It all started with a text message I received one evening in mid-August, from an unknown number.
“Hello Shelby. I was referred to you by Paul and Missy Duley [grain farmers from down the road]. I’m a local film producer looking for a few locations for a feature film production in November. I’d love to include Robin Hill Farm on the list of locations. Can we schedule a call to discuss this possibility?”
Oh heck yeah, I thought, as my brain immediately lit up like a Christmas tree, alight with ideas. That was fitting since, it turns out, they wanted to film a Christmas movie of the Hallmark and Lifetime variety.
What started as a phone call between the producer, Cadell Cook, and I morphed into more phone calls, emails, farm visits, family discussions and, finally, signed location agreements and liability waivers. We were in.
My aunt Susan was their point person for the all the outdoor locations on the farm: the vineyard, fields and barns, and their on-site crew needs for hair, makeup, wardrobe and craft services.
My mom and dad offered their house for inside set needs: the kitchen, hallway, living room and their bedroom (for the bedside scene with the ill mother).
My aunt Connie and uncle Joe let them use their dock on the river for the “Millers Riverside Cookout — Day 12 — Night Shoot — Scene 41.”
Several other relatives gave permission for the use of their locations for quick scenes: the acre of wildlife food plot my cousin planted (site of a scene on the edge of the woods featuring an old scarecrow) and another cousin, aunt and uncle with a shared driveway where “Scene 39 — Country Road” would be filmed.
I became the official horse handler on set for my horse’s scene with the main character that would show up as three minutes in the film, but took four hours and three different angles to shoot.
Our family quickly became familiar with movie industry terms, swapping props in and out, putting phones on airplane mode, and becoming quiet on the set. A new family text message chain that buzzed throughout the day included the film director and set manager. My father planned a catfish fry for the crew on the night they would film for long hours, something delicious to break up the 14-hour day.
I was delighted; my grandmother thought we were all crazy.
“I wrote this film with spots in Maryland in mind; I knew I wanted it filmed locally,” Cook said. “My great-grandfather had an old tobacco farm right down the road from here, and it was his farm I had in mind when I wrote the script. Finding Robin Hill Farm and Vineyards to be the actual location was amazing.”
“The first day we were on set, I walked into the barn to film that first scene and I immediately teared up,” lead actress Melan Perez said. “I was overwhelmed because the location was so organically perfect for our film. The barn was authentic, and I could feel it. To work on so hard for over a year to help bring this movie to life, before the actual filming even began, and then to walk onto the property that was so perfect and with a family that was so warm and welcoming, I was just overcome with happiness.”
She laughed and added, “Cadell saw me tear up and he was like, ‘Girl, don’t you dare ruin that makeup, we’re about to roll!”
Cook and Perez met several years ago at a film festival. She heard him reading one of his short stories, and she told me that she knew that this was the writing she was looking for. “He creates these beautiful, intellectual and thought-provoking stories.”
So, the two paired up and have worked together on a web series called “Second Hand,” which placed in the American Black Film Festival in 2021, and on a previous film called “Four Points,” a political drama.
Watching Cook, Perez and their crew work together to bring this film, a family drama called “Forgetting Christmas,” to life has been amazing. The movie focuses on a daughter who returns home to the farm from the big city, after her mother passes.
While there, she realizes that her father has been hiding signs of dementia, several other family members are having issues, and there is a bigger question of what will become of the farm.
Those themes immediately hit home for me. I don’t know a single farm family that hasn’t struggled with aging parents and grandparents, generational transitions and an overall identity crisis at some point in time. It makes me emotional to think that someone is telling that story, via this film.
Cook, as an independent writer and producer, will work for 18 months or so on a project, from beginning to end, and then presents a fully formed movie to the networks and streaming services for purchase. His plan is to present “Forgetting Christmas” to Hallmark and Lifetime first, hoping that one of those networks will pick it up for the 2023 holiday movie season.
The idea that I might see my horse, our farm and, for heaven’s sake, my parent’s actual kitchen and bedroom in a Hallmark or Lifetime movie is wonderfully surreal!
Our farm was paid a site fee of a few thousand dollars, and while it wasn’t a lot of money, it still was nice to have!
I could see other small farms being interested in participating in events like this, to make some extra income on something fun. Cook said that small filmmakers are always looking for locations, and that most states have a statewide film office website where landowners can enter their properties for consideration as locations. Talk about taking agritourism to the next level!
As a farmer, feel free to reach out to me with any questions about our experience. I’m happy to help. In my opinion, this intersection of the arts and agriculture is something that should be nurtured.
Watson-Hampton farms with her family on their fourth-generation family farm in Brandywine, Md.