About 10 years ago, Andrew King and Frank Pavliga were flying their antique airplanes over eastern Indiana. They decided to land on an alfalfa field on a dairy farm to take some pictures, never realizing how that would change not only their lives, but the lives of the farmer, his family and the community.
The farmer, Matt Dirksen, thought he had seen two planes crash, so he rushed to the field in a truck with two of his sons in tow.
Nervous, the pilots initially made up a story about engine trouble, but when the saw the excitement in the young boys’ eyes at seeing the planes, they harkened back to the days of the barnstormers and offered the boys their first flights.
A little while later, as the two barnstormers prepared to take off on their return home, Dirksen invited them back, promising a barbecue. Never one to pass up a free meal, the pilots returned the following year, and the next, and the next, each time bringing more planes and making more friends.
Now, the event attracts hundreds of people from the nearby community, who enjoy a day of flying, food, and good, old-fashioned fun.
For the past three years, filmmakers Bryan Reichhardt and Paul Glenshaw have traveled to Indiana to film the annual reunion. Their documentary, “Barnstorming,” immerses the viewer in the annual event, capturing the excitement leading up to the reunion from the family’s and the pilots’ perspectives.
The documentary has a cinematic feel, according to the filmmakers, who noted they had no shooting schedule, no script and no staging.
“The only direction was to ‘keep rolling,'” said Reichhardt, who, along with his nephew, Mark Betancourt, were the cameramen for the movie while Glenshaw shot still photographs. “I stuck with the pilots while Paul and Mark were with the family,” he said.
The filmmakers told the family, which includes seven children (and one on the way), as well as the pilots, to “pretend we’re not here,” Glenshaw said.
And that’s just what they did. The filmmakers capture scenes of the pilots preparing for their flights, as well as the family preparing for the arrival of hundreds of people to their farm. They capture the frantic preparations, as well as moments that they couldn’t have scripted, such as when a group of Amish men show up to look at the planes or a truly delightful scene of the children chasing fireflies in a field.
The documentary doesn’t rush, interspersing interviews with the participants with footage of the preparations, as well as the big day. The excitement is palpable as the children — and grown ups — look up to the sky searching for the planes that are due any moment. Once the pilots arrive in their antique planes, ranging from a Pietenpol to a Pitts to a J-3 Cub, the real fun begins, with an “air show” that includes flour bombing and a candy drop, music, dancing and a lot of old-fashioned hangar flying on the farm house porch.
While it was a story that needed to be told, the filmmakers knew they had a challenge.
“A story usually has conflict,” Glenshaw said, “and we don’t have one.”
Once they realized that, they set out to capture the essence of the event, exploring how aviation can affect a community — “how it made them happy.”
“We wanted to show a slice of life and give viewers the feeling of being there,” Reichhardt said. “The day is the story.”
The filmmakers also realized that music would play a vital role in the success of the film. The score is original music by Suzanne Brindamour. The filmmakers told her they wanted the music to be contemporary, but not feel out of place in the past. “She took the ball and ran with it,” Glenshaw said.
One of the most nostalgic scenes in the movie — of the kids chasing fireflies — wouldn’t have existed without the music, he added. “That song was the first one she wrote,” he said. “It’s got a feel to it, so we let that sequence grow.”
Serendipity plays a big part in the annual reunion and the film.
“If Andrew and Frank had to land in a field, they picked the best field possible,” Glenshaw said, “and then for Matt to ask them back on the spur of the moment, not knowing that Andrew would do anything for free food.”
The family, community and pilots let their guard down around the cameras, which helped the filmmakers capture the true essence of the day.
And then there’s the luck of the filmmakers. They literally decided the day before to attend the annual event for the first time in 2006. Cameraman Betancourt captured beautiful air-to-air shots while flying in a Cub — the first time he had ever been in a small airplane. He had the presence of mind to capture his first landing “and a lot of pilots say that’s exactly what it feels like,” Glenshaw said.
“He was just shooting what he saw,” he continued, noting that was the direction the filmmakers took with the entire project.
“We wanted to put a lot of emphasis on the kids, as that is the one day of the year when everybody gets to be a kid, hopping rides and spreading the gospel.”
It became apparent to the filmmakers how much the annual reunion had affected the family during the one-on-one interviews, when Dirksen said he would love to learn how to fly one day.
In the film several of the children mention they would like to learn to fly as well, but the filmmakers predict the oldest daughter, Sarah, will be the first.
A rough cut of “Barnstorming” premiered at the Reel Stuff Film Festival in Dayton earlier this year. The producers got the film completely finished in time for its true premiere this summer at Oshkosh. It attracted 7,000 people, said Glenshaw, noting, “we had guys coming up to us in tears after the movie.”
The filmmakers now are courting national broadcast television, according to Reichhardt.
Meanwhile, they have already sold about 1,000 of the DVDs for $19.95 each. The soundtrack also is available on iTunes.
For more information: BarnstormingMovie.com.