By: Mariah Hicks
Charlotte, her husband and 8-year-old son pack their bags for a trip to the beach. The drive starts off cheerful as the couple talks about the future. In the midst of playing a word game with her son, Charlotte lets out a fear-stricken scream and we hear the collision of two vehicles as the screen fades to black. A family photo of the three appears and fades out of focus. Charlotte is lying in her bed. The next scene is a blur of slow motion: Charlotte walking through her home, encounting figures dressed in black, giving her sorrowful looks. The loss of her husband and son changes her life forever.
‘In The Orchard’ is a film written and produced by Dana White, a professor at Kent State who also plays Charlotte, and is directed by White’s husband Christopher Knoblock, who plays Charlotte’s husband John in the film. The film explores the themes of grief, trauma and loss. The story of Charlotte grieving her husband and son intertwines with that of veteran Nick, played by Jonas Ball, who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and whose wife has kicked him out of their house.
A relationship between Charlotte and Nick unfolds after he winds up on her property at the moment she is preparing to take her life.
Charlotte is standing in the middle of her backyard with tears in her eyes as she replays the moments before the car accident. She slowly brings a gun to her head, but before she pulls the trigger, she begins hearing the voices of her son and husband. She walks around searching for them, and upon seeing Nick asleep in her yard she calls out her husband’s name. Nick awakens and Charlotte realizes he is not her husband. She raises the gun back to her head, but Nick jumps up and tackles her to the ground, preventing her from pulling the trigger.
From this scene forward, Charlotte and Nick grow closer. She lets him stay with her, and their relationship becomes more intimate as they learn the truth about each other.
Ball feels his character and Charlotte are trying to take comfort in one another to escape their individual burdens. “The two people that are experiencing such heavy grief, trauma and loss in their own ways come together to sort of form this cocoon of safety for a little while, and then we see how that doesn’t last,” he says.
Each scene examines the hardship of emotions that society allows to fade without truly analyzing how they change a person. “Us humans all love and lose,” White says. “And we don’t really address it enough in our culture in terms of what that is.”
White says a few things inspired her as she wrote the film’s script, including her love for rescuing animals. “I found that this film has a lot of motifs in a sense that when you’re trying to take care of something or rescue something that you need—like a cat—it’s a very interesting dynamic. Both of you are kind of afraid of one another, and at the same time need each other.”
That dynamic occurs in human relationships often, White says. “It’s just this moment… you may never see someone again, but they’re a part of your life for a period of time because you both need something from each other.”
White says that, as a writer, she wanted to convey the idea that when people are in extreme circumstances, they often make decisions they wouldn’t have made otherwise. She examines how individuals try to survive in such circumstances where grief and trauma overwhelm them. “The two of them are looking for some kind of safe place to fall and they become completely, weirdly codependent on one another and somehow come together to help each other. But what ends up happening is they start to actually unravel together, which becomes very, very dangerous,” White says. “I didn’t feel like there was any judgement to the characters and the things they were doing. It was just they were trying to manage really difficult waters for themselves.”
Christopher Knoblock, the director, chose the location of the film to help viewers understand the dynamic of the relationship between Charlotte and Nick. “Seeing this orchard and seeing that these were two damaged people who have both dealt with a lot of trauma… me as the director, what I thought was it’s really interesting that this orchard was such a beautiful place, and inside I always likened it to the Garden of Eden,” he says. “We wanted to accent these two damaged characters’ needs with a quiet place for them to escape to.”
Knoblock wanted the orchard to appear as a safe place for Charlotte and Nick. “Any time we left that orchard, I wanted the outside world to look and feel hostile,” he says. “That was done through lighting and through how we shot the film and the locations that we chose.”
In order to get the two main actors in sync with one another, White and Ball (along with Knoblock) lived in the orchard during the making of the film. This helped to create a real sense of intimacy between the characters.
“It’s a really interesting dichotomy, the two characters… they come from different walks of life and they’re strangers to one another, yet they have this really intense bond,” Knoblock says. “That was a way in which I wanted to express these two characters, was to make sure that basically our acting was really good and our two characters were really, really comfortable with one another.”
Ball knew White and Knoblock briefly through a previous work relationship, but he believes he and White had a natural connection that helped strengthen the film.
“Some of it was just innate, some of it was just what people call chemistry,” Ball says. “If I wasn’t as comfortable with them, and they weren’t comfortable with me, you would feel that on the screen.”
Working as a team had its cons, but White and Knoblock agree that they make each other stronger.
“At the essence of us as collaborators, we share the same taste and sensibilities… we have different strengths that complement one another,” White says. “It can be frustrating for both of us at times because creative collaboration can be a sparring match… and [it] should be. It’s about having strong opinions and fighting for them while knowing that at the end of your creative wrestling, you have something much better than what you started with. Over the years we’ve learned to trust each other and … truly admire one another as artists. It’s intense to be married and collaborate but it’s such a part of who we are.”
Knoblock says he enjoyed the experience working with his wife on a project, though it wasn’t always easy.
“We did need to work out who comes up with what idea, what we figure out together and what we figure out on our own,” Knoblock says. “In the writing process it was very difficult because you can’t write something by committee. You can’t approve everything amongst each other… there has to be some sort of autonomy that the writer needs.”
White and Knoblock have entered their film in various screening festivals across the U.S. in the hopes of sharing such an intense message with multiple audiences.
“Our film was intended to get into people’s heads,” Knoblock says. “What I wanted to convey as a director and what Dana wanted to convey, if I can speak for her, as a writer in this film was to really, really give people a visceral, gut feeling of what it’s like for someone who has dealt with an extreme trauma; a debilitating, life-altering trauma and how difficult it is for them to actually move on with their life.”
They have received positive feedback from people who connected with their film, a goal they were happy to accomplish.
“I wanted to try to leave the audience with an experience, and I can’t control, nor do I want to control what that experience ultimately is for them because audiences—people—are individuals,” White says. “They’re not collective beings, so everybody comes at things with their own biases, their own experiences, their own path, so I think that it’s tricky as a filmmaker because you can’t hit every single person the same way, but there’s definitely ways to structure the journey for your audience so that they have an experience.”
As Knoblock and White continue screening their film, their biggest hope is to have as many people as possible see it.
“We have an audience for this film,” Knoblock says, but getting to that audience will be the hardest part. “We have to find them and they need to find us.”
‘In The Orchard’ has won Best Feature Film at both The Sonoma International Film Festival and The Culver City Film Festival. The team is also up for Best Film, Director and Best Actor and Actress at The Beaufort International Film Festival happening next week, February 19 – February 24, 2019.