Skippers is a narrative feature film that was crowdfunded by HHM and filmed by Director Aaron Wertheimer entirely in Bay City with the support local talent, which offers a touching meditation on the competing pulls of desire and necessity in making a purposeful life.
Wertheimer’s absurdist comedy centers upon a mysterious drifter, fixated on stone skipping, who shows up in a sleepy waterfront town. Hounded by a local realtor who is convinced that such shenanigans will lower property values, the skipper soldiers on, meeting a host of colorful figures, including sidekicks, love interests, backgammon junkies and Irish balladeers.
With a cast consisting of Chris Roberti, Kenny Zimlinghaus, Kate Villanova, and Julie Mann, the film was recently screened at the Manhattan Film Festival, Indy Film Fest and the Windy City Film Festival; and in addition to the Director, several of the cast members will also be attending this screening the HHM Festival.
Wertheimer says he’s had the idea for Skippers rolling around in his head for about a decade, right around the time his first feature film, Wedgerino, played at the 2015 HHM Festival. After getting acquainted with the town of Bay City at that festival, he realized it would be the perfect place to shoot Skippers.
“ I brought up the idea to HHM head programmer Don Hessell and to Alan LaFave, and got an enthusiastic response about shooting in Bay City,” he relates. “In the spring of 2016, I visited Bay City, and Alan, Don and HHM programmer Jay Glysz took me around town to see various locations where they thought we'd be able to shoot. The trip got me stoked about shooting in Bay City, with its great mix of beautiful nature and town locations. Seeing all these locations also helped me finish up the script, since I now had a good sense of where different scenes could take place, and it also sparked ideas for settings.”
“Alan suggested I apply for HHM's 2016 Crowdfunding Rally, and I was one of two people chosen for it. So I got to present Skippers to a crowd at HHM prior to launching a crowdfunding campaign on Seed & Spark, and also received helpful advice and general guidance from Christina Raia at Seed & Spark, which I raised $8,105 through after having already privately raised a decent chunk of the funds needed for production.”
“Alan introduced me to Bill Stertz at Detroit production company Atlas Industries, and they offered to come on and help with the production, providing some equipment and some crew assistance. To my wife's dismay, I filled in the budget gaps with a good old fashioned credit card - what can you do? I couldn't quite raise all the funds and didn't want to wait to shoot. We shot the film in Bay City in November 2016.”
“Alan also came onboard as a producer, which was a huge help, since he has so many connections and knows what's what in town,” notes Aaron. “The principal cast and crew came from outside of Michigan, mostly New York, where my wife and I had been living up until a couple months prior to shooting Skippers, and so these are people I was comfortable with and had mostly worked with before. We are now based in Chicago, where we're both originally from. We had a relatively small crew of 10, and our associate producer, assistant camera, grip, sound mixer and hair and makeup person came from Michigan.”
“A few other cast members came from Michigan, most notably Inney Prakash, who plays the character Brennan. I met him at HHM. I would've liked to be able to cast a few more roles in Michigan, but I did have difficulty finding people for those roles, which I think is mostly because we didn't have a casting director, not because of any lack of talent in Michigan.”
Aaron says that he got the idea for Skippers back in 2005 when he was in Costa Rica, skipping stones on the beach and an idea popped into his head of making a movie along the lines of a breakdancing film, but with rival gangs of stone skippers. “In breakdancing films when rivals get into an argument they don’t fight, but instead have a dance-off. I thought in this movie any disagreement would be settled with a skip- off.”
“I made several attempts to write the script, but never felt I could get it quite right. I would put it aside for a while, try again, fail, etc. When I decided to focus on one main character trying to escape his past instead of rival gangs, that's when the script started to fall into place. I wanted to be able to achieve a meditative, dreamy tone, where things are simply how they are, rather than worrying about why these people are so into stone skipping as a way of life.”
“As I wrote it, I noticed that the conflicting ideas of living for the moment versus saving for the future were driving the narrative. This was on my mind in general, as a newly married man with a baby, and the inescapable desire to continue my pursuit of independent filmmaking.”
I also wanted to have awesome shots of stones skipping along the water. You can't have a movie about stone skipping without awesome stone skipping shots. I feel like we mostly achieved this, although whenever I watch it I inevitably think of crazy shots I would've liked to attempt if we had more time and money. Overall I'm pleased with the shots though. In general I think the film looks great. Bay City in the fall is beautiful.”
“Going into the shoot I thought that capturing great stone skipping shots was going to be the number one challenge,” states Aaron, “but fortunately our lead, Chris Roberti, learned how to skip stones like a legitimate professional - he's an incredible skipper and could win competitions! If I were him with his skills I'd enter competitions for sure. I was glad that we didn't have to use a stunt skipper - every skip in the film was done by Chris. In addition to being able to get a shit ton of skips in one throw, Chris is also an accurate skipper, which helped our director of photography Steven Schuermans get the shots. And kudos to Steven because it's not easy to film a stone skipping across the water and he made it happen. Some of the shots were on a 300 millimeter lens, so there is not much room for error in terms of placement and focus.”
As for influences that helped shape his work and inform his sensibilities, Aaron references the sensibility and look of late-80’s early 90s American Indie films, such as the early work of director Hal Hartley. “His whose films combine an understated humor with a very serious melodrama - I love the tone and rhythm he establishes. Other influences were the Francis Ford Coppola film Rumble Fish, which has that dreamy feel I was looking for; Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, for its odd mood and mysterious stranger storyline; My Own Private Idaho for its stream of consciousness feel and incredible performance by River Phoenix; the poetry and humor of the novel Hunger by Knut Hamsun; and breakdancing films in general, along with motorcycle gang films like Kathryn Bigelow's The Loveless. A general literary influence is Henry Miller, and my favorite filmmaker overall is David Lynch.”
“As a filmgoing experience, I think Skippers has an unusual combination of cerebral, offbeat and absurd comedy, intense drama and underlying Zen that can come together to surprise the audience and resonate with them afterwards,” concludes Aaron.
“I also think it holds up to and can get better upon repeated viewings. Plus, it’s about the subject of stone skipping, that as far as I'm aware, has never been the main focus of a narrative feature. I know the film isn't for everyone, but I think that for people who are into this sort of thing, it will be very enjoyable.”
Skippers will be shown at The State Theatre at 9:00 PM on Friday, September 28th and at the Delta College Planetarium at 5 pm on Sunday, September 30th.
16th November, 2023
7th November, 2023