OCEAN CITY – “It’s funny. No matter what you do in life, the acceptance and the approval of the ones who you grew up with and knew you when you were just dreaming, is far more significant than anyone would ever want to let on or even think themselves. And, I think, what I love most about it, for me, is that I didn’t come from a town that ever made me feel like it wasn’t possible. I don’t have that story. I actually have the opposite.”
Those are the words of filmmaker John Chester as we spoke last Friday while he was driving through canyons in his adopted home state of California. Chester was referring to his days growing up in the Ocean City area and matriculating through the public school system before foraying to the west to chase his filmmaking passion. He’s talking about the support of his family, friends and teachers through his years.
Chester is a hometown success story without question. However, it’s much more than that. He has worked hard to get where he is today – the writer, director and producer of what could very well be the next big thing on the big screen with his creation “The Biggest Little Farm,” which will be featured at the Ocean City Performing Arts Center next Saturday as part of the Ocean City Film Festival. The film is an eight-year chronicle of Chester and his wife, Molly, and their up-and-down journey on the sustainable farm they created from nothing in California. After moving away from Los Angeles, the decision was made to create a diverse farm on 200 acres in the foothills of Ventura County, Calif.
Advance media for the film reports, “The film chronicles eight years of daunting work and outsize idealism as they attempt to create the utopia they seek, planting 10,000 orchard trees and over 200 different crops, and bringing in animals of every kind– including an unforgettable pig named Emma and her best friend, Greasy the rooster. When the farm’s ecosystem finally begins to reawaken, so does the Chesters’ hope – but as their plan to create perfect harmony takes a series of wild turns, they realize that to survive they will have to reach a far greater understanding of the intricacies and wisdom of nature, and of life itself.”
Chester graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 1990 and is the great grandson of the late Dr. Francis Townsend. He grew up on Talbot Street in Ocean City as a young boy and moved to West Ocean City in his teen years. During his early 20s, he worked on different farms in Berlin before moving to California. He has won five Emmy Award for short films in the directing, writing and cinematography categories. In 2006, his biggest break came with his primetime docu-series on A&E called Random 1, which led to the documentary “Lost in Woonsocket” and later “Rock Prophecies,” which followed the life of legendary rock photographer Robert Knight. The father and husband is also a published children’s book author. He’s a farmer, too. He wears a lot of hats literally and figuratively.
It’s his life on Apricot Lane Farms in California that is the subject of his “The Biggest Little Farm,” which premiered to rave reviews at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival as well as this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It has been celebrated with an ocean of positive media reviews as well as prestigious awards on the film festival circuit, including Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Hamptons International Film Festival and Middleburg Film Festival. Neon Distribution, which counts the 2017 film “I, Tonya” as one of its biggest success stories in recent years, is expected to release the film May 10 across the country.
Through it all, Chester, whose children’s book “Saving Emma the Pig” is being released by Macmillan Publishers this spring, remains the same humble guy many folks my age watched on cable access television in the summer of 1990 interviewing Boardwalk personalities and making us all laugh and giggle with the absurdity of it all.
After next Saturday’s showing of the film in Ocean City, Chester as well as Executive Producer Erica Messer, a Decatur alumna who is accomplished in her own right as executive producer of the television hit show Criminal Minds, will participate in a question-and-answer session with their high school theater teacher, Gwen Lehman.
The following is a transcript of a recent talk with Chester.
Q. A vivid childhood memory for me and my friends was watching you and the crew of OC Live, a local cable access program operated by Decatur students in the summer in the early 1990s. Here we are some 30 years later and you have a film deal. Can you tell me about that early experience here?
A. The interesting thing was that it kind of started with Terry Sterner coming up to me. He was my English teacher and he knew that I was really into film and video stuff. And he came up to me, and he said, “Come here. I want to show you something.” And he went in the library of the school, and he held up a cable. It was just literally a coaxial cable and he goes, “If we plug something into this, it goes out on Channel 10 throughout the entire town.” I was like, “Oh my gosh.”
And so, we did nothing with it for while and then I just remembered feeling like there’s only like 7,000 people who live in this town. And in the summer, there’s like 300,000 or more. I’m like, ‘Wow. That’s insane.’ We were quite earnestly thinking, we’ll just do a local show that’s like a local news show. But then we realized, we had no idea what we were doing, so we just threw the earnestness out of the window, and made it a bit of a parody of us trying to do a local news show being kids. Some of us weren’t even 18 years old. Most were 15, 16-year-olds.
I think the cool thing about it was, it was literally a VHS tape and we would, after we would do the show, we would surgically open up the VHS tape, and cut it at the end of the show. And then we would re-glue that tape back to the reel. That way, when it was done, it would stop. And then we would set the VCR to just rewind the show and play again. So it did that for 24 hours a day for the next seven days. And, to your point, it was the only Most of our fans were people who were coming home from the bars late at night, had nothing to watch, so they would watch us with a bit of a level of intoxication. And we were overnight celebrities. We were huge (laughing).
Q. I remember you did an interview with Boardwalk Elvis one time. You asked him a question and he didn’t really speak very clearly. You just played right along with it and said, “That was just fascinating stuff.” The few-minute bit continued like that. It was great.
A. I always thought that, to me, they were the most important people in the town. They were the ones that I was most curious about as a kid. And, they obviously felt very strongly about their entertainment value and that they were celebrities. And so, they were so excited to be on the show.
Q. Let’s talk about your childhood home and the impact it’s had on your life. It’s been many decades since you’ve lived at home, but now you are a multiple Emmy Award winner and coming home to show a film about your current roots. What kind of impact did growing up here have on you and your career?
A. I came from a town that just supported my dream to such a degree. And I think that OC Live was a big part of that. It just felt like the town was lifting all of us up. Erica and Kenny and Dave Schrader and there’s so many of us that came from that Gwen Leyman and Terry Sterner program that are out working in the business. And even kids after us.
I always felt so supported by home. And so, to come back with this film at the festival, I was more fearful that no one would care. And [brother] Deeley’s like, ‘What are you talking about? They’re going to think it’s great.’ I really didn’t know if anyone would give a crap about it. I hoped because I wanted it to be great. I just can’t describe it. I loved the vulnerability that comes with it.
Q. Back in 2015, you called me when Gwen Lehman was retiring about getting a letter to the editor printed celebrating her and her impact on you. You were effusive with your praise of her and what kind of impact she had on your life. How much impact did she and Sterner have on you?
A. Absolutely. In fact, Gwen Lehman is going to facilitate the Q&A after the screening with Erica and I. I keep in touch with both Terry and Gwen. And both Terry Sterner, his wife Jean Marie and Gwen, and her husband Don have been to the farm on separate occasions. Came out to the farm and had dinner with us and stuff. So, we’ve kept in touch. Gwen’s seen the film, Terry hasn’t seen the film. Gwen came out and saw the film at AFI, where it was really cool because it won the Audience Award there at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles. And, she got to be there for that.
I didn’t really tell anyone about making the film. I haven’t told anyone that I was making the film for eight years. I didn’t really know if I was ever going to finish it. I just didn’t know if the farm was even going to work. And I didn’t want to make a film that said it worked when it didn’t. And I’m not saying it’s all said and done. There’s trials. There’s more trials and tribulations every single day on a farm. But the basic idea of a regenerative farm focused on biodiversity as a method of immunology, building an immune system through biodiversity, works. And I didn’t know for sure if it was going to happen. So, I kept documenting it, not knowing it. So, I never told anyone, including Gwen and Terry. So, this is a bit of a surprise for everyone. I barely told my own mother until the last year because I didn’t want anyone to ask me about it because I didn’t know if I’d ever finish it. I didn’t want to be pressured to finish something and then tell something that wasn’t true.
Q. I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Ping Pong Summer, but I attended the big pitch in Ocean City to get financial backers. The filmmakers were looking for private investors to help with shooting the movie in Ocean City and the hope was it would be selected for film festivals and then purchased by a national distributor. It was interesting to learn about that process. Can you talk about that effort on your end? You have accomplished your goal as it has been picked up by Neon for distribution, right?
A, Yeah. I mean, so we shoot the film and hope we get into a festival. And we get into Telluride first, which is one of the most difficult. I mean, there’s probably only like five documentaries in that festival. It’s where “Slumdog Millionaire” launched. It’s one of these curated festivals, and you’re not allowed to do business. You’re not actually allowed to sell it. The Variety Review came out literally the minute I walked out of the screening. People were freaking out about the great review piece. The Hollywood Reporter review came out right after that. And, immediately we started getting offers on the film. By Toronto, it had screened again, and we’re then in a bidding war with about five different distributors. We were holed up in a hotel room for probably like 12 hours, going back and forth. It was the most stressful 12 hours of my existence.
It’s rare that you are able to get to the point with a film to sell it. I’ve only sold three films in my life. I never had a frenzy take place like that. It was amazing and at best 500 people had seen the film at this point. It’s just been amazing.
Q. The connection between you and Erica Messer, who was an executive producer on the movie, goes back more than 30 years. You all worked together on OC Live and of course on this film. What’s that experience been like?
A. Erica and Kenny were part of the team that took over OC Live when I moved to California the first time. I’ve moved out here twice. We have, obviously, high school roots, but we also have this creative process root where we like doing stuff together.
Erica was one of the first people I did tell about the film because Erica was always very encouraging of like, ‘You need to make a movie about this. You need to tell this story.’ And, honestly, I wasn’t really sure if there was a real story to tell, as crazy as it sounds. Erica is the producer who’s been creatively so protective over my real voice. And that is something in the industry, the real voice that I use in telling the story is who I am. But that’s not the voice that I’ve really been able to use a lot in my filmmaking and television producing, directing career. It’s a very, very personal storytelling voice. And there’s no one that knows me in the process, outside of my wife, better than Erica. She was the one that protected that and was really encouraging of that. And that’s why it’s a very, very, very personal story because I did surround myself with people, the very few, who were willing to support that.
Because you could very easily go off the rails and make this documentary very polarizing about political issues. And that wasn’t my agenda, but that’s what people want you to make as soon as you say you’re making a documentary. They want it to be this hard-hitting, create fear, divide us, this person’s right, that person’s wrong. And I’m like, that doesn’t work. That’s not what works. It doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked since Inconvenient Truth. It’s not what people want right now. And, honestly, it’s not going get us to where we need to go.
I was deliberately very secretive about the making of the film and very careful to bring in the people like Erica that I knew were going to protect it. And so, that long relationship and trust was monumental to the trajectory, and the tone of the style film that I made.
Q. As you know, I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve only seen the trailer. But, we’ll be there on that Saturday with 1,000 other people most likely. We’re looking forward to it as a family. In one of your interviews, you said you really hope that this is something that kids will identify with. Your brother Deeley said that his young son saw it and loved it. Was it important to you for kids to be able to enjoy this?
A. Well, you said something really significant. I think. I mean I made this film for adults, but I also made this film for 7-year-olds because the thing that you and I had the access to growing up, we were outdoorsy people. We’re a people that are aware of our nature. We may have different varying degrees of how we work with it or against it, but we grew up in a very outdoorsy and connected to nature environment.
I mean our family are fishermen, they’re hunters, they’re farmers. That’s the root of what built Ocean City. It wasn’t a funnel cake guy. It was the funnel cake guy that was a farmer before he was making funnel cakes. And, I think, that lens was something that never left me. And so, that lens and perspective on this collaboration with nature, was why I made the film. Because I wanted 7-year-olds, and above, to be able to have that lens moving forward. I think it’s really important to say that I feel like they’re the ones that are going to shape the world that we live in. I mean, in a way, you and I can vote and we can do things differently. We can make choices, but honestly, the next 100 years is going to be shaped by the third graders. And they have the biggest influence. When they see something, and they believe it, and they see opportunity in that, then they make us, as parents, do things. They make us stop smoking. They make us recycle. They make us compost. They make us wear our seat belts. I mean, if you really want to be honest, third graders have changed the world.
And so, the success of the film so far, I mean, none of us expected it. We hoped, but none of us expected it to have such a wide and diverse audience. People come see the film and celebrate it. It’s just the truth about our experience on one piece of land as we tried to collaborate with a force that is not very easy to collaborate with.
Q. After the showing of the film, there’s going to be a Q&A with you and Erica. What will that entail?
A. It’s a really important part, I think. Erica and myself will come up after the credits and answer questions from the audience. And, I’m sure Gwen will probably ask a few starter questions, but we’ll be there to answer questions about it. And, I really hope there’s some local farmers that come out that, regardless of whether they’re conventional, organic or whatever. This is not about us vs. anybody, us vs. them kind of thing. I really hope they come out and are able to sort of see it and share in the experience because I would love to acknowledge those people that are trying to farm on the Eastern Shore.
A lot of times people watch the movie and they go, “Was this really a farm? Was this a real farm? Or was this a made-up film?” It’s a real working farm. The website, apricotlanefarms.com, has additional short films that people can go and see. The ones that won Emmy’s are on there. It’s funny when they then go to the website, and they’re like, “Oh my god. We thought this was made-up.” It’s not. It’s our life.
To buy tickets to the local showing of the flick, http://www.ocmdfilmfestival.com/
To view a trailer for the film, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfDTM4JxHl8