While developing my first feature film in 2016, I interviewed Adam Fox, a farmer from Rising Sun, Indiana. At 33, Adam faced the profound responsibility of keeping his family’s agricultural legacy alive in a rapidly changing farm economy. "Growing up, the coolest thing to do was work on the farm," Adam told me, "Now it’s just fewer people, bigger machines."
I was born and raised in New York City, and didn’t have an accurate image of farmers before I met Adam. Frankly, I didn’t contemplate rural American life at all, except within the context of 2016’s divisive presidential election. Most of what I knew about agriculture came from headlines and well-intentioned, though often uninformed, conversations about climate change and the culture wars; pickup trucks and talk radio; monoculture and pesticides — a viewpoint as flat as midwest farmland.
It took a single trip to Adam’s 5th generation family farm in Indiana for my preconceived notions to be cast aside. The people I met on that trip — not just the Fox family, but many of their neighbors in that 2,000-person town — were generous, hospitable, courteous and forthcoming. They spoke of their successes with humility and their fears with honesty. When we asked Adam if we could pay a fee for the substantial amount of time he devoted to our film, he refused it. Anything we needed, he provided, asking nothing in return.
Unlike Adam, growing up I dreamt of attending the Sundance Film Festival and the Academy Awards, with zeitgeisty, splashy films that would facilitate my rubbing elbows with influential cultural figures in New York City and Los Angeles. But in 2014 — long before I first touched down in the rural midwest — I was pitched a movie idea, called "SILO," about a grain entrapment accident. It was far from my dream project, but something about the narrative hooked me: a low-budget, artful farm thriller, which sparked an unexpected journey that took me across America, and influenced my recent decision to move to an old farm with my wife and daughter.
Two years after that initial trip to the Fox Farm in Indiana we were filming what would become a 75-minute feature film in rural parts of Kentucky and Iowa. "SILO," inspired by true events, takes place over the course of one day on a small family farm in "middle America." On this day, an 18-year-old boy gets trapped in a 50 foot-tall grain bin, and the local volunteer firefighters have to rescue him before he drowns in corn. It’s a tense, heart-wrenching drama, played out all-too-often across the heartland.
"Drowns in corn."
The first time I heard that phrase I gasped, incredulous. It’s quite real though, and is an accident that happens on average 35 times annually in America, with close to 60 percent of them ending in fatality. And what a metaphor that is: farmers drowning in the grain they harvest to feed a growing global population, yet many of them struggle to feed their own families.
Visiting this part of America that to me had been previously uncharted popped my bubbled obsession with big city life. Grain entrapment is a visceral, horrendous accident in the most dangerous industry in our country; yet in 2014 I didn’t even know what a grain bin, or silo, was.
And it made me wonder: how did my lack of knowledge and misunderstanding come to be? How could a city kid be so naive? How could such a wide swath of competent, caring people be thrown into a dismissive "deplorables" bucket by their countrymen?
It seems like the only rural stories Hollywood is interested in telling are the small town utopias of "Parks and Recreation" or the "poverty porn" of "Hillbilly Elegy." The problem with these extremes is they both are made with the prejudices of an urban audience in mind, and lack the nuances of basic humanity that one actually encounters in the "American Heartland." When I first introduced myself to the grain farmers our film wanted to depict, they were rightly skeptical of our intentions — was "SILO" going to be just one more outsider’s perspective? Would we seek to turn an issue that, for them, was deadly serious, into an exploitative parable about the "problems" in rural America?
The issue of visibility and representation in American media has been around for decades. The way that minorities are depicted onscreen matters, informing both their own senses of self-identity, and how others see them. Over 80 percent of the country lives in counties designated as urban or suburban. Therefore the rural community, with all its facets, is a minority of its own, and deserves representation in media that doesn’t resort to lazy and outdated stereotypes.
Only by proving my commitment to an accurate portrayal of the lives lived and challenges faced by grain farmers was I able to gain their trust, cooperation, and ultimately, friendship. In farmers’ eyes, I’m still the city boy who produced a movie about them — but I’m the one who made sure it was done right.
Behind the scenes of the filming of SILO. Photo courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Making a movie, of course, is one thing. Getting it seen is another. I genuinely sought the assistance of the film industry to do so, but "SILO" was rejected by over 50 different companies that fund independent film. The main reason being no one knew how to cater to "that market."
Once the industry rejects your product, the options for a film producer are limited. The most likely scenario is a digital release, where the artwork you poured years of life and millions of investor dollars into ends up as anonymous as the person viewing it alone on their couch. That’s a familiar type of isolation: another version of bigger machines replacing fewer people.
Rather than capitulating to industry standards, we decided to bypass the traditional film business model and go directly to the consumer. If farmers’ products can get from the plains of Iowa to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, then the inverse must be true, right?
On August 27, 2019, "SILO" premiered at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Illinois (the largest outdoor farm machinery show in the world). In an unexpected life twist, I traded movie stars for grain producers, and award shows for farm conventions.
The feedback from our audience was overwhelmingly positive, and centered on one key point: this movie felt real. At every community screening our team attended, we were beset by farmers telling us about how they lost a friend, a brother, a cousin, or a spouse to grain entrapment. (Even a farmer will tell you they can be a laconic bunch, and yet suddenly, we couldn’t get them to stop talking.) By telling one story accurately, we inspired so many others to tell theirs. The question then became, would anyone listen?
Luckily, the success of our campaign proved that "SILO" resonated with a broad enough audience to secure us a distribution deal with Oscilloscope Laboratories, one of the world’s most well-respected independent film distributors, which in turn led to "SILO" opening in over 200 theaters nationwide on May 7th. To date, over 75,000 people have seen the film, with momentum picking up as farmers leave the fields in June after planting season.
We city folk have the luxury of seeing high-quality films at the local indie cineplex all year round. Rural movie theaters don’t typically get those films. In getting to know farmers and their families these past few years I know that they pine for high-quality cinema that reflects their own experiences. They miss it, and feel forgotten — or even worse, pandered to — by the film business.
By proving to the rural community our intentions were good, we were able to overcome their mistrust of city folk. By depicting their experiences authentically, we can build a bridge of empathy between them and people like me who don’t know the difference between a silo and a grain bin. Storytelling brings people together when it’s done right.