Phillip Elam spoke highly of Gordon Hall, the Dexter Area Historical Society and the Dexter community in general earlier this month while looking back on wrapping up shooting his film “Swing Low” at Gordon Hall earlier this fall.
“It’s almost like you don’t want to tell anybody about Dexter so you can keep it to yourself,” Elam admitted. “There’s an incredible openness and so much ingrained history that makes the community what it is.”
Elam wrapped up writing his screenplay about “an extraordinary slave” living in the 1800s time period prior to the Civil War, when slavery was still tightly woven into the fabric of American society and economics.
His script quickly won over Marvin Towns, Jr., who has worked on major Hollywood projects over the years many of which are household names, such as “The Blues Brothers,” “Weird Science,” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
“I took (the script) to my agent, who liked it, and then to Marvin Towns,” Elam recalled. “I thought he’d recommend a director I could possibly take it to, and in 30 minutes he called me back to said ‘I’ll direct this for you.'”
Once Elam’s shock wore off, he and Towns set to work. The latter of the two brought big name talent to the project, and as a result to ultimately shoot the film right in Dexter.
Daniel Phillips, head of special effects and makeup, has worked on “The Hobbit,” “OZ The Great and Powerful,” and “Real Steel.”
Geoff George, director of photography, recently worked on the hotly anticipated “Batman Vs. Superman” film.
Talented newcomers Michael Boila and Zak Kareem also serve as co-executive producer and producer respectively.
Gordon Hall almost passed over
“Marvin pulled a lot of great people into the project,” Elam said. “I’ll never forget driving around Dexter with him to check out Gordon Hall, since it was possibly a final stop on the underground railroad,” and while en route the pair called Dexter’s historical society for general information on the property.
Prior to coming to the area, the pair knew that Gordon Hall existed, but thought that it was still owned by the University of Michigan, and as such had written it off as a possible shoot location. Another landmark property in the area was a first consideration for a shooting location by that point.
Fortunately Bene Fusilier picked up the phone when the pair called, and she was at Gordon Hall within five minutes giving them a tour and imparting the history and significance of Gordon Hall upon the pair of filmmakers, while also relaying how many people in the Dexter area have fought and sacrificed significant resources and time to polish Gordon Hall into the jewel that is is today.
Elam said that his interactions with the DAHS&M board and some unaffiliated longtime members of the community helped inject a greater level of authenticity and passion into “Swing Low,” which will be released in 2015 in a limited number off theaters across the country.
A personal story
“Swing Low” carries with it a significant life experience that helped shape Elam’s view of people and how groups of individuals who are different on the outside interact with one another.
In high school Elam was at an assembly in an orchestra room where an assembly was to be held. He quickly noticed that the white kids were all bunched together and the black kids were all bunched together.
“I was on the side with all of the black kids and I noticed what was going on,” Elam explained. “I trotted across the room to the other side because I’m like, ‘Why are we going this?'”
Unfortunately group-think trumped the independent reason of the individual. Elam was shunned back to the other side of the room where the groups skin pigmentation was consistent with his own.
“When I went back to my side of the room, some of those kids were like ‘Why did you go to that side of the room,” Elam recalled.
He had become a man without a country by that point.
“I wound up sitting all by myself because I tried to do something different,” he said. “I’ve experienced instances like that throughout my life and they’ve helped mold me.”
“Swing Low” is the story of a slave named Samuel, who has a special relationship with his master Kincaid. Thompson, the rival plantation owner, comes to covet Samuel and the two slave-masters clash over who will possess the property that is Samuel.
At it’s core, “Swing Low” is a story about how we all crave connections with other people, even when we’re told we can’t be with a group of people or the individuals who comprise that often flawed whole.