Local filmmaker John C. Lyons on his next venture, ‘Unearth’

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, September 30th, 2015 at 9:23 PM
Local filmmaker John C. Lyons on his next venture, ‘Unearth’ by Emma Giering
Photo by Emma Giering

Picture jungle ants as observed through the careful and analytic lens of a professional photographer. In a single acre of nearly any jungle there can be approximately 8 million ants, scurrying about the jungle floor, harvesting plants with their razor-sharp mandibles, antennae twitching. For the most part, their lives are inconsequential, but vital to the continuance of the greater good of the ecosystem. All is generally well for these often forgotten insects, but there are eerie exceptions.

One such exception are cordyscepts, a parasitic fungus that impacts the ant’s body in a manner that is equal parts surreal and disturbing. The cordyscepts infiltrate not only the organism’s body, but their mind as well.

The once busy, focused, and productive ant now ambles disorientated, clawing its way up various trees and branches in utter oblivion. If the infected ant is discovered by his colony to be infected, it’s carried far away from the established ant colony and left to fend for itself in its madness.

The cordyscept then sprouts from the ants head and grows in much the same way an antler might grow. Within three weeks, the tip of the growth will release a deadly spore. And that spore is so potent it could potentially devastate entire colonies of ants. But what do cordyscepts, an ominous fungi, have to do with filmmaker John C. Lyons? As it turns out, a lot.

I sat down with Lyons a week ago in Edinboro’s Flip Café to interview him about a new project he’s in the works of casting and creating. The faint clatter of syrupy knives and the hum of simple conversation filled the room as Lyons and I dug into our breakfasts. Dressed in a sky blue oxford and sporting thick, black-rimmed glasses, Lyons looked the part of a serious artist. His sleeves were rolled-up as if to say, “I’m here to work.” It was evident within the first two minutes of questioning, though, that work was an understatement, as the sheer drive and passion that Lyons has for his latest project was omnipresent and carried the conversation for a solid two hours.

‘Still in the family’

Lyons is a local. Raised on, as he puts it, “a farm somewhere between Albion and Edinboro,” he admits having deep roots in the local area. The farm he was raised on is still in the family; his brother lives on the land. When fracking came to Pennsylvania and began to affect foundational farmlands across the state, it was no surprise Lyons took notice and began to incubate and coddle the seed of an idea. In fact, the very farm that Lyons recalls fondly was once the target of proposed fracking wells and drilling sites.

After seeing and being moved by films such as Josh Fox’s “Gasland,” and Public Herald journalists Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic’s co-directed exposé, “Triple Divide,” Lyons felt the argument these grass-roots activists were making was something he wanted to join in on. That is why, in January 2013, the pet-project he codenamed “Fracking Monsters,” came to fruition.

Pennsylvania has long been a state notorious for its lax fracking regulations. Drilling has risen sharply, with roughly 71,000 active gas wells, up from about 36,000 in 2000, according to The New York Times. This comes at an incalculable cost as our water can become contaminated by radioactivity, pets have been reported to lose their hair and millions of gallons of waste water laced with corrosive salts and carcinogens are now in massive, above-ground landfills. The threat that Lyons saw was real. In a state where the effects of the economic recession are still being felt by rural farmers, the money being offered as compensation for land leasing rights is, to most, “manna from heaven.” The efficiency of the fast-talking engineers and the persuasivenesss of pro-fracking propaganda is what helps to ease the sheepish public to their own slaughtering house.

Lyons foresaw this, and as a filmmaker, felt an obligation to remedy the lies of the fracking campaign using his own medium. Cue “Unearth.”

‘Socially driven gothic horror’

“Unearth” is the harvest from the “Fracking Monsters” seed, sown all the way back in January 2013. Permitted to read the script before meeting Lyons for breakfast, I informed him over email that I was “stunned,” and “in need of a few days to think about it.”

The movie interweaves the narratives of two neighboring families, The Lomacks and The Dinges. Both families live close to one another and have long profited from the fertile lands which they farm. When one family runs into financial turmoil, the gas monopoly’s corporate stiffs swoop into town accordingly and offer some serious cash for a piece of land. The screenplay reads seamlessly, with a true understanding of the complexity of both family and societal dynamics. The characters are so well-developed, the reader begins to feel as if they’re an extra in the script, watching passively as the chaos around them unfurls into a sinister and surreal gestalt of mayhem, which Lyons has dubbed “socially driven gothic horror.” Remember those ants I introduced at the beginning of this article? Imagine that manifesting its way into the human population. Tantalizing, no?

“Unearth” will be Lyons’ third production, a sister film to his earlier award-winning works of “Schism” (2008) and “There Are No Goodbyes” (2013), respectively. Though much of the cast has yet to be selected, actress Jennifer Hooper has been cast as Heather, a head-strong daughter in the Lomack family. Kathryn, the head of the Dinges family and patron saint of rugged-individualism will be played by Ruth Thoma Andrews.

Lyons states it was critical to develop strong female protagonists who were “focused and able to develop the connective tissues between the two families while still radiating a sense of warmth or concern.” If intricate character plotting is not your interest, that’s fine. Lyons also brought Mark Kosobucki of Dread Central Magazine on board for some gruesome special effects and we’re not talking dainty scabs and black eyes. Look up the teaser trailer on YouTube if you don’t believe me.

But Lyons seems interested in inviting the campus to share in the creation of his brainchild.

“I’m going to try to get in contact with the geology students. I’d like to build a miniature drilling rig to film the process of fracking in a controlled environment. I need students with an understanding of the geologic layers that the pipe will penetrate through,” said Lyons, polishing off his omelet and glancing up with a characteristic glimmer in his eyes.

The amount of research that went into the screenplay will surely not go unnoticed by production companies looking for their next engaging film in which to collaborate. The terminology and procedures implemented are all realistic and characteristic of the industry because they’re based on interviews, surveys, and reports produced by nonpartisan researchers.

The Public Herald, a nonprofit investigative journalism publication, funded by the public and based in Pittsburgh, has reported extensively on the damages and misery the gas industry has cast unknowing citizens into. Through collaboration with impartial sources, Lyons has concocted a moving narrative where his audience is asked to question America’s consumerist obsession and abuse of resources for short term profit.

There are foreboding elements that are sown carefully into the script, with the intent of having the audience develop an understanding for the terminology along with the unsuspecting characters of the movie. It’s a mutual learning, which makes the complexity of the business less daunting and more palatable.

‘Something smart and dark’

“Unearth” has technical kinks and casting quirks to resolve before it begins filming in the Spring of 2016, but Lyons’ vision is concise, disarming and alluring. He’s completely unconcerned with the controversy surrounding his vision, even in an area where money to silence dissenting opinions goes a long way. “It’s not a documentary, but it’s not fiction,” Lyons told me. “But I hope that the audience gets that it’s a well-informed place I’m coming from,” he concluded.

In film, there’s a quasi-derogatory category for work called “mumblecore,” which is, a genre of work where the director utilizes nonprofessional actors in improvised performances. Lyons seems to be under the impression that if his characters are portrayed via static acting — acting where the performers are unfazed by the environment they’re cast into — a Pandora’s Box of cinematic blunders will permeate the film.

“I don’t want to cater to [that,]” Lyons said laughing. “I would say it’s sophisticated horror, but that sounds too pretentious. Let’s say this. With my films I try to blend certain elements. I want it to be visually rich, so much so that the film has its own language through its cinematography. The storyline has to be a form of social commentary, as well, something smart and dark.”

Lyons asks a lot of himself and his films, but the higher the standards, the more rewarding the outcome.

Through his work Lyons is leaving his audience with the sense of being terrified and entertained in thought, fostering an uncommon reaction in a world where 21st century blockbusters make the public eye wander from works of truth. But Lyons has the artist’s vision, the kind that makes you sit back in your seat after reading a mere screenplay and think, “Stunned. I’m gonna need a few days.”

And that’s something everyone should be holding tickets to see.

Emma Giering is the Voices Editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at voices.spectator@gmail.com

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