I experienced a personal tragedy. The story and script that rose from that sorrow resulted in a small and wonderful grant. That grant provided the foundation for pulling in a great production team. It was like the stone in the children’s tale, “Stone Soup,” an old folk story in which a hungry peddler traveling through a new town convinces the people there to share their food through a scheme that benefits the group from combining their individual resources. The peddler has only an empty cooking pot and the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food at the beginning of the story. The peddler takes a big stone and puts it in his pot, along with some water and sets it to boil. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what he is doing. He replies that he is making "stone soup", which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor, which is missing. The villager does not mind parting with a few carrots to help provide that garnish as long as she can have a taste of the finished soup, so that gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travellers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all.
Like that old folk tale, we started with almost nothing but the story and the idea we could somehow help create a dialogue to bring awareness to elder abuse and even prevent it. And, like the weary traveler, my director and I began to pull in people, asking for “just a bit of garnish” to make this movie even better. Like the curious villagers, people appeared out of the woodwork. Unlike the villagers in the tale, however, these people came with big hearts right from the start, willing and eager to help.
First, my art director pulled in a director of photography, an award winning filmmaker who originally we could only afford to pay for 3 (a max of 4) days of shooting. However, as we all became invested in the story and the mission of helping others, that 3 day shoot became 7 days. He became a collaborating director, himself, creating shot lists and hundreds of ideas. Then, there was the casting. Finding stellar union actors willing to work for deferred payment was something we did not imagine would be easy. We put out a casting call and, to our shock, received hundreds and hundreds of submissions. Nearly 800 actors submitted for just one of the roles, many of them including personal notes about how elder abuse had affected them or their families. I’ll be frank: I cried when I read some of those beautiful actor submissions.
I lucked out with a cast and crew of people so full of heart. They all bent over backwards to add every “garnish” they could think of to our pot of “Stone Soup.” The actors ASKED for rehearsals because they wanted to be sure they were perfect when filming actually began. The director of photography, who teaches filmmaking, brought in his students, who were hungry for experience, to crew the film. The makeup artist, who normally charges $1500 a day, waived his fee and brought in a second makeup artist, who traveled all the way from Maryland just to work on the film. One actor did his best to help us find more crew. Another actor donated to help fund craft services. One of the sound guys gave up a lucrative job to jump in and save the day on the last day of shooting. Everyone was above average. Everyone was incredible.
Then, there were the locations, which we had no money left to pay for. My team and I were obsessed with shooting at New York’s Tenement Museum for scenes that took place in 1950’s New York tenement buildings. Unfortunately, our “Stone Soup” did not tempt the Tenement Museum. They did not return our calls or emails. We were a week from shooting and needed a tenement. My art director took a deep breath and informed me she had the answer. The answer was emptying her home – putting her furniture in storage – and literally turning her apartment into the tenement, through painting, wallpapering and re-furnishing. It was nothing short of a miracle.
We had also hoped to use the famous Chinese Scholar’s Garden for the Shanghai scenes, since, obviously, we had no budget for travel to China. Unlike the Tenement Museum, the folks at the Chinese Scholar’s Garden did kindly return our calls but the fee they asked for was far, far beyond our budget so we were left without our Shanghai. Again, my art director and director of photography came to the rescue, turning themselves into location scouts! They found a bamboo forest in a Brooklyn park (!). On the day we shot the Shanghai scene, we arrived and sat on stones amidst the bamboo, facing a lake off of which mist rose in great white sheets. It looked…perfect.
In the words of the lead actress, Jo Yang, the shoot was the opposite of the opposite of a fairy tale. Everything came into place. Just like all the vegetables and grains added to the pot of water that held a simple river stone, everyone came together to pool their talents and resources to create something amazing. My first lesson was thus one of heart. It is easy to think badly of people but this film taught me you cannot overestimate the kindness of strangers. People want to help when they see a problem. They need only the opportunity and the inspiration and they then prove themselves capable of great heart. We had little money, but we had a lot of heart and that heart proved worth more than the hundreds of thousands of dollars some people thought we needed.