Playwright-columnist Karen Hurd took on her first film project because she wanted to attract audiences beyond the reach of her theatrical productions. And she achieved her dream by staying close to home.
Hurd, of Fall Creek, is the screenwriter and executive producer of “The Lumber Baron,” a feature-length historical drama now playing at Micon Downtown Cinemas in Eau Claire. Directed by Barry Andersson, the movie was filmed entirely in the Chippewa Valley.
The movie is distributed by Indican Pictures, which is a partner with Lionsgate, a production and distribution company known for franchises such as the “Hunger Games” and “Twilight” as well as the movies “La La Land” and “Lady Bird.”
Hurd has written and directed many plays that were performed at The State Theatre. As for how she made it all the way to Hollywood on her first try at a feature film, she used a swimming pool analogy.
“I just cannonballed in,” she said in a phone interview. To continue the aquatic metaphor, the dive to share her work with a wider audience took far more than a simple dip into the water.
“After 20 years (producing theatrical shows) it’s like I want to go further,” she said. “And theater is a very limited field. I thought, I’m not reaching the world with all these ideas and wonderful stories in my head.”
The stories include those for the page as well as the stage — since 2002 Hurd has written a weekly historical column, On the Heels of the Past, for the Augusta Area Times.
“They’re fictional of course,” she said of her literary works, “but, I mean, it’s the writer’s hope you will learn something of value from something you have written.”
So she made a couple of short films “to just get my feet wet” and then was ready for lights, camera, action.
Those hopes got a major lift when one of the distributor’s film scouts saw a trailer for the film on Hurd’s Scene & Hurd Productions website. The company asked for a video of the entire production and liked what they saw.
“The Lumber Baron,” set in 1910, focuses on the lumber trade. The story line follows Daniel Rimsdale, who leaves medical school after the unexpected death of his father and returns home to the Chippewa Valley in an effort to save the struggling family lumber business. To do so he must square off against his father’s old friend Silas Lynch, intent on securing the Rimsdale mansion and rumored treasure it contains.
The subject matter attracted Hurd’s attention for a number of reasons. She started in that direction because she possessed the skill set for crafting historically based stories. Then she considered the types of films that had been made and settings that hadn’t received their due.
“There’s all these girlfriend-boyfriend, you know, high school dramas, there’s all the mystery dramas, there’s all the action films, there a lot that’s out there,” she said. “And I thought, what hasn’t been done is the lumber barons. ”
The local setting also offered an opportunity to manage the high cost of filmmaking.
“I can’t fly my whole crew to Scotland, say, and work in a castle,” she said.
So she began looking at area mansions built by the barons and found many of them would not work for her movie because they had been renovated and updated. But around Christmas 2016 she found a gift of a location: the Cook-Rutledge Mansion in Chippewa Falls.
“Untouched,” Hurd said, then repeated herself for emphasis. “Untouched. They had kept that mansion in pristine shape. … Nothing’s updated except to keep it well-kept.”
Andersson, the director, agreed.
“We couldn’t believe how beautiful not only the property was but how well the organization and the board did it,” he said in a phone interview. “The carpets, the tables, the place mats, candleholders, plant holders, everything. It was like an art director came in there and basically painted every surface. And it was not cluttered but yet it wasn’t empty.”
However, he acknowledged, filming there presented some challenges.
For one thing, even an opulent lumber baron’s home didn’t have expansive space by today’s standards.
“Even though people were rich back then, everything’s still so small,” he said. “The hallways are small, the rooms are small.”
Andersson also worked to ensure the production team was careful about working in that historic space amid antique furnishings.
“I know they were very worried, but I think by the end we respected what they were doing and they saw that we were also trying to bring the beauty that they had preserved to a bigger audience,” he said. “I think it was a win win for both of us.”
Hurd found other regional locations as well, including Eau Claire County Forest, where, with permission, they cut down numerous trees as part of the story. Other local spots appearing in the film are Eau Claire’s Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum and Schlegelmilch House and Chippewa Falls’ Heyde Center for the Arts.
Hurd’s assistant on the location scouting was Ruth Voetmann, who is her daughter, frequent theatrical collaborator and the film’s production designer and unit production manager.
Hurd wrote her script before choosing a director because she knew anyone interested would want to see exactly what she had in mind.
She chose Andersson out of more than 50 who applied for the job. The Minneapolis resident is an award-winning director, cinematographer and best-selling author who has directed four feature films, several acclaimed short films, television pilots and numerous commercials.
“I’ll tell you it was the best choice in the world,” Hurd said. “He’s fantastic.”
She made clear to him how important it was to her that “The Lumber Baron” succeeded.
I said, ‘This film has got to sell. This is not just a little project that I want to do and pat myself on the back, yes, look at me, I made a feature film. I don’t give a rip about any of that,’” she said emphatically.
“‘I want people to see it, and I want their lives to be impacted by it in a positive way.”
Andersson said not only was he interested in working on a period piece but Hurd had made a positive impression. He chose “The Lumber Baron” over two other directing jobs he was offered at the time.
“I felt even though it was on the less expensive side of the features, there was a certain kind of passion and determination where I knew that (Hurd) was going to get it done,” he said.
Hurd emphasized she wants the audience to notice the differences between the social classes portrayed in the film.
“I wanted to present two things to them,” she said. “I wanted to present the lumber barons in their elegance. And you will definitely see that. And I wanted them to see the lowly lumberjack and how hard these people worked. And what these lumberjacks were doing.”
In his director’s statement with the film’s press kit, Andersson described the film as “Downton Abbey” meets “Undercover Boss.”
“Ours isn’t as complex as ‘Downton Abbey,’ but it has kind of that blue collar Americana worker bee, and then you have this upper society and then you realize, hey, they have the same problems that we do today,” he said.
Writing for the screen is not the same as writing for the stage, Hurd found.
“Oh, it is so different,” she said. “In a play you have to put into the characters’ or the actors’ mouths the words to convey feeling and emotion and intent.”
But with film, as Andersson told her, “‘You don’t have to say all this. I’m going to show it.’ … It was the biggest lesson I had to learn,” she said.
Andersson was happy to pass along such advice.
“I felt I could almost be a little bit of a mentor,” he said, complimenting the way Hurd handled her role as executive producer. “She had my back, and I wanted to make sure she understood why I was doing things and not just executing them. … You could tell she was very interested in how it all worked; she was definitely soaking it up, and it was just a delight to work with her.”
Hurd also had high praise for the cast, which includes Joseph Bezenek as Daniel Rimsdale and Scout Taylor-Compton as Mary Catherine Rimsdale, Daniel’s sister. Bezenek’s credits include a role in “The House of Tomorrow,” which starred Ellen Burstyn, and Taylor-Compton has performed in, among others, the film “Sleepover” and the TV shows “The Guardian,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Cold Case.”
In fact, Hurd recalls the first day of filming on the set, watching through a monitor, as Bezenek and Taylor-Compton brought her words and vision to life.
“And I just cried,” she said. “I still cry when I think about it now. You watch these two professional actors play out this scene I wrote, and I never saw anything so beautiful. Wow! I saw my story come alive.”