A now or never moment comes for many filmmakers, but in the case of Rebecca Weaver, it was particularly obvious. The actress/writer/director had been writing a script based of the experience of losing her father a few years earlier and returning home to her native Wisconsin, only for Weaver, there might not literally have been any home to return to.
“[My parents] had always been planning to tear down that farmhouse,” says Weaver. “The front door handle was [always] falling off and [my mom] had to duct tape it back on and the basement flooded every time there was a big storm. It’s about a hundred years old and [my mom wanted] to make a home for herself [with] less upkeep, so [she] said, “Ok, we’re going to have one more summer in the cottage and then I’m going to tear it down.” And [I was thinking], “Nooooo, I wrote this script for that farmhouse.” Truth be told, we could’ve found another location, but it was the best excuse ever to start making an indie movie before we were ready and just make it happen.”
Rather than being caught unprepared, that can-do spirit lends an energy that couldn’t be achieved any other way to “June Falling Down,” which Weaver and her partner Chris Irwin took on almost entirely by themselves, with Weaver both in nearly every frame of the film and the one to call “action” and “cut” while Irwin held the camera and the boom mic. Still, they were hardly alone on set, letting the community of Door County flood into the story of June Larson (Weaver), who reluctantly returns to the Midwest after putting roots down in San Francisco for the wedding of her best friend Harley (Nick Hoover). While a happy occasion to be sure, June is surrounded by memories of her beloved father and slightly estranged from her mother (Claire Morkin), who’s barely recognizable after taking up reiki and seemingly further along in overcoming her grief than she is.
However, “June Falling Down” doesn’t linger in despair, with the spirit of the town and all its charming characters clearly out to win you over and even appearing capable of lifting June out of her rut as well. That quality has made it a favorite on the festival circuit after first having a hometown premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival and now after arriving on streaming services, Weaver reflected on the long journey of putting together a production completely independently, bringing friends and family she knew into the entirely different context of making a movie and how a professional triumph was birthed from such a trying time personally.
How did this come about?
I had started writing the story when I was actually a college student at NYU. I lost my dad in real life from cancer in 2009 and after that, in all my creative writing classes in college, it seemed like all my characters were dealing with grief. One of the stories I remember I was picturing more as a movie, so after college writing it more into a feature script with Door County, Wisconsin in mind. I imagined my family’s farmhouse, I imagined all the local bars that we love in Door County and over the span of writing, my boyfriend Chris Irwin and I started saying, “You know we really could make this.” This was around the time where we were watching the Duplass Brothers come up and early Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg, so we made a couple short films that were not great, but they gave us an idea of how we could do this one a really, really small budget and then we decided to shoot it in the summer 2014.
Did you always plan to star in this yourself?
I feel like the cool thing would be to say, “Yeah, I didn’t know…” but I totally wrote it for myself. I studied acting in college for the first half and went more into writing at a different college, but part of the fun of it was to write a character for myself that was really different from me. I’m very sarcastic like June and sassy at times, but I’m much nicer and much quieter than her, so you know, us nice people really like to play mean characters and I was very excited to do that.
Are you casting based on what you knew about people from around town?
Yeah, they’re almost all local actors in the movie. Nick Hoover, who plays Harley, June’s best friend who is getting married, is a local musician in Door County that Chris played with a lot over the years. I remember a couple times talking to him at gigs or at bars, just telling him I wanted to make this movie and he would say, “Hey, I’d be interested in doing some acting if you ever make it.” Same thing with Justin Pahnturat, who plays Marcus, the love interest in the movie – he and I worked together at a bakery and I thought of him for that role. For other [roles], we asked friends if they knew of anyone – Claire Morkin, who played my mom, we found that way – she’s a local actress in Door County, and then Steve Koehler, who plays my dad, is a really exceptional actor based in Milwaukee [who] does much bigger theater productions down there, and I had seen him in several plays in Door County and thought he was amazing, so I reached out to him.
Door County is a really touristy area in Wisconsin, especially in the summertime and the fall when it’s astonishingly beautiful. People from Chicago, Minneapolis, from all over just flock there, so it’s got an amazing artist community [and we saw this] as a really cool way to engage the artistic community and have a good time making the movie. Of course, Chris and I were stressing out behind the scenes, and we all took it very, very seriously, but we did our best to make it a party. This was a super-low-budget indie movie, like $11,000 for production, so we were basically giving people food and beer to act in the movie – when we’re drinking beer in the movie, we’re really drinking beer – [because] it had to be fun and feel like we were doing something really cool together.
And it really was primarily just you and Chris as a two-person crew – did you know what you were getting into?
Chris is a pilot and actually teaches people how to fly planes for a living and then he’s also a bluegrass rock musician and I had just done more theater and playwriting, so both of us were going into this with the ignorance is bliss mindset. I actually feel like it ended up working in our favor that we didn’t exactly know what we were getting ourselves into with this. We just learned as we went along, which on one hand is extremely stressful, but on the other, it’s an amazing version of film school. You don’t know enough to know how much it’s going to hurt later on and how much of a marathon it’s going to be, so we were just excited to be in whatever stage we were in.
What was it like to plan a wedding and bring in 50 extras for the occasion?
That was the part where my mom came in and saved us because she thought of everything. She had a bunch of really beautiful fake flowers in the basement and we went and bought Mason jars at Wal-Mart and arranged [the flowers] in the Mason jars. She found a beautiful white cake from Costco to serve everybody. It’s as homemade as it gets and yet at the same time, when we finally put everything together [with] the white paper tablecloths and the Ephraim Village Hall [for the location], we were like, “You know what? This looks like looks like a small-town wedding.” So it worked, but oh my God, that was a big project.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
There’s a scene where Harley and I have a big fight in the back of this bar and the first night we were going to shoot that, we were trying to figure out our schedule. There was going to be a tractor crawl going on that night – this was good idea in Door County [laughs] where people were going to be driving tractors and drinking at different bars, so Chris and I were like, “Well, we’ll definitely not shoot at AC Tap that night because that’s going to be crazy.” So we opted for another night and that night was apparently volleyball night, when all of the young workers [in the area] all get together and play volleyball and then they all go to the AC Tap. They knew a bunch of our cast and were talking to them [as we were filming] and it was supposed to be a big [emotional] scene. I just broke down, thinking we have to shoot this another night, and it also goes to show we didn’t look like a big production. We were shooting on Canon 5Ds and had a China Ball light and maybe one other big light set up, but people were just walking through the [frame] because we were shooting at an open bar.
Were there any surprises that made it into the film that you really like?
One of the most delightful things we ever filmed [was with these two] wonderful guys Pat [Palmer] and Stewart [Dawson], who were the guys working at the hardware store. It’s just like a little bit of local flavor scene, [with them] talking about “Oh, I remember your dad,” that kind of thing. But Chris and I knew that Stewart is famously known as a curmudgeon and he’s ready to go on a rant about anything at any time. We knew he didn’t like cats, so we [asked him], “Hey, can you just tell Pat how much you don’t like cats?” And he just got angry at us, like “I’m not going to talk about cats! Why would I talk about cats?” So I’m like, “Okay, okay…well, what’s bugging you this summer?” And he launched into this conversation with Pat about how bad the ticks were and how we had a regular old tick attack going on. It was completely magical and gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie. And part of it I think is that Stewart pretends to be super crabby, but secretly he’s a huge ham and apparently a great improviser too. That’s one of my favorite parts of the whole movie.
What’s it been like to travel with the film and see the reaction?
It’s been wonderful. We did a year-and-a-half of festivals – we did 15 film festivals, which hard to believe at this point, but it was amazing and really heartwarming. It’s always fun to find people like you who love the characters and the humor and we definitely hit a certain nerve with people who like the good ache in their movies, like a sad love song. One of the more moving things would be when people really register with the way we handled grief in the movie [because] we really tried not to make a big melodrama of it. There are certainly very serious moments, but mostly it’s just this horrible ache that you feel that just comes up and it goes away, and to have people come up to us and say they really related to how loss was handled was really meaningful.
Was it therapeutic in any way in terms of dealing with your own grief to have made this?
I never know what I feel about that. I think I feel better having expressed what I went through with grief, and some of it’s me and some of it’s a made up character where you’re stretching things for dramatic purposes, but after my dad passed away, I felt I was not prepared for what it was going to feel like, especially one year later which is when “June” takes place on purpose, because I really thought that I would start to feel better. But that’s when everything became reality, so I was relieved and grateful to have found an outlet to express what that felt like, especially when it feels like other movies that deal with grief didn’t set me up for how hard it would be after losing somebody. Often when movies show somebody going through cancer, they’re very brave. They don’t talk about how that person might go through a really horrible depression and might not be holding it together and heroic [in the way] you’d hope, so instead of closure, I’m feeling satisfied to have expressed that part of grief that I hadn’t seen in a movie before. Unfortunately, the sadness stays with you forever, but it does feel good to express it in our art.
In general, was making a feature what you thought it would be or different?
It’s funny. I hadn’t thought about it that much in the years before making “June” because I never really thought that I’d necessarily become a filmmaker. But making a feature is very different from making a short and the marathon it requires from you out of your body and your mind to keep going and make something that big, I don’t think you can prepare yourself for that. You just have to go through it. It hurts. But it’s good.
And you’re already thinking of doing it again?
Yeah. What’s wrong with me? [laughs] I’m writing another feature right now, a rustic thriller [with] a little bit of dark humor to it, so I’m currently in the moment of like, “Great, how do we go from a two-person crew to a six-person crew? Wouldn’t that be great? We know we can pull it off. We just need more help next time and we know we’re not going to suddenly make the biggest movie ever. We’re just hoping to get better with each movie that we make.