Filmmaker Finds Fertile Ground in Fairfield
When the Iowa-based filmmaker Graham Swon was living in New York a few years ago, a friend gave him several rolls of 35-millimeter film. It wasn’t cheap, so he stashed it in his freezer to keep it fresh until he decided how to use it.
After some research, he settled on the true story of a flower species (Thismia americana) that a botanist first spotted in 1914 on the south edge of Chicago, studied for two years and then never saw again. Many experts now think it’s extinct, unable to survive in the crowded landscape.
Ironically, Swon’s filmmaking career might have met the same fate if he and his wife hadn’t moved in 2019 to Fairfield, Iowa, where she grew up. They were worn down by the high-cost, high-stress hustle of New York.
“There’s this idea that you’re supposed to move to New York or L.A. to be an artist, but in reality there’s so much financial pressure that you have very little time to actually produce any art,” said Swon, 34. Moving to Iowa “has enabled me to spend my time and energy on the kind of work that’s valuable and that I want to exist in the world.”
Plus, he received a $50,000 Greenlight Grant from Produce Iowa, the state film office, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. The pilot program launched three years ago and has boosted a dozen film projects statewide, prompting Gov. Kim Reynolds’ recent recommendation to increase the program’s annual funding by $450,000.
Earlier in his career Swon received a different grant, in Italy, to produce a movie called “The Cathedral,” which premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival. But he was surprised to learn such funding opportunities in his new home state.
“I was just absolutely overjoyed to discover that in Iowa,” he said. “It just doesn’t exist in New York.”
With the Greenlight Grant — and inspiration from his new surroundings in southeast Iowa — Swon has written, directed and nearly polished off a movie called “An Evening Song,” a 1930s drama about a pair of married writers and their housekeeper. The three lead actors came in from New York and Canada to shoot in various locations around Fairfield and in tiny Bentonsport, where interior scenes were filmed in a former B&B and a private home with a kitchen that hadn’t been updated since the 1920s.
“It was really an amazing discovery,” Swon said. “That would have been completely inaccessible outside of Iowa.”
Period films tend to be more expensive to produce, but the crew found everything they needed, including a few extra props from the Carnegie Historical Museum in Fairfield.
“It was great to work in a space where people were excited with the idea of shooting a movie,” Swon said.
Liz Gilman, who leads the state film office, has seen that kind of showbiz buzz across the state — in Dyersville and Winterset, of course, but other towns, too. When locals hear about a film project, they often want to pitch in.
“Filmmakers tell me all the time how surprised they are by how welcoming Iowans are and how genuine our hospitality really is,” she said. “That can-do spirit really pays off when filmmakers find film-friendly areas. They’ll purchase supplies, stay at hotels and spend money in restaurants and shops. And then, of course, we all know what happens once tourists start to visit film locations.”
Gilman helped launch the Greenlight Grant program to help more Iowa filmmakers tell stories that can rally communities like that and cultivate fertile ground for the state’s film industry. Iowans are building their own opportunities that lead to jobs.
For now, Swon has set aside his project about the rare flowers to focus on “An Evening Song,” which he hopes to premiere later this year.
But those 35-millimeter film reels are still in his freezer. He plans to put them to good use in southeast Iowa.
— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs