In 1908, in the quiet, unassuming town of La Porte, Indiana, a fire raged through a small farmhouse. After the fire was extinguished, the bodies of three children and a headless woman were discovered. It was assumed that the headless woman was the owner of the property, Belle Gunness, a large woman standing around six foot tall and weighing around 200 pounds, and the children were hers. Thanks to teeth found in the rubble, the coroner confirmed it was Gunness, despite the fact that the body was noticeably smaller than her giant, Norwegian frame had been in life. Soon thereafter, digging began on the farm and a gruesome discovery was made. Numerous bodies were found, including Belle’s niece, Jennie Olsen, and many men whom Belle had lured to the farm thanks to want ads looking for help or a husband.
This is the lurid tale that is inspiring the short film from director Steve Ruminski. “Being born and raised in La Porte, I have known this story my entire life. At some point as a kid you end up taking a trip to the La Porte County Historical Society and you see the exhibit on Belle. It becomes an instant fascination,” Ruminski told me in a previous interview. This fascination led to this short film, which will focus on the relationship between Jennie Olsen, played in the film by the lovely Amanda Raudabaugh, and her aunt, Belle Gunness, portrayed by Ann Hagemann.
The scene I was on set for was an attempt to replicate what is believed to be the final photo of Jennie Olsen. Filming in a photo studio in downtown La Porte, which still resembles the interior of an early 1900’s building, Amanda Raudabaugh is seated on a stool, wearing a green dress. In front of her, strategically placed, is a vintage camera on loan to the production as a prop. After 7 or 8 takes, they finally get the shot they need for the film. Thanks to filming on location in downtown La Porte on May 1, 2015, a beautiful day by all accounts, shots were ruined by a motorcycle passing by outside or the blasting of rap music from the cars en route to who knows where. Clearly, Steve was getting frustrated.
The scene was shot by Ryan Juszkiewicz, the director of photography. Using a hand held, Ryan came over after the shot was finally completed, his arms shaking and his hands red to almost the point of blistering. Looking at the camera, it was clear that puppy was heavy and after numerous takes, it clearly took a toll. I spoke to Ryan a little bit here and there throughout the shoot, as we had actually gone to high school together. He revealed during our conversations that he has worked on four feature films and at least a hundred commercials.
As they began setting up the next scene, I had a moment to speak to Amanda, where she confessed to me that she felt like a Can-can dancer in her costume. After doing a short little, silly Can-can dance, and talking about my son and her niece, she was pulled away by producer Rob Roediger.
Soon, Rob returned and I asked him what length this short film was going to be. He told me that they were shooting for 22 minutes. To enter certain festivals, they needed to be below 30 minutes and under $50,000, which they are. Then disaster happened.
As they were working on blocking the next scene, their camera went down. On the final day of principal photography, near the end of the shoot, the camera decides to not cooperate. It was at this time that I decided it might be best for me to head on out. I snapped a few photos of the cast that were on location that day, then headed home.
Below, you will find a small gallery of photographs from the set. Be sure to check them out.
I would like to thank the entire cast and crew for their hospitality and the invitation to the set. I would specifically like to thank Rob and Steve for the invitation and being most gracious and generous in allowing my the opportunity to visit and watch the scene being filmed.
When looking at the photo’s below, be aware that photography is not my strong suit.