Movie News & Reviews

‘Harbinger’ a hyper-local film project with Hollywood sheen

From left, Kieran Moreira, Andrew Martin, Paul Frateschi and lead actor, Cristian Dunston, foreground, on the set of “Harbinger.”
From left, Kieran Moreira, Andrew Martin, Paul Frateschi and lead actor, Cristian Dunston, foreground, on the set of “Harbinger.”

It takes a lot to make a movie. Even for a modestly budgeted short film, you need performers and technicians, locations and sets, and a mountain of camera, lighting and sound equipment.

In the case of the locally produced short film “Harbinger,” premiering this weekend at N.C. State University, it takes some other things, too. For instance, a local rock band, a PBS woodworking celebrity, a high-end local building company and a friendly municipal fire department. You might say it takes a village.

Written and produced by three N.C. State alumni, “Harbinger” is a hyper-local project presented with the accomplished sheen of a professional Hollywood production. With plenty of experience and enthusiasm, but little money to speak of, the filmmaking team relied heavily on community partners in the Triangle to make its movie come true.

“Harbinger” tells the story of a 9-year-old adopted boy, Harold, who lives in a community of artisans in rural North Carolina and has some serious questions about how babies are born. When Harold discovers his mom is about to give birth, he prepares a towering tree house to safely receive his baby brother from the sky.

Local recruits

Director Kieran Moreira – who developed the film project with co-writer/producer Andrew Martin and director of photography Paul Frateschi – said “Harbinger” started with a single image: a young boy building a wooden tower into the sky. The three work together at the Raleigh video production studio Drawbridge Media, and they put the process in motion step by step.

“All of us are filmmakers,” Moreira said. “We’ve been working on films independently for years now. This is the first project where we all came together and pulled from the resources of the company to make a film.”

The team commissioned a local illustrator to generate concept art and reached out to the Triangle’s booming theater scene to set up auditions for casting. “We knew we wanted to pull from the local acting community, so we got the word out,” Moreira said.

In the film, Harold’s mom – a woodworking artisan named Avery – is played by veteran area performer Dana Marks, who also teaches at Duke and sings with the local alt-folk music act Curtis Eller’s American Circus. The role of Harold, meanwhile, is played by 12-year-old Cristian Dunston, who was discovered via Kids Unlimited, a North Carolina talent agency.

It was just the beginning of a two-year process that would find the filmmakers working with dozens of local collaborators, including a crew of working professionals who for the most part volunteered their time and services.

“Only key things were paid for because they had to be paid for,” Moreira said. “A lot of people bailed because of that, but the people that stayed really believed in the project. While they were volunteers, they were all professionals in the industry.”

Impressive results

“Harbinger” is entirely successful as a creative endeavor – it’s a sweet and touching story. But the film also boasts a surprisingly high level of what the pros call “production value.” The film looks and sounds terrific, with an ambitious visual strategy and the kinds of scenes you don’t expect in a micro-budget local film.

Take, for instance, the harrowing scenes of the film’s climactic moments, when a flashback sequence of a burning house fills us in on Harold’s tragic backstory. That’s a real house burning onscreen. A real big house. “We kept circling this idea when writing the script, but we knew it would be hard to pull off,” said Martin, who handled many of the film’s nitty-gritty production concerns. For that, the team reached out to the Mebane fire department, who agreed to let them film a training exercise in which an abandoned farmhouse was burned to the ground.

Other scenes in the film required the participation of the Apex school district, which let the crew film in an elementary school classroom and even provided kids as extras. For the scenes in the family’s wordworking shop, the filmmakers used the home studio of Pittsboro artist Roy Underhill, whose PBS series “The Woodwright’s Shop” has been running since 1979.

“In the woodworking community, he’s kind of a legend,” said Frateschi, the film’s director of photography. “We wanted something that looked like an authentic, lived-in, working woodshop.”

Then there was the matter of the towering tree house that serves as the film’s central thematic location. Once again, the team reached out for local help. A farming family outside Apex provided access to a majestic oak tree on the property. For the tree house itself, Moreira called in help from a friend, and Greg Paul Builders of Raleigh promptly dispatched a squad of workers to the old oak tree.

“He basically did it for material costs and got the fastest carpenters I’ve ever seen in my life.” Moreira said. “They put that thing up in two days. It was awesome.”

First public screening

Principal shooting on “Harbinger” took place on weekends from September through December of late last year, with everyone working in their spare time. Since then, the team has been buried in the usual editing and post-production tasks, mixing together the film’s dreamlike sound and images. In fact, the music in the film represents still another local connection – the producers collaborated with Raleigh-based “post-rock” outfit Goodbye, Titan to score the film.

Wednesday’s screening at N.C. State’s Hunt Library will be the first public showing of “Harbinger.” The 30-minute film screening will be followed by a Q&A session with the filmmakers. “Harbinger” has also been submitted to area film festivals – the Carrboro Film Festival and Cucalorus in Wilmington – as well as international festivals like Sundance and the AFI Fest in Los Angeles.

Moreira said he hopes the film will inspire students and others to keep making movies in North Carolina.

“We wanted to show what kind of amazing work can come out of here,” Moreira said. “You don’t have to have an L.A. crew or an N.Y. crew to make a film that everyone can be proud of.”

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