Movie inspired by walk with grandmother

Monday Alamo showing to benefit Wayside Theatre

By Josette Keelor

The town of Cass, W.Va., has a population of 52, but last fall, while screenwriter J.T. Arbogast was there with director Charles Haine, cast members and a film crew, the town became more than just a blip on the map during tourist season.

That was part of Arbogast’s goal. Though he grew up about two hours northeast of Pittsburgh, his entire family hails from Cass, and in 2011 he was inspired to stage his first screenplay there — basing it on his own experience dealing with his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease.

On Monday, his film “Angel’s Perch” will be at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema for one night, and proceeds will go in part to helping Wayside Theatre in Middletown.

Arbogast, of Los Angeles, has performed in three plays at Wayside. He spoke by phone Tuesday from his childhood home in DuBois, Pa.

He portrays the lead character Jack, and actress Joyce Van Patton plays Jack’s grandmother Polly. Arbogast said the film has elements of himself and his grandmother, but primarily it’s a work of fiction.

“We shot in my grandmother’s house, because that was the location that we had,” he said. That felt strange, he said, but basing the story too much on fact would have been more than a little weird.

“I don’t know as an actor if I would have really been able to dig into that stuff,” he said.

But there are some very real moments in the film, like the first time Polly doesn’t recognize Jack.

“I remember her not remembering me,” Arbogast said — the first time his grandmother looked at him “and had no idea who I was.”

He said his main goal by producing the film is to reach out to others whose lives are affected by the disease.

“The families who are dealing with it, I want them to recognize their own story in it and to know they’re not alone,” he said.

Cass was his grandmother’s home, and even when she forgot everything else, he said all she wanted was to be there in her home.

In Cass, he said, “They really are one big family. When you need help, they are there to do it for you.”

In previous interviews about his movie, Arbogast has recited a particular memory from his childhood — how his grandmother would greet new friends.

“I’m Dess Kane from Cass, W.Va.,” she would say. “Have you ever been to ride the train?”

The town is well known outside the borders of West Virginia for its Scenic Railroad State Park, and Kane was one of the original supporters of immortalizing the 1901 Cass Scenic Railroad in an effort to preserve the town’s history long after its main employer, West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, closed its mill in 1960.

“I think nationally West Virginia gets a little bit of a bad rap,” Arbogast said. “I wanted to sort of shine a light on the community that we know there and the great people that we know there.”

Even a walk to the post office was more than it is today in other parts of the country. A walk through town meant visiting with neighbors and friends. Everyone knew everyone else, and still does.

“Part of that, it’s a result of the community being somewhere remote,” Arbogast said. “There’s really very much a front porch society there.”

The town’s 50-mile radius radio-quiet zone keeps the peace, but it made filming challenging.

“If somebody’s microwave is giving off too many waves, they’ll knock on your door and take it away,” he said. That goes for cell phones too.

“Not having cell phones to communicate was initially a pretty big challenge,” he said. But it had an upside. “It meant that everybody was present all of the time.”

Normally on movie sets, cast and crew can check in with the rest of the world during breaks from filming.

“You couldn’t do that on our shoot, and it meant that everybody was always present and was always focused,” Arbogast said. “On an 18-day shoot, which is what we were on, it actually benefited us.”

He said 18 days is what he and his co-producer, wife Kimberly Dilts, could afford. — “It’s about the max you’re going to get on that type of budget,” which came to $155,000.

Costs were covered by donations the film received through a Kickstarter project, an online platform for artists that drew donations from everywhere — such as from people in Australia and Canada.

“I think it’s incredible, it really is,” Arbogast said. “It’s changing the way you approach any project. … I think it’s a really exciting time to try and create things in the world.”

Kickstarter also helped rally an audience around “Angel’s Perch” before Arbogast and Dilts even started filming.

“We went after investors, because traditionally that’s what you do,” Arbogast said. “Film is so risky, you just never know.” But it was their partnership with the West Virginia chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association that really got things going. They allowed Arbogast and Dilts to seek grants and sponsorship the producers wouldn’t have had otherwise — “and that became the key to the kingdom for us,” Arbogast said.

They also received help from others. Panavision provided a grant to pay for cameras, and Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort in West Virginia donated housing for the cast and crew.

“We set out to make this community film,” Arbogast said. “And they rallied around that.”

The film also includes some local actors found through a casting call. People like Homer Hunter, postmaster general and “most eligible 80-year-old bachelor in town,” said Arbogast, who had hoped to get Robert Duvall to play the role of Delbert. Hunter abolished any doubts Arbogast might have had in the beginning, but he had his own conditions.

“He told us flat out, ‘My music comes first,'” Arbogast said. “I think he caught the bug, because he’s fantastic in this film.”

“Ultimately I think we got lucky, because Homer, he steals the movie in a lot of ways.”

“Angel’s Perch” will be at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, 181 Kernstown Commons Blvd., Winchester, from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday — its only upcoming Virginia showing. Afterward, Arbogast and Dilts will answer questions.

The film, which had its world premier Sunday in Charleston, W.Va., has been making its way around West Virginia and Pennsylvania before heading to L.A. on July 17.

“This was ultimately our first run,” Arbogast said.

“We’re excited to bring it,” he said. “We’re looking forward to sharing it with people and we’re hoping that people will come out and continue to support Wayside.”

For more information about “Angel’s Perch,” visit angelsperch.com.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com