Sep 10, 2015

Loving Town Makes Dementia Movie "His Neighbor Phil" Possible

"I couldn't help wondering what would happen if everyone opened their hearts and minds and really came to understand the trials and tribulations that come with Alzheimer's."

The article below was written by Mara Botonis.

Teepa Snow describes His Neighbor Phil as a great film and an accurate portrayal of dementia

Teepa Snow a leading Alzheimer's experts calls His Neighbor Phil, a great film and right on the money for accuracy in typical ‘key players’ and behaviors, reactions, approaches, beliefs, and common concerns regarding dementia.


When you visit the Zumbrota, Minnesota website you'll quickly learn that this small town of approximately 3,000 people established in 1856 by predominantly German and Scandinavian settlers boasts the only remaining covered bridge in the entire state.

You'll see bucolic pictures of a main street so inviting and reminiscent of days gone by you'll wonder if the photograph is actually current until you read that it serves as a social and business center for the thriving community. 

If you read on, you'll find out exactly how to find Zumbrota, (pronounced Zum-broh-ta) about 20 miles north of Rochester and 40 miles south of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

What you won’t read on the website, but will hear from Hollywood directors and stars alike of the new and highly acclaimed motion picture "His Neighbor Phil", is that this town of artistic, passionate, energetic and enthusiastic everyday people just pulled off something not even multi-million dollar Hollywood production companies can always consistently achieve. The citizens of Zumbrota just got a story they believed in made into a movie. From story-board to big screen, from re-writes to red-carpet, Zumbrota's citizens were intimately involved every step of the way.

"His Neighbor Phil", stars Stephanie Zimbalist who expertly and respectfully portrays Mary, a woman living with Alzheimer's. When her devoted husband Harvey, played by Daniel Roebuck, discovers that music often makes Mary more lucid, he uses music to create more of the meaningful moments of connection with her that he so desperately longs for.

Harvey quickly realizes that the mystery of Mary's Alzheimer's disease may not be the only unsolved challenge his family is facing as he learns more and more about Mary's current relationships and past recollections.

Layered performances and realistic portrayals of persons impacted by Alzheimer's and dementia have earned the film early accolades from both reviews and audience members that identify with the characters they see onscreen.

Watch the trailer of this moving movie - His Neighbor Phil

That this movie is being seen at all is thanks in large part to a group of people with full time jobs and normal everyday responsibilities that never imagined that they would ever get to step foot on a real live movie set while a film was being made, let alone being largely responsible for producing a motion picture themselves.

"Zumbrota, Minnesota was such a blessing to us." My Town Pictures' creative director and screenwriter Scott Thompson, shares.

"My daughter Lauren, and son in law Caleb first met Scott Thompson at their church about three years ago. Lauren really wanted Scott and I to meet, she felt we should do something together ." Pam Potter Langley, a school counselor in Zumbrota who later become a key person in uniting Thompson's story with her town's talented and creative neighbors.

When Pam and Scott did meet, an instant creative connection occurred, though it would still be months before the timing would be right to finally bring "His Neighbor Phil" to the attention of Zumbrota's decision-making residents.

"Rather than 'convincing' our community, we took the approach of offering this experience as an opportunity to those who might be interested. We allowed Scott to tell us about his story and his vision and let people decide if it was something that they were interested in, or not. At the end of both of our community meetings, we took a vote. I was amazed to learn at both meetings that the project was unanimously supported by all in attendance. 
From there, we collected names, and contact information and encouraged individuals to sign up for those tasks or areas in which they were comfortable contributing in the process. his is a community of less than 3,000 people and a chance for all of us to come together to do something short lived, close to home and make a real impact."
When Zumbrota came together to make this movie, unexpected I believe maybe even magical things started to happen. "From finances, music, transportation, meals, lodging and anything else the crew needed anytime, day or night-we just did it. We did it together. We all had of this sense, even at the time, as it was happening, that we were all a part of something really special, Pam reflects".

Director Thompson confirms Zumbrota's critical role in completing the film,
"They took it from there and ended up not only funding most of the movie but also providing all of our meals, all of our crews lodging, providing extras, musicians, settings, rides, etc. Several of Zumbrota's townsfolk even ended up in the cast, including Bob Bird who played Phil (the movie's eponymous neighbor)."
Pam is quick to point out,
"We weren’t setting out to make the definitive Alzheimer's movie, and we just knew this was a story that needed to be told. A story about a family in change that was struggling to give and show love at a time that it was most needed and that, we felt was universal."
This kind of Americana, the hospitality and generosity of an era some fear was forever lost is very much alive and well in Zumbrota. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons, local Kristi Knudson who plays Mary and Harvey's daughter Isabel wanted to be involved in "His Neighbor Phil".
"What initially drew me to this project," Kristi shares, "was the idea of a community working together to create something that was their own. During filming, the community of Zumbrota was incredibly supportive and hospitable, literally opening up their homes to the entire cast and crew."
Pam notes, "We are very limited in commercial lodging, because we were funding the movie, we saved money where we could and it’s more comfortable to stay with a caring family than an impersonal hotel when some of your days don't end until 3 am.

About 12-15 families opened their homes so cast and crew could stay there for the duration of the filming. This project brought together some real connections between people that may not have met otherwise. We felt like friends and family when the picture was done.

Every setting within the film was filmed in Zumbrota. The congregational church even opened its doors and served all of our meals there, it became a hub open anytime day or night."

Pam shared the though the topic was a serious one, the overall message of the film is very uplifting and hopeful, a climate echoed on set during filming.
 "It feels like there was something hilarious happening every day, it was almost a maniacal pace sometimes and when this all started I was so naive, I thought well, we'll just help raise the money, they'll make the movie here and leave and that will be that. 
I had no idea each day would be a new adventure jumping in, flying by the seat of my pants. I didn’t even take any time off work! I’d work on the picture before and after work and get these calls that we needed to immediately find "fill-in" musicians for a certain scene by tomorrow because so and so was going on tour for a few days. 
Every day was something completely unexpected! They wanted to film in my house, but I referred them to my friend Ronda Anderson-Sand 's to use her home, because I wasn’t sure I could keep my house clean that long!"
Pam feels that the legacy of "His Neighbor Phil" isn’t just for the many inspired viewers singing the film's praises for showing that happiness and joy can still be a daily experience despite dementia.

Teepa Snow, MS, OTR/L, FAOTA Dementia Care & Training Specialist , and one of the leading Alzheimer's experts calls “His Neighbor Phil, a great film and right on the money for accuracy in typical ‘key players’ and behaviors, reactions, approaches, beliefs, and common concerns regarding dementia.

I am sure ‘first timers’ as well as those who have made their journey will resonate with the film allowing new conversations to happen, awareness to grow, and belief that we can CHOOSE to make a positive difference in how people living with dementia are able to live their lives.”

Pam also reports, that in additional to the praise from reviewers and audiences,
"A beautiful aftermath of this was that even now, a year after the crew had gone, I don’t think there's been a day that goes by when someone doesn't stop me in our community with a reflection on what the movie taught them and how it and helped us all with the changes that we find occurring in our own families and relationships."
Check your local listings or website to see when and where "His Neighbor Phil" is playing next near you.

Mara Botonis is the author of When Caring Takes Courage. You can learn more about Mara Here.

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