Interview: Joe Hall on Going Against the Grain for “The Road to Galena”

“It’s time to start paddling instead of floating down someone else’s river,” says Florrie (Jennifer Holliday, delivering the line with the same sense of authority she once brought to “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” to “Dreamgirls” on Broadway), having seen it all while tending to the patrons of the local diner in rural Maryland and attempting to pass along some sage thoughts to Cole (Ben Winchell), serving them up with pancakes as she has since he was a toddler in “The Road to Galena.” He’s been coming in less in recent years, rising up the ranks of a prestigious law firm in Washington DC, which might as well be a world away from the farming community he grew up in though it is less than an hour’s drive from home and as much as he’s integrated into the high-flying lifestyle with his wife Sarah (Alisa Allapach), a fellow attorney, he can’t help but look back on the life he could’ve had in Galena where he had once planned on marrying Elle, the high school girls’ basketball coach (Aimee Teegarden) and picking up the lease on a parcel of land that has since been taken over by his best friend Jack (Will Brittain), who ended up with Elle too.

Much of this is water under the bridge for Cole in Joe Hall’s feature debut — the Bay Bridge, specifically — after agreeing to be Jack’s best man and seemingly always around to lend a hand back home, in spite of his time-consuming work in the city, but the tide is turning when the advice his father (Jay O. Sanders) once gave him to leave behind a quiet life in favor of leaving for a place where the world might take notice seems to be backfiring, not in any way that would affect his bank account, but his personal sense of satisfaction. Success actually comes at a cost for Cole, who strangely may not face much struggle as he puts himself in a position professionally that few others are ever able to achieve, but has to make countless concessions to get closer to the way of life he actually yearns for when he’d rather be riding around on a tractor than inside of a Mercedes Benz.

Hall is familiar with such bifurcation, having carved out the time to make shorts as he climbed the corporate ladder to become a vice president at Goldman Sachs, and “The Road to Galena” unites that vision as Cole moves between different experiences and gradually realizing something has to give. With neither option made to look unappealing, the difficult choice that Cole has to make for himself is enough to power the drama where as untenable as the situation may become for him, it’s easy on the eyes when you can see what he does in the golden fields just off the coastline in his hometown. As the writer/director explained, the beautiful sights may have come naturally, but filming as a whole wasn’t the easiest endeavor when “The Road to Galena” had to adapt to filming in the midst of a pandemic, but that only reaffirmed Hall’s belief in the film about only doing things you’re really passionate about. With its release this week, the filmmaker spoke about navigating the complications of a COVID-compliant shoot and how he came to feel the sense of community that Cole yearns for in the film as they helped with the production.

How did this come about?

It’s a story that I wrote some years ago and it felt like this was the moment for it to be told. We’re all living in this post-pandemic world and there seems to be this great reset with the great resignation and this opportunity for everyone to step back and say, hey, what am I doing with my life? Am I where I want to be? Am I where I thought I would be? Everyone asks me is it autobiographical and the answer is no, but my hope is that everyone will see a little bit of themselves in Cole’s journey. I have had a career in education and a career in banking and filmmaking has always been a passion of mine, so I was happy to get this story out there.

Do you have ties to Maryland and this particular area?

I thought for a while about how best to tell this story, this notion that most people carry with them some aspiration in their life and often times, they never speak it aloud and this notion of what if someone said to you today, “Here it is. You can do it.” Would you actually have the gumption to go for it? The idea of farming life was one where we’ve seen stories of people fight against all odds for people to get their chance [elsewhere], but wouldn’t it be so much harder if what you were really aspiring to is a life of simplicity and a sense of community and to achieve that, someone who has all the trappings of success and turning loose of that to find fulfillment in their life had to give up all that?

Galena just represented that for me and it’s a beautiful area of the country that I’ve had a chance to spend some time in. I’ve lived in Washington D.C. my whole adult life and Maryland, on the Eastern shore, is a very unique environment because you have this beautiful pastoral agricultural community out there on the Eastern shore and it is intermingled with the Chesapeake Bay, so you have this very interesting combination of those who work with and around with the water and those who work with and in and around the land.

That affection is shown in the establishing shots where you get the sense that you didn’t tell your cinematographer just to go out and get some generic B-roll. How did you go about setting the scenes?

Our cinematographer Clark Vandergrift is just fantastic and as we were preparing for the production, Clark and I spent a lot of time talking about how to capture the beauty and expanse of the Eastern shore and to set that apart from Washington D.C. because it was important that they be characters in and of themselves. So all of those scenes that we got of the Eastern shore, all of those shots were designed to capture that really unique beauty and even the shots with the snow geese, [those] are unique to the Eastern shore. They’re Canadian and they come down to the Eastern shore on a migratory basis, and getting those [shots], Clark and I were out in the fields trying to catch that moment.

There was one day where he and I saw a flock of geese out in the field and I said, “Clark, this is our chance.” So we pulled over, we get set up and I said, “Now, you get ready and I’m going to lean on this horn to get these geese to take off and I leaned on the horn and we were waving our arms, doing everything to get these geese to budge. And they just sat there oblivious. [laughs] We were going to pack the camera back up in the truck, but as we turned around, another big flock of geese came and landed in that pond, which is such a beautiful transition shot that we ended up using for the film, so there were some great moments in there that we were able to catch on the fly.

What was it like to bringing a cast and crew into this area?

It’s a really unique and wonderful community out there and we were just so fortunate to be embraced by the community there when we were shooting during the pandemic. Our biggest challenge in the production was creating crowds because we couldn’t have an actual crowd and even extras coming to set had to follow the COVID protocols and when you’re in a remote area like that, just getting tests was tough and getting extras to travel to Annapolis to get a test and then they’d have to get the test results back in time to make it to set, that was always a challenge. University of Maryland and Georgetown were actually shot at Kent County High School and Washington College in Chestertown, both were amazingly supportive in giving us access and support throughout, and the beauty of shooting in this expansive rural area during COVID was that it helped us bubble the production a little bit more effectively and manage the compliance issues.

A lot of the crew are Baltimore-based and they really embraced the story and being out there together — a couple of folks referred to it as being at camp because we had…we stayed at Camp Pecometh, which is a large retreat center that was otherwise closed for the pandemic so we occupied this whole retreat center and had the chance to spend a lot of really close knit time together out on the Eastern shore. I think it was a special time for everybody.

Did you piggyback on a real county fair that was down there?

No, we created that, not that we weren’t looking for opportunities to get B-roll at a county fair, but all the county fairs were on ice because of the pandemic. That county fair was actually all set up on the fields of Red Acres Farm — Bryan Williams and his family [there] were very gracious to allow us to shoot there for all of the scenes of Jack’s farm.

Is it true there was a bit of a boot camp for the actors to get their hands dirty with some of the farming equipment?

If Ben and Will were here, they’d tell you they both grew up learning how to drive a tractor, but they both spent time with Bryan a few days before we got started, learning the equipment on the farm. Bryan and his family and the folks that work at Red Acres Farm really became an extension of the crew. They were so engaged in getting everyone comfortable with the equipment and we wanted to be sure what we were shooting was true to the season and we were using equipment that was appropriate to the different times and Ben and Will were all in.

You had done shorts before, but managing a feature where performances cover 20 years, was that a different experience?

The 20-year span, when I wrote it, I thought was important that the audience experience this journey with Cole, to really get that moment at the end where he’s faced with the decisions he has to make. It was important that the audience traveled this journey with him and of course that brings complications from a production perspective because we had to age them appropriately through the story and create sets that were appropriate to their time period. We had a terrific team of folks that were focused on that, but every detail down to the logos of the sports team on the Orioles cap that Cole wears — the Orioles logo changed over time, so we had to make sure the cap he was wearing over time and so on — it was a real effort, but they pulled it off.

The diner seems like a great location and you’ve got no less than Jennifer Holliday as a waitress dishing out advice there. What was that like as a location?

That diner was in Chestertown and it was a great location. I was so honored to have Jennifer involved in this, and of course, she has done so much around the world and she’s an iconic Broadway star, but this was her first film, so we were all thrilled to have her involved and she just did a beautiful job.

It’s your first feature too. What’s it like getting it out into the world?

I’m thrilled with it. I couldn’t be happier with all the performances and I think the story is the right story for the moment, so I’m just thrilled to get it out there.

“The Road to Galena” opens on July 8th in theaters, on demand and on digital.