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Lora Lee and Tom Ecobelli, Producers/Writers of Chickadee, Talk about Their New Feature Film Being Shot in the Capital Region

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By Jenn Waterman

Promotional Poster for ChickadeeChickadee tells the story of a real-life woman, Laurina, and the experiences of early American immigrants. With an award-winning director and cast on board, including Chris Cooper (Matewan), Julie Kavner (“The Simpsons”) and Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist), a score by legendary composer David Amram, and a script written by two of Laurina’s grandchildren (Lora Lee & Tom Ecobelli), Chickadee promises to be a powerful and engrossing film. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also being shot in Upstate NY, primarily in the Capital Region.

Laurina’s story isn’t a pleasant one, but it is one of tragedy, strength, courage and community. Her father dies, forcing her mother to remarry a man named Pietro, who transplants the family to Upstate New York. Faced with hardship and racial discrimination, Pietro takes to drinking and gambling away the family’s money, including money earned by Laurina, her sister and her mother; he also forces them to work long and harsh hours in the local textile mill. As Laurina begins to mature, she becomes the fixation of her stepfather’s frustrations, sexual desires and abuses. She keeps the secret of the abuse to herself to protect her sister and mother, until she becomes pregnant and bravely decides to have Pietro arrested.

It was a unique case in many ways—most importantly it rallied a community of various backgrounds and classes around this young girl’s truth despite the rampant discrimination of the time. Laurina’s granddaughter, Lora Lee, originally adapted the story into a stage play, which had a successful Off-Broadway run. Wanting to take the story further, however, nine years later she teamed with her brother Tom to adapt the show into a screenplay.

I recently had the chance to speak with Lora Lee and Tom about the screenplay and the film itself.

The Free George: As this is your grandmother’s story, how did you find out about it?

Lora Lee: My grandmother gave me a copy of her diary when I was a teenager, saying she wanted me to read it before I became a mother. After she passed away and when my own children were teenagers, I did some research about the story.

Tom: After her death, I transposed the journal, just for our family, and on the first page, she stated she wanted her story told to help other young people who were victims of sexual and physical abuse. At that time I didn’t have an idea how to tell the story, but Lora Lee did.

TFG: Did you ever visit any of the sites where the events occurred?

Lora Lee EcobelliLora Lee: I went to the courthouse in Fonda, New York where the trial happened and poured over many pages of transcripts and eyewitness accounts and then her own powerful testimony. I then found newspaper articles that tracked the trial and her personal story for several months. The trial was so unique that it gathered the support of the entire area. People of all nationalities and classes rallied support for the courageous little girl who dared to stand up and tell her truth.

TFG: That’s great to hear. You don’t often hear things like that, particularly from that time. And at what point did you decide to actually write the script?

Lora Lee: When I visited the courthouse, I was so moved by everything I discovered that at first I decided to adapt her story into a stage play, believing that the message would be an inspiration. The play had a successful Off-Broadway run but there were many details that couldn’t be told through a stage play, so Tom and I later adapted it as a screenplay.

TFG: And all the events happened in Upstate New York?

Lora Lee: Yes, in Fonda and Amsterdam. The actual courthouse where the trial was held is still in use, and the mill where my grandmother and thousands of other immigrants worked is still standing, as are many other original locations.

TFG: Is this your first time producing a film/writing a screenplay?

Tom: This is Lora Lee’s first time producing a screenplay, though she’s produced several of her own plays including her stage version of Chickadee. This is my second feature film producing effort. The first is another screenplay I co-wrote, Prairie Bones, a Western family drama that takes place on the Nebraska prairie in the early 1870s, with Connie Stevens attached to direct.

TFG: Your promo includes pictures and mentions that you’re planning on shooting on location as much as possible to contrast the tragedy of what happened to your grandmother.

Lora Lee: We are. We feel that filming in the actual locations creates the atmosphere and authenticity of the period; it also helps the local economy and ends up being a source of pride for the area.

Tom: Many scenes also take place along Erie Canal locks, which would be hard to duplicate elsewhere.

TFG: What have been some of the positive and negative points you’ve come up against thus far?

Tom EcobelliTom: I guess the biggest challenge isn’t unique to us, it happens to every filmmaker. It’s terribly hard to get ALMOST funded, and then have it fall through for whatever reason. We’ve been close more times than I can count and each time our heart soars, then we get crushed when it doesn’t happen. However, the most positive points for us have come from the award winning actors, directors and producers who have loved the screenplay and who continue to support and advise us. They say it’s just a matter of getting the script in front of the right person at the right time. That gives us the push we need to keep pitching the project to private and professional investors, production companies and studios.

TFG: How did Chris Cooper (amazing!), Julie Kavner, Ellen Burstyn (legend!), and David Amram become involved?

Lora Lee: Chris Cooper and Julie Kavner were good friends of my late husband, actor Leo Burmester. They read an early draft of the script and agreed to be part of the project because of the strength of the story.

Tom: Leo had worked as an actor with both of them; he told them they’d love the script, and they did, which we’re grateful for. Our director, Arthur Allan Seidelman got Ellen Burstyn’s confirmed interest through his friendship and professional relationships with her, and David Amram is the only other person involved in the production besides my sister and myself who actually knew and loved our grandmother. He’ll deliver an amazing score.

TFG: How do you feel about the casting so far?

Tom: How do we feel about the casting of Chris, Ellen and Julie? We’re over-the-moon excited to have such talented, award-winning artists involved with our film! Especially since it wasn’t money, but the strength of the script and the story that got their attention. We’re deeply honored.

TFG: And has the film moved into the production stage yet?

Tom: No, we’re currently in pre-production; right now we’re seeking development funds from private or professional investors and other production companies. If we raise all or even a portion of the remainder we need (our  budget is 6 million), then we can start filming this fall. Unless a miracle happens we probably won’t hit our Kickstarter goal, but there’s still time, about a week left, so if anyone’s interested in investing, they should check out our Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com/projects/1029754976/chickadee-feature-film-with-oscar-and-emmy-winners) as well as our Chickadee Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pages/Chickadee/109921873517)!

TFG: And when shooting is over–what sort of plans do you have? Are you looking to submit Chickadee to film festivals? And will it by chance have a premiere in the Capital Region?

Tom: We’ll try to get into all of the known festivals if possible. At this point we don’t have any control over the premiere, but we’d be ecstatic to have it in Upstate New York!

You can also check out an interesting promotional video for the film which discusses the story, gives information on the actors and the locations, and features some of Amram’s music here: www.kickstarter.com/projects/1029754976/chickadee-feature-film-with-oscar-and-emmy-winners

–Jenn Waterman is an Assistant Editor for The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

Area Blogs to Visit:Albany, Lake George Region (Warren County), Lake Placid, Saratoga, Schenectady, Troy

And Beyond:Boston, Burlington, Catskills, Connecticut, Ithaca, New York City, Southern VT/Western MA, Syracuse

Short URL: http://thefreegeorge.com/thefreegeorge/?p=9046

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