by Jonathan Weaver
During the course of the next six months, a Kittanning writer will continue working on making his second novel into a full-length feature film.
Aaron Dunbar – of Blanket Hill – wrote “A Wish for Giants” in 2015 and decided to make it a movie
“’A Wish for Giants’ is about a little girl with an inoperable brain tumor. She collapses on her playground at school, (so) her mother takes her to the doctor – and she also collapses at the doctor’s office. When they go to the ER, they find out she has an inoperable brain tumor,” Dunbar explained. “The doctor suggests referring her to a wish-granting entity, and her wish is to find Bigfoot.
“Since (the book) had Bigfoot in it, one of the cast members (Cliff Barackman) from ‘Finding Bigfoot’ (on the channel Animal Planet) bought my book and invited me to a Bigfoot conference in May last year – where all the big gurus and personalities from television and researchers converge. I got to meet him and several others, and they kind-of encouraged me to make it into a movie,” Dunbar added. “Never made a movie before –this is all new to me.”
Filming began for seven hours at the former-Kittanning Township Elementary School playground October 15, continued for about nine hours October 22 at Olsen Chiropractic in West Kittanning and crews continued work earlier this month at a renovated duplex in downtown Kittanning.
The Child Patient
The little girl in the film will be played by soon-to-be 14 year old Alexa Mechling, of Kittanning Township.
While it was a few years ago, Alexa already has taken some acting classes, performed a monologue in Florida for talent agencies and sang in a Lenape Elementary talent show.
Alexa said she does sometimes feel pressure being a main character.
“I feel that if I do badly, it’s going to ruin everything and I’m going to look stupid,” Alexa said.
A YouTube video filmed this past summer promoting the film caused her to worry when tasked with memorizing the monologue, but Alexa felt confident in herself after watching it with Dunbar.
“The fact that she did so well, it eased (Dunbar’s) mind I think that ‘Yea, we can do this,’” Alexa’s mother, Jada said. “That helped a lot.”
Alexa was also calmed by the presence of best friend, Autumn.
Jada hopes Alexa enjoys the experience. Jada was a one-time Elderton Junior/Senior High performer and actually has a small speaking role in the film.
“Experience in anything is wonderful – just to have the opportunity is wonderful,” Jada said. “It can help her out in life somehow.”
Alexa is also a youth bowler, gymnast and goalie on the River Hawks soccer team. Her gymnastics skills are particularly beneficial in the first scene at Kittanning Township Elementary.
Alexa has acted while suffering from a sports concussion and tendinitis.
“She definitely doesn’t want her injuries to slow her down or impede her progress,” Jada said.
Dunbar has known the Mechling Family for a few years already.
“When I wrote the book, I said ‘I need a little girl’s hand’ because the cover of the book has a Bigfoot hand and a little girl’s hand over top. So, (Alexa’s) hand is on the original novel and she was interested in it,” Dunbar said. “We had a little talk with her parents and (Jada) said ‘I think she’ll give it her all.’
“(Alexa’s) been doing phenomenal so far. She remembers her lines, she gets upset when she gets them wrong…I have to say she’s a very good actor,” Dunbar said. “I lucked out there.”
During Independent Filmmaker Don Swanson’s 16-year career, he has filmed in Manhattan, been screened in Germany and Finland and won international film festival awards, but has never directed anything like “A Wish for Giants.”
“This is unique,” Swanson said. “This is my first time directing a feature. The whole idea behind it – combining Bigfoot with a little girl with cancer is pretty unique. I’ve never done anything quite like it before.
“Short film usually you’re done within a month. This is like a bunch of short films back-to-back-to-back.”
He called the initial Kittanning Township Elementary filming “complex.”
“The scene itself is only about a minute-and-a-half in the rough cut,” Swanson said. “We were working with so many people, and kids to boot, that we really, really rehearsed it. We shot it and shot it till it was basically conditioning. I didn’t want to start shooting until they didn’t have to think about it anymore.”
Besides the main actors, more than 90 extras were on the playground scene.
He doesn’t interact with the actors socially outside rehearsal.
Swanson’s assistant director is Cory Hika – a 2011 Kittanning Senior High graduate and one of his former students.
Dunbar said he values Swanson’s creativity and thoughts during filming.
“He’s had 12-15 years of experience with indie films. I was just lucky enough to come across him,” Dunbar said. “He seemed to take to my project right away.
“While I can create a story and write, that doesn’t mean I know how to make a movie. When he has a suggestion, I usually go with it because I trust his experience.”
The Costume Designer
A variety of interests led a Rural Valley teenager to be the movie’s costume designer.
Hannah Walleck, a senior at West Shamokin Junior/Senior High, began sewing about five years ago at the age of 13. She is tasked with designing two Bigfoot costumes – a realistic costume and another.
“I found Freeport Community Theatre Festival and I always made costumes when I would sew at home for fun – that turned into something bigger,” Walleck said. “My grandma (Mary Bellotti, of Worthington) taught me how to sew – she made prom dresses and wedding dresses. I thought that was interesting and slowly surpassed her because I wanted to go past dresses.
“I make all my own costumes for Halloween and this year, I’m going to make my own prom dress. It will be the first dress I’ve made from scratch.”
Walleck originally auditioned to be an extra in the movie until Dunbar was ‘amazed’ by her designs.
To prepare, Walleck has viewed photos of Bigfoot and has sat down with Dunbar to cover the body suit with fur. She hopes to have it completed by Spring.
Walleck might get to model one of her costumes after all.
Filming and Fundraising
A November 13 all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner at the Elderton Towne Hall raised funds for production and another fundraiser is planned for February.
Filming will take place in about 50 more places – include a classroom, a few street scenes and an Elderton coffee shop.
“I think there is something in this movie that will appeal to just about anybody – even if you’re not a ‘Bigfoot-er’ per se,” Dunbar concluded.
Links to some scenes and behind-the-scenes clips are available on the film’s Facebook page.
Dunbar and Swanson hope for principal filming to be completed in June.