There’s a pivotal moment between two women in the film-in-progress Heartland that occurs during a terrifying storm in the middle of the country. One woman is an Oklahoma native, the other an outsider in the land of twisters, who is so fearful of the sky’s rampage that she wears a football helmet. The pair hides together in a bathtub; needless to say, there’s something romantic about being in close quarters while a dangerous tempest is raging right outside.
One could say that when the creative team behind the project went to the heart of Tornado Alley in the middle of storm season to shoot the film, they were just trying to get the mood right.
The very first day of filming last month was cut short by a twister that touched down two miles up the road from the set.
“Every single Saturday, we’ve had to seek shelter,” said Velinda Godfrey, who co-wrote Heartland (along with Todd Waring) and stars as the lead lesbian character in the film. “Seeing all the people from Los Angeles freak out thinking they’re going to die—we’re getting some character research.”
The Oklahoma-set Heartland follows Lauren, an artist who is reeling from the sudden death of her girlfriend and decides to return to her hometown to grieve. Besides the difficulty of being a lesbian in a Bible Belt household, where acceptance of her personal life is always hanging by a thread, there’s one more complication: while home, Lauren ends up falling for her brother’s fiancée.
Though Lauren is not based on herself, Godfrey can identify. She grew up outside Oklahoma City, and she’s as used to a local discomfort with gay people as the threat of tornadoes.
“It’s kind of an indirect exclusion behind a smile,” Godfrey said. “And what’s specific to this film is how it can feel to be told you’re loved and accepted equally, but that’s sometimes not the case.”
Oklahoma has been welcoming on the whole to the project. The state offered tax incentives that helped finance a significant portion of the film’s budget. And local news jumped on the story, playing the Heartland teaser scene—the one in the bathtub—on the local news.
“We were like, ‘Great, it’s going to be so grand when we get there,’” Godfrey mused. But they soon found out that some people just don’t want a Los Angeles film crew shooting a lesbian-themed movie in their backyard.
SEEING AN EVOLUTION
“When we got here, we encountered a lot of people having issues with the subject matter, telling us we couldn’t shoot at certain locations, and people backing out of promises they made when they found out what the content was,” Godfrey said.
Director Maura Anderson said the resistance might not have been about the lesbian content, but rather the outsider status of a Los Angeles team stepping into small, cloistered communities all over the state of Oklahoma.
“Filming is always a bit intrusive,” Anderson explained. “Some people don’t want you in their space.”
Still, for every rejection, someone else would step forward, saying, “ ‘Please come shoot here,’” Godfrey said.
“A lot of the people here, once they know somebody in their lives, a person with a human struggle who they learn is gay, that ends up not being a big deal,” Godfrey said. “It’s harder to judge that person.”
Heartland resonated with many Oklahomans the team encountered, Godfrey said, as its story differs from other gay films that focus on the coming out process. Lauren is already out, and she’s navigating the relationships around her during a difficult moment in her life. She lives in a world where sexuality is fluid, and being gay isn’t a plot device that leads to tragedy.
“By telling a story where the issue isn’t just about this person being gay, it’s someone going through something really hard, it kind of humanizes the character in the world a little bit,” she said.
Godfrey has seen that happen within her own family. She wasn’t out in high school, and moved away from Oklahoma soon after. But when her father found out she had a girlfriend when she was 18, he forbade the girlfriend from staying over at his house. Ten years later, things at home are vastly different. Her dad is now “completely supportive.”
“From afar, I’ve watched my family evolve and come around to the idea,” she said.
Heartland is Godfrey’s first feature film. It’s also a first for director Anderson. Godfrey’s girlfriend, Rachel Paulson, plays a supporting role in the film.
The four-week shoot across the state is supported by a successful $125,000 crowdfunding campaign, along with “another huge chunk” from the state of Oklahoma, and traditional film financing through producers. The success of the campaign could be linked, in part, to Twitter endorsements from celebs like Sarah Paulson (half-sister of Rachel), Julia Stiles and Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor. Godfrey and her co-writer Waring met and began to develop Heartland in a workshop led by Tambor.
Tambor tweeted: “This wonderful movie needs support. Started in my workshop. Oh oh please help these young geniuses. Honored.”
NOT IN LOS ANGELES ANYMORE
For those on the L.A.-based team without Oklahoma connections, there was a learning curve on location. The local crew base was limited, and then, of course, there was the weather. But filming in the real-life heartland was essential to the project, Anderson said.
“Something interesting happens when you are able to capture unique elements of a place,” she said. “Oklahoma is really a character in the film.”
A New Hampshire native, Anderson found the beauty of the Oklahoma landscape, especially the deep red of the dirt, captivating. And the positives of leaving L.A. to shoot have quickly become apparent to her. Local actors and extras who were cast in the film brought authentic flavor to their scenes, giving it “a little bit more of a real-life feel.”
The enthusiasm they encountered throughout the state was a far cry from blasé Hollywood.
“People in L.A. are so over film, and people here are so excited about it and willing to go out of their way to help,” Anderson said. “It’s a little shocking, coming from L.A.”
The biggest shock for Anderson, however, was undeniably the weather. Soon after arriving, a storm completely flooded her vehicle. It took two weeks before there was a day of much coveted sunshine needed for filming.
“I lost my car,” she said. “This is definitely a new thing to deal with.”