Lebanon, PA: Interview with Director Ben Hickernell

Lebanon, PA stars Josh Hopkins, Samantha MathisThe independent film trenches are fraught with war stories.

Some have unhappy endings, with directors overwhelmed with the demands they encounter, and the finished film—if it gets completed—sometimes turns out nothing like their original version. One common scenario has a film getting finished but having trouble finding distribution.

Then there are the others:  Happy endings, in which the filmmakers deliver the film they made to the masses—or at least a select audience in theaters or on DVD.

Happily, Lebanon, PA is of the latter camp. Sure, the film took five years from conception to distribution to hit theaters, following a difficult six-days-a-week schedule using a RED digital camera on an extremely limited budget. Let’s not forget an editing process which took several months to complete. Finding distribution, even after kudos at several film festivals, was no picnic either.

But when all is said and done, writer-director Ben Hickernell is a happy man. And who can blame him?

Lebanon, PA, now in theaters and slated for DVD in a few months, is a gorgeously shot, well-acted mix of comedy, coming of age story and family drama that succeeds in accomplishing almost everything it sets out to be. The story concerns Will (Josh Hopkins, TV’s Cougar Town), a Philly ad executive, who heads cross-state to the title town after his estranged father dies. Once in his dad’s house, he meets CJ (newcomer Rachel Kitson), his 17-year-old high school student cousin, who he soon discovers is pregnant. While trying to counsel CJ about her future, the just-out-of-a relationship Will gets involved with Vicki (Samantha Mathis), her married teacher, and crosses swords with CJ’s strict, religious widowed father Andy (Ian Merrill Peakes).

Hickerell lives in the Philadelphia area, but spent time in Lebanon; while he doesn’t paint the film as autobiographical, he definitely sees some parallels between reel and real life.

“I set it in places I knew,” Hickernell, 32, says of his film. “When Will drives to Lebanon, and NPR fizzles out on the radio, and then he smells manure, those are things I have experienced on many a drive from Philly to Lebanon.

“Really, I was just trying to tell a good story. All writers borrow details from their lives, but none of these characters are directly based on me or anyone I know. No, the flavor is from my life, but not the particulars.”

Part of what makes Lebanon, PA compelling are the tastes of both big city Philly, where Will lives and CJ wants to go to school (at Drexel University) and homespun Lebanon, where, things are simpler, old-fashioned and, as Hickernell mentions, NPR’s signal fades and religious channels pervade the airwaves.

So too, does religion play a part in CJ’s decision regarding abortion, as she walks into an intervention attended by her father, neighbors and a local priest, and is accosted at a Planned Parenthood clinic by an overzealous anti-choice advocate.

To his credit, Hickernell and his film have CJ consider all of her options before she makes her decision. In light of some recent films that depicted similar situations, that decision may come as a surprise to some.

“ Our goal was to fairly tell this story—to show a young, responsible, mature woman going through this decision—struggling with it and seeing both sides,” explains Hickernell. “CJ has a line in the film: ‘None of my options seem right, but some seem less wrong than others.’

“The advantage of doing a small, indie film like this is that we can follow the story first, and don’t have Hollywood producers leaning over our shoulder telling us the territory we can’t go into dramatically.”

Lebanon, PA is actually Hickernell’s second feature. His first, shot entirely in Philadelphia, was a 2005 ultra-low-budget thriller called Cellar. While his follow-up took some time to complete, the young and enthusiastic filmmaker got lots of help—sometimes from places he least expected.

“We were lucky,” says Hickernell, an only child who claims Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, films by Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm made a lasting impression on him. “After Samantha Mathis was cast, she helped us get Josh (Hopkins). It was hard to get people on the phone at first, but luckily, through persistence, the script broke through.”

Hickernell knows that a big payday wasn’t the object—especially to pros like Mathis, Hopkins and Mary Beth Hurt, who plays Will’s mother—to make the film, but, rather his script. “They were totally invested,” says Hickernell. “There are no divas here. They cared the most about the project.”

The other key members of the cast—Kitson and Peakes—were Philly-based. “Rachel is still at Temple (University),” says Hickernell of the young actress who has received raves on the film festival circuit. “Ian and I have known each other for years and have done Shakespeare together.”

Hickernell is currently working on getting another project off the ground. Once again, he plans to shoot in and around the Philadelphia area. He hopes that he has a bigger safety net this time, though, regarding his budget.

“I would have loved to have had rehearsals for Lebanon, PA,” says the Haverford College graduate. “Josh and Samantha would have done it. But even paying for hotels would have cost more. We didn’t really rehearse. I talked with the actors. I was the editor and I knew what I was looking for, so I was just saying let them try it and see how it works.”

Based on the evidence furnished by the finished film, everything worked out just fine.