A local screenwriter and independent filmmaker is shooting his second film here, using acting talent from Havre and as far away as Los Angeles.
Tolan Harber, 31, the film's director, screenwriter and co-producer, began filming "Stranger than Fiction" about a month ago and will be filming in several spots in Havre over about the next two weeks. Then he will go to Los Angeles to shoot a few scenes there. Harber plans to complete the film by the end of the summer, he said.
The film, described by Harber as a "dark, dark comedy," follows Los Angeles screenwriter Sasha Carson, who decides to go back to his small-town roots. The screenwriter, played by Montana Actors' Theatre actor Matt Warner, moves in with his sister and finds material for his writing in the strange circumstances of her neighborhood. The film isn't confined to one character, though, Harber said. About 10 characters are developed throughout the movie.
"It's about a lot of things - mostly about small-town gossip," Harber said Wednesday, after filming a scene in which a sheriff and his deputy discover a severed arm on the floor of a local garage. Harber compared the film's exaggerated circumstances and characters to a film version of "The Simpsons."
He said the story is not autobiographical, but that many of the stories used in the screenplay are based on events that actually happened, and also draw on the small-town equivalent of urban legends.
Harber began writing the screenplay for "Stranger than Fiction" about a year and a half ago, while editing his first finished film, "Burnt Sienna."
"Burnt Sienna," a film about two felons on a road trip across the West, was filmed in Havre and the surrounding area and premiered here in August. It was also screened in Lewistown and Missoula, and was shown at the prestigious Mill Valley Film Festival in San Francisco in October.
Harber had hoped the exposure from the festival would help him sell the movie to a distributor. But so far he has not been able to sell the rights to the film and he's still looking for a buyer.
His hopes for "Stranger than Fiction" are similar. He plans to premier it at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October.
If Harber can find a buyer, he said, he will use the money to pay the cast of 26 actors, who are acting in the film for free. The film is being paid for with Haber's paychecks from the Havre Day Activity Center, where he works as a group home aide, and with money put up by co-producer Robert Keli. The film had a budget of $6,000 but is already over that, Haber said. Selling the film would also help support future filmmaking efforts, he said.
Harber said he thinks "Stranger than Fiction" will be a better film than "Burnt Sienna."
"We got better equipment, and I just think the story's better," he said, adding that this movie uses a full cast of experienced, talented actors.
One of the cast members is not local. Keli, 33, is a Los Angeles-area actor who has been featured in television commercials for Chevrolet, Chili's restaurants and Sony. He plays sheriff's deputy Lance Moore in the film, and also played the lead role in "Burnt Sienna" after answering a casting notice Harber placed in The Hollywood Reporter.
"It's got a lot of color and it really moves," said Keli, who is also helping produce the movie. He said that like many independent films, the plot jumps from place to place, and doesn't explain everything to its audience like in more mainstream films.
"In (independent) film form ... we don't have to spoon-feed people their art," Keli said.
Local actor and playwright Jay Pyette plays Darin Darlington, one of the neighbors of Sasha Carson's sister.
Pyette, president of Montana Actors' Theatre, said this is his first major role in a movie. He said he likes being able to do one scene at a time.
"I like going back and being able to redo and discover new things" about each scene, he said. Pyette said he will be shooting a film of his own this summer in Havre and Chinook.
MAT has several actors in the production. Pyette said the cooperation between Harber and MAT is a "natural fit."
Harber is an Ohio native and grew up in the Midwest, but visited Havre often during his childhood because his mother is from here. He has taken several film classes and workshops in Detroit, Cincinnati and Cleveland. His first film effort was filmed in Ohio but was never finished. He moved to Havre permanently in 2001.
"Stranger than Fiction" will be about an hour and 45 minutes long, he said.