There are good reasons why Ben Hickernell's indie feature, Lebanon, Pa., bears that title, beyond the obvious one that its central character, a Philadelphia advertising exec played by Lexington native Josh Hopkins, grew up there and returns to bury his father. And it goes beyond the fact that Hickernell's own dad hails from Lebanon, and that members of his family still call the place home.
"There are a lot of these epically named towns in the U.S.," says Hickernell, who wrote, directed and produced Lebanon, Pa.
"You have Nazareth and Ephrata and these big biblical names. And that was part of what I wanted to do with the movie, with the title — to show this dichotomy between these big, kind of epic ideas, and then the reality of a place, of real people rooted in the real world."
A story of self-discovery and a coming-of-age story, Hickernell's sharply observed, emotionally resonant film stars Hopkins, best known for his role on TV's Cougar Town, as Will, a thirtysomething adman (think of a 21st-century Don Draper). Samantha Mathis, criminally underused in movies, is a townie schoolteacher he meets in a bar, and newcomer Rachel Kitson plays Will's 17-year-old, just-pregnant cousin. What to do — abortion, adoption, marriage to the boyfriend who dumped her — is among the film's weightiest, and certainly most divisive, issues. It's the stuff of soap opera, but also the stuff of life, and Hickernell handles it with nuanced grace.
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"This girl is someone who is very much in the middle and thinking about it and weighing the morality and all of her options," he says. "There's a line in the movie where she says, 'None of my options seem right, but some are more wrong than others.' I thought about that a lot. I had to make it challenging."
Hickernell, 32, spent five years on Lebanon, Pa., which cost less than $1 million to make, and it was a hit at the South by Southwest Film Festival last year.
Sitting in a Philadelphia coffeehouse recently, the boyish Baltimore native — he moved to the Philadelphia area to attend Haverford College and has stayed on — is still using the same Apple G4 PowerBook that he wrote the movie on.
"This was brand-new when I started writing the screenplay," he says, running a hand over his not exactly ancient, but hardly sleek and super-fast laptop. "My wife was at journalism school, and I had a bit of time on my hands. ... I spent about two years writing it. We did a launch party in the spring of '07, to raise money, but it was the end of March and there was a freak ice storm, so it wasn't well attended. And we were thinking, 'OK, we're going to shoot this this summer.' But we ended up shooting in the summer of '08, a year later. And then a year finishing the film, and then it premiered at SXSW in March 2010, and then we're coming out now, a year later."
Hickernell had written and directed one previous feature, the super-low-budget, two-men-in-a-locked-room drama Cellar, which screened film festivals in 2005. He majored in English at college, but he shot a film there, too. In high school, he oversaw the production of Tough Cookies 1, 2 and 3 — "three bad action movies made by kids." He has a day job: He's the head manager at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. He freelances, doing film and video work for theaters, arts groups and other indie filmmakers. He hustled mightily to get Lebanon, Pa. made, and he's still hustling: He has a foreign sales agent, and he has deals in place for cable, on-demand, and a DVD release.
"I don't have a rich uncle, so basically we raised money every which way we could," Hickernell says. There were fiscal sponsorships and grant money. He took advantage of the Pennsylvania film-production tax credits ("that was really key") and solicited individual investments. "Friends, family — I basically talked to everybody I knew. ... So that's why it was two years, it was bit by bit. ... A lot of beating the pavement and having coffee with people and talking with them about the movie and trying to convey what I thought I could do with it."
Hickernell's film aesthetic is straightforward, narrative-driven. "I'm a child of the indie '90s," he says, citing Ang Lee's The Ice Storm and Todd Fields' In the Bedroom as touchstones.
"I'm working on three projects right now," he says. "Lebanon, Pa. took five years, so if we can get the next one made in 21/2 years, that will be a big improvement. But the one thing I learned from the first time around is that doing this is just insanely hard, and each step is harder than you think it will be. That's kind of the golden rule, and you have to be prepared for that."