants, which means we would have had to pay them. It’s like Kyle says: ‘You want your money to be on the screen.’ Additionally, every time we went to the community for help, they answered with, ‘What do you need?’ The sheriff’s department, the city council, the university… And Joe Buser and the people of Roachdale were a huge help, too. They not only let us use the site for the shoot, but they opened up the support building which we could use for off-camera work and to give the actors a place to wind down or get ready. So sure, we can say it’s a ‘low-budget’ movie, but if you were to add up the monetary cost of all that support we would be looking a film that’s a LOT more expensive. For that reason I don’t think we would have been able to shoot this if we had gone somewhere else.”
KH: “This also fit DePauw’s vision as well. Under President Casey, the university had been working toward more community engagement. So to have an alumnus, and a faculty member, working on a film in the community and on the university campus…this was something they valued as well.”
DW: You use a lot of local actors in this film. Is that common?
KH: “I think we did it more than usual, particularly casting one of the central characters in the film—Charlotte—with a local actor. And we were extremely fortunate to be able to find a child who could pull that off, especially in a town of 10,000 people. Furthermore, it was fortunate because, due to our small budget, hiring a child actor, flying her in, putting her up in a hotel—with her parents presumably—for several weeks…that wasn’t really an option for us.”
DW: You’re speaking of Dale Dye Thomas, who primarily plays the role of Bob Stevens’ daughter.
KH: “I’ve known Ron Dye for a long time, since just before his girls were born. And as we started plotting these kind of details, I turned to Steve and said, ‘You know…Ron has those twin girls. And if there’s any chance they can act, then that would solve our problems.’”
ST: “And having twins was helpful because it meant we could adhere to the laws limiting the amount of time child actors can work. So if we had a day run long, then Ella could step in. There are actually quite a few shots in the movie which showcase Ella because, quite frankly, we needed her.”
KH: “But the other factor that’s important is that, for a town as small as this one, it’s a rich pocket of talent. We were able to use Amy Hayes and Gigi Jennewein Fenlon, and we could do some casting right here. And even the people we used who weren’t actors, like Rob Best who owns the Dairy Castle…he’s great! I mean sure, he didn’t have to do a lot on camera, but even for a tiny little shot like that one…if you don’t deliver it well, it can take the audience right out of the film. If you don’t believe that one guy in that one little scene, then that’s when you remember you’re watching a movie. Then it’s over for you.”
DW: Your professional actors are all trained for the grind of camera-acting, but what was that like coordinating all of this and working through those long shooting days with people who mostly had stage experience?
KH: “The thing about transitioning from theater to film is that, for theater actors you can’t have too much repetition. By the time a stage actor is in front of an audience she’s rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed her performance. But if she’s on a movie shoot, she gets maybe a week or two of rehearsal, then she shoots the same scene seven times, and that’s it. That means that for film actors the pressure is on to ‘get there’ and ‘get there’ quickly. She just doesn’t have several weeks to refine her character. I think I should add that, even among the non-local cast, Virginia Newcomb and Marc Menchaca are both well-trained stage actors.”
ST: “And even though Jon Huertas is probably more of a camera-actor, he was a theater student when he went to TCU.”
KH: “That’s a great point. And I saw that often on the shoot. More than once I had the luxury of sitting back and letting the camera record, and letting everything unfold. There were some scenes we nailed in one shot because the actors were just that good. Many times editors rely on multiple takes to bring out what they need on the screen. And usually when we shoot something from several camera angles—over the shoulder, to the side, a front profile—by the end of that sequence people are nailing it well. But with these guys…we had that scene with Jon and Adam, just the two of them in a long, two-minute push it, and they really carried it ‘on the stage’ if you will rather than in the editing room.”
Filmed in less than a month, moving across a series of 31 locations, the decision to shoot locally provided more than acting talent and hospitality. For one thing, in what Ham and Timm hopes will prove fortuitous, the usually belligerent Hoosier weather actually cooperated. But even when logistical setbacks popped up, when the temperatures dropped to unseasonable lows deep into the evening, the team found ways to use that to heighten the tension evident on the screen. Posterity will determine whether Ham’s decision to bring his directorial debut to Indiana will prove a bold move cementing his career. But for now, those of us living here will have the opportunity to enjoy the rare experience of seeing the streets we tread and the people we know transformed into works of celluloid art.