This story was first published in the Winter 2023 issue of mind + body as “‘Sugarhouse:’ Local couple creates feature-length film to share message of hope.”
Wife and husband filmmakers Shirlee Wilson and Fred Jones of Jackson co-directed their first feature-length film “Sugarhouse” in Perry and Cape Girardeau Counties in Southeast Missouri, as well as in Utah, writing the script in September 2021 and filming from June 2022 to May 2023. Wanting to showcase the beauty of the region Jones grew up in, as well as the beauty of the state where they lived when they first met, they say their goal with the film is to glorify God while helping viewers realize the quiet presence of God in their own lives.
“We want to move an audience and inspire them, give them hope in this world,” Wilson says.
The film centers around Maisie, a teenager living in the rural Midwest, who holds her family together with faith and prayer when she and her younger sister Cricket are abandoned by their outlaw father, according to Lost Sheep Pictures’ synopsis. To avoid entering the foster care system that could separate the sisters from each other, Maisie reaches out to their wayward older brother Finn, who is reluctant to stay at their farmhouse, fearing his return will lure him back to a life of crime.
As a mysterious medical condition threatens Cricket, Finn deals with the repercussions of the sins of his past and their father returns, Maisie discovers the secrets of the family’s sugarhouse while wrestling with despair and the unknown truths of her own life, realizing the presence of God in new ways throughout the seasons.
Jones says they wanted to ensure the film incorporated inspirational faith elements while not being “preachy.” Ultimately, he says they achieved this by creating a drama in which faith is an organic part of the characters’ lives woven throughout the story. They also worked to portray God’s presence not through miracles but through “little things, like the sunrise, the sunset, a bird chirping,” Wilson says, experiences of God the “normal, everyday person” might have.
“In the chaos and uncertainty of the world we currently live in, I think people are wanting to have hope, and they’re searching for … peace in the midst of all the chaos,” Wilson says. “I think everyone could say they know somebody who’s struggled with depression, despair, anxiety; most people have in the last four years in some way, shape or form, and [the film is] kind of just showing you that God’s presence, he is there. Even when you don’t see him, he is there.”
Jones, a Jackson native, felt the desire to be a filmmaker as a teenager; he says at the time, Southeast Missouri State University didn’t offer film studies, so he knew he had to wait to pursue his dream. Wilson grew up choreographing gymnastics and ice skating shows for the people in her neighborhood in her home state of Utah and realized she wanted to use film — the combination of story, visuals and audio — to share messages with others.
The two met as graduate students while attending film school in Utah in the 1990s, where they earned their MFAs in film production from the University of Utah. They got married and soon after graduating had their daughter; Jones says they realized rather than starting their lives as filmmakers, God had other plans for them during that time period of their lives, and it was their time to put their efforts towards raising a family. They decided to move back to Jones’ hometown, got jobs and also had their son. Jones says “the [filmmaking] dream was always there,” though, and they kept writing scripts and making short films, winning first place at the Slamdance Screenwriting Competition and being a Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting three-time quarterfinalist, as well as a finalist in the American Zoetrope Screenwriting Competition.
When their youngest graduated from high school in 2021, they turned their attention back to their dream of creating a feature-length film. They wrote a couple of scripts and spoke with major studios about one of them, but the studios weren’t interested in a film that didn’t have financing in place. Finally, Wilson and Jones decided to make a smaller-budget film on their own, writing a script around places, characters and objects they had access to.
They had previously filmed a documentary about making maple syrup in the Gihring family’s sugarhouse near Altenburg, Mo., a process they found interesting. They decided to write a script centered around a sugarhouse that had a “message and a meaning to it,” Wilson says, and began writing their feature-length film “Sugarhouse” in September 2021.
It was important to Wilson and Jones to portray a rural Midwestern family who is not wealthy in their film, as opposed to the upper-class neighborhood family often depicted in movies. Since he grew up in Southeast Missouri, Jones also wanted to showcase the beauty of this region.
“I’ve grown up here, so I’m kind of drawn to rural Midwestern values and things like that. So [the film] feels very Midwestern, for sure,” Jones says. “I can’t write anything outside of this area, personally. Everything I write is rooted to this specific area. What I love about film is … you’re immersing yourself in this other world. So this is kind of the little part of the world that we’re going to share with an audience.”
After completing the 90-page script, they held casting auditions in January 2022.
“We kind of knew we weren’t going to find people in this area that have lots of background in acting,” Wilson says. “So, we knew we just had to find people who had the look and that had talent. And we would work with them.”
They worked to help the actresses and actors feel comfortable on set by providing time for them to get to know each other and become friends off-set, in hopes their relationships would translate on-camera. They say they feel each of the four main actresses and actors were brought to the project intentionally by God, often through different connections they had with people’s families. In the movie, Darren DeLoach plays the father Gage, Caleb Ebert plays the brother Finn, Alivia Roach plays the older sister Maisie and Tess Farrar plays the younger sister Cricket. While filming, Wilson says Roach and Farrar became like sisters, which “sells the film.”
Roach, who was a senior during the casting call, says she didn’t expect to get the part, so she didn’t try out for it during the first couple of rounds of auditions; it was only at the prompting of her theater teacher at Jackson High School that she auditioned. She says she hadn’t really found something she loved to do in high school before she auditioned for the role and had felt discouraged about that; “but then God introduced this to me,” she says, and throughout the course of filming, she says she learned to trust God and God’s purpose for her.
Involved in theater in high school, Roach says film acting came naturally to her, so she didn’t have to do very much to prepare for her role.
“[My character Maisie is] a very quiet and sweet girl and just wanting to help people in whatever way she can, and I really connected with her in that way,” Roach says. “You’ve got to kind of hide it, in a way, and be subtle with your little facial expressions and your body language [when film acting]. For my character, she’s very quiet, and it is kind of a very sad movie at some parts, and just showing that sadness in different ways was a little difficult, but it was fun to test it out.”
The crew, too, was comprised of local people, led by director of photography Adam Miller. Shooting 200 scenes in total — five or six per each day of filming — Jones says the cast and crew bonded throughout the year they spent together.
“It was like a little family,” Jones says. “We spent literally a year together, and it was like we’d shoot, and then we’d have these dinners together sitting around a table with each other, and we got really close. There was just … a bond to all of us with our crew, too.”
Before filming, however, the couple raised money for the film and learned how to run a business, including how to do payroll and set up production insurance. Wilson did the production design of the film, scouting and scheduling for 30 locations and finding or creating all of the props to outfit the set, including the farmhouse where they shot scenes of the family at home. The vacant house belongs to Jones’ brother-in-law, so they had access to it for the entire year. Jones made a shot list, so they had direction for how to film while on set.
While filming, Jones enjoyed working with the actors, standing by the camera while Wilson watched the scene on the monitor. Through this way of working, they were each able to notice things the other didn’t see and coach the actors in how to approach a scene. Because they shot the movie out of sequence, Jones had the script in his head and could help the actors get in the right frame of mind for where they were in the timeline of the movie while filming.
They began shooting in June 2022 in Utah and then in July 2022 in Southeast Missouri, wrapping filming at the end of May 2023. They filmed on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays on many weekends throughout the year. While filming, they say there were many moments where they were provided for by God, including instances with weather, like the day when they needed to get a specific scene filmed on a hill with no shelter around it; on the radar, they saw rain clouds moving towards the area. Before walking to the hill to film, they asked God to help them with the weather. When they got to the hill, one of the crew members showed them the radar: It showed the rain cloud splitting over the area where they were filming and going around their set. Wilson says moments like these affirmed for her God was with them in the creative process.
“I always have to just constantly tell myself: Look back and see how God has worked out things. So obviously, he wants to continue,” Wilson says.
During the weekdays, Wilson worked on editing the footage, “looking for those moments that move you emotionally,” Jones says. Meticulous note-taking is key to the editing process, Wilson says: They marked each shot while filming, and Wilson took detailed notes about which takes were best. Then, she edited the scenes together to produce a rough cut of the movie, watching for continuity in each shot to ensure the actors, props and costumes in the scene were in the same place when the camera angle moved.
The first edit of the movie was approximately two and half hours long, so Wilson and Jones sat down together and cut it down to two hours and four minutes with credits, work they say was difficult, because they had to cut “beautiful” images from the film.
Now, they are working with local sound effects editor Tyler Myers to perfect the sound in the film. Composer Evan Hodges out of Atlanta is creating the soundtrack.
Kappa Studios Inc in Burbank, Calif., which is the post-production house for “The Chosen,” a popular show that depicts stories of Jesus’ life in the Gospels, is currently doing post-production on “Sugarhouse,” working on sound mixing, color grading and visual effects. Wilson and Jones’ goal is to have the movie finished by January 2024, when they will submit it to film festivals to help it gain exposure and garner the interest of distributors who make deals for selling a movie to viewing platforms. Their hope is to do a release of the film in theaters before it goes to streaming platforms. After this movie is released, they hope to continue making films either for hire or by having others invest in their scripts.
With a goal to move audiences, Wilson and Jones say they have been moved as filmmakers and as people throughout the process of making the film, too. They encourage other creatives to be patient and persevere, even though the process of realizing a dream can be discouraging and difficult, especially when it doesn’t happen in the expected timeframe. It’s about letting go of the ego, Jones says.
“It hasn’t been easy keeping the hope up,” Wilson says.
“It’s been very rewarding, though, this process,” Jones says. “Incredibly rewarding.”
“Yeah, it has been,” Wilson agrees. “And we’ve grown.”
See the film
Watch the trailer at www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_9gY5O_dVk, and follow Sugarhouse Movie on Facebook to stay up-to-date with news about “Sugarhouse,” including dates and locations of film screenings.
Want to help?
Kappa Studios Inc., the studio who creates “The Chosen,” a popular show depicting the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels, is doing the post-production work on “Sugarhouse.” Donate to the film’s funding page to be a part of making this happen. As a nonprofit 501(c)3, donations are tax-deductible; donations can be made at www.kappaimpact.com/.kappa-impact/currently-funding/sugarhouse/.