Havre film 'Burnt Sienna' lights up the big screen
A first-time film effort by a Havre man has drawn regional attention and will be shown at a prestigious San Francisco film festival next month.
Tolan Harber, a 30-year-old musician and film student, wrote, directed and produced "Burnt Sienna" a dark but strangely uplifting tale that was filmed in Havre and the surrounding area. The cast includes some local talent as well as one actor who has appeared in national television ads for Chevrolet and Anhueser Busch.
The movie was accepted by the Mill Valley Film Festival and will be shown Oct. 5 and Oct. 8. Harber said he hopes the film will attract the attention of some national distribution companies.
The festival's Web page desribes the movie as "two winsome young felons on the lam and in love zigzag their way across the West, driven by despair, desire, and just for the hell of it."
"When I come back from California, I may have sold this film," he said.
The movie was released Aug. 16 in Havre and has since had showings in Lewistown and Missoula. The premiere, held in the basement of Creative Leisure, was well received by the audience, said store manager Rick Linie.
"We had about 40 people, which is all we could accommodate down there," he said. "I think all of the people that saw it really liked it. I think they recognized that it was a first-time film with no budget that was shot in five days. People seemed to be really impressed with it under those conditions."
Harber began work on the script in 2001, shortly after moving to Havre from Ohio.
"It took me a couple of months to write," he said. "I started to write it without any intention of what I was going to do after that."
Sometime later, the endeavor transformed from a screenplay into an actual production - a difficult task on a limited budget.
"I've taken a lot of film classes and workshops, so I've learned my way around on how to get things done," Harber said.
Harber said he put a listing in The Hollywood Reporter asking for actors and explaining the movie. He got hundreds of responses.
Robert Keli, who has a background in commercials, landed the lead role after responding to the listing.
Audiences will likely recognize Keli, who appeared in a television ad for the Chevrolet Avalanche and a commercial for Budweiser beer.
Finding an actress for the female lead was a little more difficult, Harber said.
"One night I just happened to go to a play up at the college, and I saw Samantha Pollington, and in my head, I said 'This is the girl I want for the role,'" he said.
Pollington is a Montana Actors' Theatre veteran, and spent a month in London performing in Havreite Grant Olson'sproduction of "The Dead of Winter" with the Havre theater group.
Armed with $2,600 in savings, Harber began filming the movie last December. The production came to a head during five days of intensive shooting in Havre, the Bear Paw Mountains, and Loma.
"Everything went really smoothly," Harber said. "We completed the shooting according to schedule. It was great."
Harber pulls no punches when he describes the movie's plot.
"Girl takes out revenge on her stepfather. She leaves town to go in search of her real father. On the way she comes across a cheap stickup man and they find comfort in each other," he said.
The movie begins with Pollington unceremoniously dispatching her stepfather with an ax. Then she pairs up with Keli, and the two embark on a journey that is vaguely reminescent of Bonnie and Clyde - with more familiar scenery. The actors exude the searching-for-the-American-identity mentality that made "Easy Rider" a cult classic.
The entire movie was filmed with a digital camera and edited on a computer. Recent technological breakthroughs have allowed aspiring actors and directors to produce movies with a limited budget, resulting in the emergence of more productions outside the mainstream, Linie said.
"I think it really puts the emphasis on acting rather than special effects," he said. "Hopefully it brings filmmaking back to people with ideas rather than budgets."
Both Keli and Pollington refused payment for their work, instead opting to be listed as co-producers with Harber.
"That way they'll get a percentage of the profit from our sales," Harber said.
The cinematographer for "Burnt Sienna" was Frank McGowan. The film was edited by Sean Cloninger.
The film was the first Harber has completed.
"I've tried to make a film before," he said. "My first one didn't get finished. It was over budget and just wasn't that good."
The response to "Burnt Sienna" in Havre has been strong, Linie said. The movie can be rented on VHS at Creative Leisure.
"It did really well the first couple weeks," he said. "It was pretty much checked out every night. "
Harber said the feedback from audiences in Lewistown and Missoula has varied.
"It's been kind of hit and miss," he said. "Here the turnout was great, Lewistown was not so great, Missoula not so great. But in Missoula, everyone that showed up was really interested in the film. They stuck around afterward and asked us tons of questions. I think we even inspired one guy to make a movie."
Like many forms of entertainment, "Burnt Sienna" is subject to the generational gap, Harber said.
"Definitely younger people tend to like it more; older people do not," he said. "Every once in a while one of the older people will, and that's really cool."
Harber is working on another movie, which he plans to film in February.
"I'm working on another movie that includes eight MAT actors," he said. " It's set mostly in a small town, and will be shot in Havre. Some scenes also take place in L.A., so we'll film seven or eight scenes there."
On the Internet: http://www.cafilm.org