The Homecoming: A Magical, Mystical, All-Inclusive Feature Film

The Homecoming – more than a movie. Image of cast and crew shooting a movie scene at night.

Pure Joy. Those are the words that come to mind when trying to describe what I experienced this fall while filming the musical feature film, The Homecoming. A magical, musical, all-inclusive feature film by Zeno Mountain Farm and the producers of Becoming Bulletproof.

I always dreamed of a world like this: An all-inclusive atmosphere where everyone is treated equally, with kindness and respect, regardless of their differences. On this film set, on a chilly night in Bristol, Vermont, my eyes welled with tears as I looked out and watched that dream happening. And everyone was happy.

No one minded if they had to slow down to help someone into a costume or tie a shoe. No one minded if you had crutches or a limp. No one minded if you needed to sit down between takes or if you needed a little extra help with your dance number. They didn’t even mind if you needed help going to the bathroom. As a matter of fact, this cast and crew seemed to love the challenges, the creativity, the uniqueness each person was bringing to this massive filmmaking endeavor. There was peace and joy on every face as people literally searched for ways to help each other. It didn’t take long to see that every single human being involved was gaining something quite valuable from this experience.

For a moment, I wondered if it would last. Would we end up seeing the melt downs, egos, and tantrums often encountered on film sets? Would someone start stressing over something that really didn’t matter in the great scheme of things?

Nope. Not on this shoot. How could anyone complain? You only had to look in any direction to see someone smiling from ear to ear because they were doing something they loved, with friends they love. They were having the time of their lives. On this film production, everyone was valued. And it was a team effort to handle every challenge. That’s what made it all so exciting.

At one point, my eyes landed on Emily Kranking who was smiling so brightly she lit up the entire football field. She definitely had that sparkle of joy in her eyes. She was playing a cheerleader and best friend to our lead actress, Shannon DeVido. When I asked Emily if she was having fun, she beamed, “I still can’t believe this is happening. It’s like a dream come true!”

Our young lead, Rickey Alexander, seemed to be floating on clouds as he led the most diverse football team ever assembled. The local high school team showed up to play against our movie team, and many of their families and friends came to cheer for the crowd scenes.

As the night rolled on, Lauren Smitelli and Michael Parks Randa directed the cast, crew and nearly a hundred extras with ease, humor and a sense of purpose that drove them through to the final take. Their camera team led by the exceptionally talented Chris “Westy”, worked tirelessly into the wee hours. Perhaps the toughest job was that of our first assistant director (AD), Jake Sharpless who had to make sure we were on schedule, no matter how much fun we were having.

Katie White, our mastermind producer, jumped right down on the field and danced along with the cast. Her infectious energy swirled through the set as she made sure spirits were up and every need was swiftly met. Our choreographer, Frankie Orr, was wearing a cat’s tail as she shouted through a megaphone, while her sidekick dance instructor, Amy Hessler, showed us all how to shake our booties, one way or another. No matter the challenge, these girls had a dancing solution! Our brilliant composer, Madeline Rhodes, who also played the bad girl in the film, entertained the cast often with her gravity-defying acrobatics. Matt Marr, a producer who looks like a movie star himself, got into a band costume and marched right out onto the field too. Almost every member of the crew ended up in the film somewhere, as our costume designer Shari Bisnaught and costumer Maya Luz worked miracles with the help of local seamstress Grace Freeman. Julie Potter, an LA rapper and longtime friend of Zeno, helped shuffle the cast around, always laughing and helping.

This set was overflowing with strength, humor, talent and good will. Dozens of

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friends from around the country came just to help, with anything and everything necessary, so each member of the film had all the support they could possibly need to do their best work.

I often found myself just standing there, in absolute awe, watching this team work and play.

Then I spotted executive producer Will Halby, standing near a heat lamp, making sure all the actors were warm and happy. Ila Halby soon came bouncing up, dressed in a huge letterman’s jacket to hide her eight-month baby bump, and joined the cast for the big finale dance scene. She would be pushing one of the performers in a wheelchair onto the field and dancing with them. Her husband, Peter Halby, was sorting out logistical and technical issues. He and his brother Will would stop to watch the takes, help the football players with their moves, and then interact with the large gathering of extras they had recruited from town. Vanessa Halby, with a young child on her hip and several more running in circles around her, was organizing a massive late night meal for the entire cast and crew. Each Halby seemed to have endless positive vibes flowing as they worked tirelessly through the long, cold night.

Who is this awesome Halby family? They were the masterminds behind this production, and I had to know more. This Halby foursome had somehow created the very world we have all been fighting for in Hollywood for decades. How did they do it? And why?

So I reached out to Will Halby to ask a few questions.

Image 1: Illustration of camp. Image 2: Camera crew. Image 3: young lady walking down a hallway with assistive walkerTell us about Zeno. Who created it?

Will Halby: Zeno is a non-profit camp for people of all abilities. Zeno started as an idea between my wife Vanessa, Pete, Ila and me. We all had experiences at various programs and camps that supported people with disabilities. We were always a bit frustrated because the programs were too clinical. Our experience with our friends with disabilities was that we were all contributing to the friendship, and it seemed strange one of us was a “counselor”, “volunteer” or “staff”. We wanted to create a place where everyone is responsible for the functioning of the community, and everyone is invited back forever.

Why do you care about this community?

Halby: I love the culture of disability. I believe diversity is the best part of any community, and there is no more diverse population than in the disability world.

What inspired the first film, and how many years have you been making films?

Halby: We’ve been making films for 14 years now. Sounds amazing to hear myself say that. I wanted to do it because we had been doing theatre forever so I knew we had the chops, and film just seemed to be the next logical step. Making movies is fun, it’s collaborative, but most importantly, its hard work and complicated. Everyone needs to pull their weight to pull it off. I love helping people find their worth. I believe knowing that we matter to each other is a basic human right ignored for so many. It’s critical for our sense of self. Besides, when it’s done, we get to share it with the world, travel with it and share our message.

What impact have you seen on the young adults without disabilities who have been a part of making these all-inclusive films?

Halby: If we are doing it right, our litmus test is to ask everyone at camp, disabled or otherwise, if they are there for the same reason. You won’t find folks who are non-disabled at camp talking about how meaningful and inspirational their friends with disabilities are. We love this community because of the diversity, creativity and hard work we all put in. That’s true for everyone here.

Tell us about this magical, musical film.

Halby: The Homecoming is a story about two kids who fall in love over the summer at a dance camp. We all know what summer love feels like. I don’t want to give any more of the story away except to say that they have to figure out how to negotiate their relationship in “the outside world” under very different and extraordinary circumstances.

What was it like making your first feature film?

Halby: Grueling, expensive, emotional, rewarding, scary, fun—a steep learning curve. The truth is, none of us have ever done anything like this, certainly with this group. We take a lot of pride in knowing we are doing something for the first time. It is a lot of responsibility too.

What were the greatest obstacles to getting this feature film made?

Halby: Money, money, and money. Talent and enthusiasm abound. No shortage there!

Do you think a film like The Homecoming will inspire Hollywood and the general public to see the value in including people with all kinds of disabilities?

Halby: I do. And at the end of the day, that is the goal. We want to show the world what they are missing. We also want to communicate to the world that inclusion is not a “charity” issue. I think it has been in that box for a long time. It is a social justice issue and needs to be framed as a basic human right.

You’re now in post-production for the film. When do you expect it to be finished?

Halby: If we can get the funding, we should be able to finish by spring.

What are your plans for the film?

Halby: Films take on lives of their own once they are released, so our plans are only hopes. We will be submitting to festivals and seeking to find the largest audience possible.

The next few weeks were just as much fun as we all got to know the wonderful human beings around us. The production barn (aka dance rehearsal hall) and wardrobe room were constantly buzzing.

Andrew Pilkington, one of the producers, was always in the barn editing with his feet, except when he was on set or partying with the gang. He would often show clips of the scenes as he assembled them. The scenes were so beautifully shot, and every glimpse of a scene got the team even more excited.

Part of the team; Eileen Grubba heading to another scene
Part of the team; Eileen Grubba heading to another scene

Elisabeth Good, a kind, soulful woman, was our script supervisor and constantly in motion on set, juggling multiple responsibilities. After the film, I asked her how she felt about this Zeno production:

I learned about The Homecoming through the National Disability Association on Facebook. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at Zeno Mountain Farm. Within ten minutes of my arrival, I knew I made the right decision to come to Zeno. I worked as the script supervisor, keeping track of continuity and how many takes there were for each scene. Along with script supervising, I also helped in departments like electric and props. An extra hand goes a long way, especially in the loving environment that is Zeno.

All I can say is it felt like a dream I didn’t want to wake up from.

I have cerebral palsy—right-sided Hemiplegia. I’m from South Bend, Indiana, where there isn’t much diversity in terms of meeting people with disabilities. I met so many awe-inspiring people at Zeno with and without cerebral palsy. As a kid growing up, I was bullied for the way I walk and felt so unwanted. The Zeno family welcomed me with open arms, and there I felt “normal.” At Zeno there is no such thing as a disability, who you are is beautiful.”

Emily Kranking shared her thoughts too:

Growing up, I loved musicals, whether it’s Disney or my school plays. As I watched La La Land, High School Musical, and live productions on TV, I was dying for there to be a movie musical starring disabled people. When I heard about this on FB, I knew I had to jump on board, no matter how big it is. I was not expecting to get a lead role. For the first time in my acting career, I wasn’t treated as a disabled actor but as an actual actor. I felt like I belonged for once. I am hoping this movie goes big, so the world can know that in media, the disabled are abled!

One night after camp dinner, a fun part of every evening at Zeno, our casting director, Terra Mackintosh, drove me back to Bristol. We talked for quite a while about the entertainment industry, the dreams and disappointments, and found out we had similar encounters, as well as friends in common in NYC. These late night chats were not uncommon at Zeno. A lot of real friendships were formed.

I was quite impressed with Terra and how efficient she always was. Not only was she our casting director, but also our talent wrangler, actress in multiple scenes, and an all-around super star on the production. She seemed to have endless love to give and was a skilled problem solver. When they were running short on extras, our make-up rock stars, Mariella Dawn and Marissa Devine, fluffed her up and sent her into the town bar to “pick up” extras. Another day, she got into a football uniform and played on the team. Terra, who epitomizes the Zeno spirit, shared her thoughts on the film experience:

The dream as an artist is to create important work with people you love…so this movie has been the ultimate dream for me. We have created something truly special, and it comes at a time when the world desperately needs more love, more compassion, and more celebration of what makes us human. I can’t wait for the world to see the magic we’ve made together!

What a nice surprise when fellow disability inclusion advocates, Christine Bruno and Lawrence Carter-Long showed up on set. Both played roles they would not normally even be considered for: a mechanic and a police officer.

Christine and I are on the national SAG/AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) committee for performers with disabilities, so we had a lot to catch up on. Our rooms were directly across from each other, so we shared some wine and pow-wowed into the wee hours on ways to make our industry more like Zeno.

I could go on and on telling you about all the fantastic people we met at Zeno. With every person who comes to mind, another memory warms my heart. I am sure this family will be in my life, and in my heart, forever. In the end it was hard to leave. We planned our next adventures, and made sure to let everyone know we would all see each other again.

So on that wonderful night, as the magic happened before my eyes, I told Will Halby this was the happy environment I always envisioned for Hollywood. Like a dream come true.

He smiled and said, “It’s so great, isn’t it? Shouldn’t it always be like this?”

Yes, Will. Yes, it should. And thanks to people like you, we are finally getting there.

Executive Producer Michael Barnett also made an award-winning documentary film called Becoming Bulletproof about Zeno’s summer film camp and a short western called “Bulletproof”. You can find it online, on Amazon and You-Tube, if you want to meet some of the characters in The Homecoming as well and see how it all works.

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by Eileen Grubba

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