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New Film Illuminates the Dangers Farmers Face on a Daily Basis

Driving home late one night in March of 2013, film director Marshall Burnette was listening to NPR when a segment came on that terrified and inspired him. In a quiet voice working to conceal his underlying emotions, Will Piper described the day his friends Alex Pacas, 19, and Wyatt Whitebread, 14, died in a grain bin entrapment in Mount Carroll, Illinois. 

That tragic accident on July 28, 2010, awakened something within Burnette. For the first time, he realized the grave danger that lies within the silver bins he drove past every day growing up outside of Johnson City, Tennessee. As a director, he also began to envision a powerful story about people and a community coming together in their rescue efforts. 

With that spark of inspiration, the idea for Silo was born. Expected to hit theaters this summer, the independent film Silo spans one day in the life of a small farming town. As the day unfolds, you follow the interwoven stories and secrets of the community members as they head for a grand collision – a grain bin entrapment.

“I hope people who don’t know anything about farming can connect with these characters through the stories that we’re telling,” says Burnette. “It’s not just a movie about people planting and harvesting corn. It’s about the interaction, the relationships within the town, the community, and the past.” 

making a movie

From that night in 2013 to the time filming began in the summer of 2018, a lot of work, networking, and fund-raising was necessary to take Silo from a late-night idea to an independent film. For starters, Burnette spent over a year researching the concept before he met Samuel Goldberg. 

A New York native, Goldberg dabbled in the film industry for years, producing documentaries and live events and doing some acting. With a love for independent films, Goldberg decided in 2012 that he wanted to produce one of his own. 

“I was looking for a film to make on my own that I could raise the funds for through tax credits, friends, family, and connections I’ve made in the industry. But I couldn’t find it, couldn’t find it, and still couldn’t find it,” says Goldberg about his search for the right film. “Then I met a guy named Marshall Burnette.”

Goldberg instantly thought the movie was a brilliant idea that could be executed relatively cheaply as far as movie production goes. To make sure the film was as accurate as possible, the duo hired a screenwriter, Jason Williamson, and started working with Bill Field, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University who specializes in farm safety. 

“The script got delivered four years ago,” says Goldberg. “It was amazing, but it was bigger than the budget.”

That’s when the team decided to put together a short film – under the name Silo: Edge of the Real World – to drum up excitement and investors for the project. Released in 2017 at the Tribeca Film Festival, the short film was the launchpad Burnette and Goldberg had hoped for, bringing in financial support and getting the attention of actors like Jeremy Holm. 

finding the talent

Known best for his role as Agent Nathan Green on House of Cards, Holm watched the documentary and only got through a portion of the script before he called his manager and said he wanted to audition for the role of Frank. 

“The quality of the cinematography and the storytelling made me really trust the director, Marshall,” says Holm. “It’s a very compelling story about the middle of America.”

While Holm typically plays bad guys – which he says is a lot of fun – Frank isn’t a bad guy. “Frank is just multidimensional. He’s a complex person who has problems but is trying to do the best he can,” explains Holm, adding that Frank is a volunteer firefighter. 

set-silo

Crews set up the grain bin entrapment scene from an airport hangar in Mason City, Iowa.

on set

When it came time to plan and build the set, the film crew was faced with three challenges: constructing a grain bin to shoot the entrapment scenes, ensuring the safety of the actors and the crew, and staying within budget. 

Luckily, Goldberg crossed paths with the right folks to take on the challenge: Joel Sisson, a set designer who had constructed a fake grain bin before; and the Sukup family, owners of Sukup Manufacturing Co. Together, they designed and built a 42-foot-diameter grain bin with modified flooring to make it look like there is 15 feet of grain in the bin (shown above) in an airplane hangar in Mason City, Iowa. Hydraulic lifts were used to safely lower actors.

Within the hangar, the crew also assembled the top of a grain bin to show the rescue efforts from above. All of the indoor filming was done in Iowa; the outdoor farm scenes were shot on Quint Pottinger’s corn and soybean farm in New Haven, Kentucky.

Goldberg first saw the Sukup logo when he was visiting Kentucky, so with no background knowledge, he gave the company a call. “It turns out, they’re family owned, care about safety, and are just epic people who are out-of-the-box thinkers,” he says. 

In 2017, Goldberg met with Steve Sukup, vice president and chief financial officer, and Emily Schmitt, general counsel. From that meeting through shooting, the Sukups were instrumental in coordinating the Iowa shoot and helping on set. The Sukups – as well as experts like Field and Dale Dobson, the Kentucky Department of Ag’s farm and home safety program administrator – worked closely with the crew to give the film an accurate and authentic portrayal of rural America and farming. However, as Goldberg says, it’s a movie and there has to be some dramatization, so it isn’t 100% accurate. The same is true of the title.

While a title incorporating grain bins would be more accurate than Silo, it doesn’t have the same sizzle. For this reason, Silo is a working title that may be changed before the film is released.

Several Sukup employees were on set the day the grain bin entrapment scene was filmed. “It’s definitely hard to watch, especially since it’s something that has claimed so many lives,” says Schmitt. “But if this movie can help save lives going forward, as well as raise awareness of what rural America does to feed the world, it’s absolutely worth it.”

Those are the two things Holm hopes the film accomplishes, as well. “There’s some awareness there for farmers about the safety aspect, but it’s also to show people who aren’t familiar with farming the daily dangers of that life,” he says. “For people who live in agrarian areas of our country, I hope that it will make them feel proud.”

in theaters

To learn more and to watch the short film, go to silothefilm.com. Silo is expected to hit theaters in the summer of 2019. A portion of the film’s proceeds will be donated to farm safety causes.

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