Film producer Jack Meggers reflects on recent premieres and overall process of his Lansing-filmed production “The Burial”

Full house for film premiere ... More than 200 people from the Lansing area and beyond filed into T.J. Hunter’s Banquet Hall in Lansing to view the premiere showing of the short film “The Burial” Thursday, June 20. The film was shot entirely in and around the Lansing area, and producer Jack Meggers will now take the short film version to film companies and other film industry connections in hopes of securing financing for a full-length film. Photo by Jack Meggers.

Sharing further insight ... “The Burial” lead actress Nokomis Leaman-Logsdon (left) and producer Jack Meggers (right) fielded questions from the audience at the June 20 Lansing premiere of the film. The movie was filmed entirely in the Lansing area and is hoped to be further developed from its short film version into a full-length film. Photo by Susan Cantine-Maxson.

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

Recently, Jack Meggers, an Iowa Arts Council Fellow, debuted his independent short film “The Burial” in Lansing and Des Moines. The film, shot entirely in northeast Iowa in and around the Lansing area, is a psychological, supernatural thriller. Meggers hopes to show this 20-minute film to film production companies on the East and West coasts and in Canada in the hope that one of them will agree to finance a feature length film of the entire story.

Working on this concept since 2014, Meggers wrote  the screen play and worked tirelessly to get this film concept to the big screen, while also supporting himself as a substitute teacher. Meggers, a Mason City native, grew to love the Lansing area when he spent many summers with his dad in northeast Iowa along the Mississippi River.

By filming the project in the Driftless Area, he hopes to showcase the beauty of this scenic treasure, as well as expose an audience to areas such as Effigy Mounds National Monument, which had a profound impact on him as a boy. Meggers and lead actress Nokomis Leaman-Logsdon agreed that filming in Iowa has its advantages, primarily because fewer permits are needed to film here than other places.

Drawbacks such as lack of specialty equipment stores mean that the production must plan ahead because such items might need to be shipped in from Minneapolis, MN but, financially, there are big advantages. Overhead costs are much less.
Meggers and Leaman-Logsdon added, “People here are helpful and welcoming. That doesn’t happen everywhere because the film industry has worn out their welcome. A lot of independent movie producers are looking at Iowa because there is more freedom to be creative.”

For an independent film to become truly successful, it needs to have a larger company behind it. Meggers initially received some funds from an Iowa Arts Council grant, but now seeks more substantial sums in order to proceed with the longer film. He  started  with around $7,000 in cash donations and got a $10,000 project grant from the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Meggers credits the Iowa Arts Council with being the impetus behind getting the project going.

Meggers explained that the cast and crew members worked for free or for a fraction of what they are normally paid, and most of the required production elements, such as meals, locations, lodging and production supplies were either provided for free or at a huge discount. During the Lansing premiere held June 20, Meggers thanked everyone who had helped with the production and praised all the cooperation that he received from area residents, businesses and other organizations, including Val Reinke, Executive Director of Allamakee County Economic Development.

He stated, “I want to extend a massive thank you to Val Reinke from Allamakee County Economic Development and Tourism. Val has been instrumental in not only the screening event but in the actual production of the film. She connected me with so many people and businesses that were key to making many aspects of the production happen. She gave her time and support to this artistic venture, and the movie would not nearly be what it is without her help. She did so many of the things that a movie producer does, that I’m sure she could have a future in the movie business if she wanted it!”

All the producing, directing, and post-production services were donated, bringing the total for in-kind donations to a significant amount.  Meggers stated, “If I were to venture a guess, the total budget for this film including cash and in-kind donations would be somewhere between $50,000-$60,000. To do the film right, I’ve always thought I would need around $500,000, but a cool million would be great.”

The story takes place in and around Lansing and Allamakee County, and Meggers gave more background as to why he chose this area. “The story is inspired by my own personal trips and walks in Effigy Mounds,” he explained. “I was given an appreciation for the beauty of the land by  my executive producer, my dad. We’ve been coming here to camp, fish and hunt since I was a kid. My earliest recollection going to Effigy Mounds with him was when I was about four.

“There’s a feeling I can’t really describe when I drive through Churchtown and the roads start to wind and I’m going down the hill and the limestone cliffs start rising around me. It gives me a thrill and makes me feel like I’m coming home. I’ve always come back here as often as I could because this place has a special quality that I can’t explain. When I was sitting and working in L.A. and felt like I was ready to tell a story in a film, I started searching for inspiration and the first thing that came to my mind and heart was this place. I followed that trail until it led me to this story and back to this place.”

Since the short film only presents part of the story - a teaser, Meggers had to decide what the content of the film would include. He explained, “I knew I had to introduce the characters and premise of the film, so it only made sense for me to concentrate on the first act of the story.  From there, I condensed more than I would for a full-length feature film for the sake of pacing and brevity. A 25-minute long short film is considered a very long short film to some.  I included everything that I thought would be of great importance in selling producers on the idea of making this into a feature: great location shots, character building moments, and  interesting twists.”

Audience members at the Lansing premiere also expressed several comments that supported Meggers’ short film concept. Several praised the naturalness of the actors, the beauty of the scenery and the suspense created by the film.

During the question and answer (Q&A) session of the Lansing premiere, Meggers and lead actress, Nokomis  Leaman-Logsdon from New York, fielded audience questions. During this Q&A session, Meggers introduced  the concept of “ghost sickness,” which is an idea that  the film explores when the three main characters dig up an ancient native burial site in order to steal artifacts to sell.

In addition, many indigenous cultures around the world believe an energy or connection exists to the loved one in the grave, especially if there are unresolved issues, such as between the main character in the film, Abby,  and her recently deceased father. Ghost sickness may also occur if someone disturbs a grave or sacred ground, which causes a severe psychosis that includes a preoccupation with death, recurring nightmares and a feeling of terror in addition to other physical afflictions such as hallucinations and weakness.

Meggers elaborated, “The ghost sickness will be further explored over the course of the feature film. It is the device that amplifies the consequences of the main character’s actions and decisions. However, it won’t be fully explained, as to remain somewhat ambiguous. I want audiences to bring their own interpretations to this film. I’m not trying to dictate any specific spiritual explanation so that the consequences of these choices can be easily explained away. Rather, I want the audience to see themselves in the story, so they recognize these types of situations when they arise or have already arisen in their own lives.”

Leaman-Logsdon added the actors’ perspective to the process. She learned of the part from a trade magazine which advertised a casting call for the film.

“When I read the description of the character of Abby, it was me. I have a Native American father and an Irish mother. I sent a tape and a note which said, ‘I am this part!’ Luckily, that convinced him, and Jack flew me to Iowa, and the rest is history.”

When she was asked if she had any pre-conceived notions about Iowa, she laughed, “Actually, my best friend in New York City is from Mason City. She told me what a wonderful place Iowa was. I’ve only been on the East and West Coast and Iowa is amazing, especially Lansing. It’s magical, the Main Street is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s the perfect spot for a story. My boyfriend and I have t-shirts from Horsfalls that say ‘Mississippi River Rats’ and we wear them when we work out.”

Leaman-Logsdon has done primarily theatre but has also acted in some other independent film ventures. She is just starting out in her career after graduating from acting school in New York. The other main actors in the film include Katelyn Douglass (Chicago, IL) and Tom Garland (Las Vegas, NV and Cedar Rapids).

Leaman-Logsdon elaborated during the Q&A session about working on the film, “It was a wonderful collaboration. Tom is a comedian from Las Vegas. This was his  first time doing a serious acting role and he was amazing to work with. He always brings lightness. Katelyn is a performance artist in comedy.

So, it was interesting combining with two comedians to do a scary movie. We got along really well. The boat scene and the bar scene were improvised. You get to know people that way. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in acting so far.

“Jack, as a director, was awesome. He’s an actor’s director; a lot of the time, directors don’t pay much attention to the actors. There are so many actors, so if one doesn’t work out, there are many more to take the role. He treated everyone as if she/he were special. He is a respectful, awesome person. I did my own stunts, and he was always making sure that I was safe. He has experience in all sides of the industry, so to have someone with that much experience teaching me was an amazing opportunity. I kept thinking ‘give me more. I need this person in my life.’ That’s why I’m here supporting him tonight.”

Probably the most difficult scene for the actors and film maker was the underwater hallucination scene. They had the advantage of working at the Lansing pool. The first day was full of rain and lightning which curtailed filming but the next night was a go. The pool area was lined with black plastic so that it didn’t look like a swimming pool.

One of the production assistants was in scuba gear. Meggers was in the pool for hours as well. Leaman-Logsdon wore a big billowy dress so that the dress and her hair floated around her. She said she lost five pounds that day because of all the exertion. All agreed it was tough but rewarding.

Those not involved in movie production may not be aware of how much footage is shot to create one scene. The pool scene took several hours to prepare for and film but the actual scene in the movie is only about a minute. Meggers said, “I have a 6-terabyte hard drive full of the movie shots. I can attest that editing all that footage down to 20 minutes is a daunting task. We shot for five long days with some pick-up shots here and there after the fact. I just shot a few shots of her father that I inserted last week. We shot a short scene yesterday to take advantage of Nokomis being in Lansing again.”

Meggers reflected on his biggest epiphany during the process, “ I think my biggest ‘aha’ moment came during the editing of the short film. It was in the editing room when I first got a chance to really see how the characters interacted with each other, and I know that will inform me as to how I write/rewrite going forward. They say you make a story three times when you make a move; once when you write the script, once when you shoot the footage, and then finally when you edit the footage together. I definitely experienced some discovery moments when I put the scenes together.”

Meggers is  still adding to  the film. Some  polishing touches need to be finished to be able to deliver the film to industry professionals. The original music score must be finished and inserted in the place of the temporary music. After that, he  will begin the process of submitting the film to film festivals and sending  it to the industry connections that he has in hopes that someone will take an interest in helping him make it into a feature-length film.

Meggers concluded, “I think people just don’t know this place, the beauty, the history. The hills are full of stories that need to be told. It’s always affected me deeply. There are some extended travel montages to show what this place is like, the history and story in these bluffs. The entire script is written but there will be changes and rewrites. This experience was an incredible experience for me as a storyteller.”

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