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New award-winning film shot on location at Wisconsin dairy

Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley Published on 10 June 2016
Dairyman Ryan Lepeska, Jonny Paterson and Ben Caird

A new independent movie that was filmed almost exclusively on a 110-cow Midwestern dairy farm is winning awards this spring on the U.S. film festival circuit.

Halfway, a 103-minute, small-budget feature film starring Quinton Aaron (The Blind Side), is the story of a felony convict (Aaron) who is given early prison release and assigned to parole work as a farmhand raising calves at a dairy.

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The dairy depicted on screen is a real-life farm owned and operated by the Lepeska family in Stitzer, Wisconsin.

Film staring Quinton Aaron debuted this spring at film festivals in the U.S.

For nearly a month in October 2014, the farm accommodated as many as 35 film crew members and a 12-hour, five-day-a-week filming schedule. Ryan Lepeska, the farm’s fourth generation and a manager on the farm, often slept only three or four hours in order to coordinate the crew’s needs and keep up with his daily mixing and feeding schedule.

Feeding cows and calves are the farm’s two biggest daily chores, since the dairy vacated its tiestall barn and began robotic milking seven years ago. None of the scenes in the movie include the robots, but nearly all of them include some other piece or parcel of the 400-acre farm.

“I basically had to be at every scene,” Lepeska recalls. “I had to work around their schedule. It all finally caught up to me after everybody left.”

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The sleep-deprived effort earned Lepeska the nickname “Ryan the Robot” from the crew; however, associate producer is his official title in the end credits.

Lepeska was the crew’s local connection for most daily necessities, from who to cater to where to bunk several dozen people for weeks at a time, including several in his parents’ basement.

“If they said, ‘Hey, I need this,’ I would say, ‘Well, I think I know of someone,’” Lepeska says.

Lepeska even made it on camera as an extra who drove a tractor through one of the scenes.

“I’ll never be able to watch a movie the same [way] again,” he says. “Because now I know how many people are behind the camera.”

The director behind the camera for this film, Ben Caird, was a familiar one to Lepeska. The two men are cousins.

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Caird is a city kid raised in England, where his father was born, who dreamed of making films. However, Lepeska recalls him much differently.

To him, Caird was the boy with a British accent who came back to Wisconsin, where his mother is from, to spend summer vacations on the farm.

The fond memories and beauty of nature that Caird recalls from his childhood inspired the backdrop for the director’s first feature-length film, says the film’s producer Jonny Paterson.

“Ben initially wanted to tell an outsider perspective of living and working on a farm,” Paterson says. “When he sat down to write the movie, it became clear that infusing an element of race amplified the outsider perspective and made the film more socially relevant.”

In the film, a car accident leaves the dairy farm without a patriarch. The tragic event sets in motion heightened interpersonal, interracial and financial tensions on the farm that challenge Aaron’s character.

Throughout the film, he considers keeping the second-chance life he has been given as a minority in a rural town with the option to return to his old lifestyle far away and risk a possible return to prison.

“To take a story about race and the broken prison system and the lack of opportunities for minorities and set it on a farm was very deliberate, and it’s incredibly ‘fresh,’ as they call it in Hollywood,” Paterson says.

The movie recently debuted in the U.S. at the Dallas International Film Festival and the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival in April. In Iowa, it won the festival’s award for best feature film. Producers of the film anticipate it to be screened at other U.S. film festivals throughout 2016.

Critics say the film is “phenomenal” and “beautifully shot.” Paterson attributes that to the director, the Wisconsin scenery and the time of year the movie was filmed. But how did the crew shoot a film during one of the busiest seasons of the year for a dairy? Secrecy and a lot of preparation.

For example, Lepeska told few, including his dad, Jim, they were making a movie on the farm until just a few weeks before shooting began. He didn’t want his father talking to acquaintances about the film in Montfort, Wisconsin, the closest town to the dairy, in the southwestern corner of the state.

Taking over the dairy farm for a month required as much advanced planning as can be accomplished on a dairy farm. Lepeska completed the farm’s annual fieldwork early, admitting that he probably chopped a few fields of silage a bit too soon.

He emptied the dairy’s lagoon for the season early and he daily mixed rations early in the morning or during lunch breaks. “Quiet on the set” meant no equipment operating for a good portion of the month.

By watching Lepeska work before, during and after everyone else took breaks, most of the film crew gained a new appreciation for dairy farmers. Paterson believes audiences should experience something similar.

“This film is not meant to educate people about dairy farming, but a takeaway for a lot of people who see the film will be the thought, ‘I could never be a dairy farmer.’ That shouldn’t be taken as a negative comment, but as a compliment.

Personally, I now have an infinite amount of respect for farmers and the way they go about their business,” Paterson says.

So if the film crew was decidedly against a career change after watching the work of a dairy farmer for a month, would Lepeska consider a career in Hollywood after seeing himself how films are made up close?

“Filmmaking is a lot of hurry up and wait, then stand around. It’s too slow-paced for me,” Lepeska says. “I wouldn’t mind doing more films, but I wouldn’t want to make it my profession.”  PD

PHOTO 1: Dairyman Ryan Lepeska (left) of Stitzer, Wisconsin, joins Jonny Paterson and his cousin Ben Caird on the red carpet at the Dallas International Film Festival earlier this year. Paterson is the producer of the movie Halfway and Caird its director. The movie was filmed on Lepeska’s dairy farm in 2014.

PHOTO 2: The film starring Quinton Aaron (The Blind Side), debuted this spring at film festivals in the U.S. Photos provided by Ryan Lepeska and JP International Productions.

Walt Cooley
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