What is it like when your grandmother looks at you and there is no spark of recognition in her eyes? J.T. Arbogast knows, and he's sharing it with audiences in Pittsburgh tonight through his new film, "Angel's Perch."
Deeply personal and relatable, "Angel's Perch" is inspired by Mr. Arbogast's and his family's experience with a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Jack, played by Mr. Arbogast, is advancing in his career as an architect in Pittsburgh when he gets the call that his grandmother, Polly, played by Joyce Van Patten, was found wandering around outside. Jack drops everything and makes his way to West Virginia.
What was meant to be only a two-day trip to set up Polly in assisted living is complicated when she refuses to leave her home and Jack's past begins to catch up with him. All the while, Polly is descending further into forgetfulness as Alzheimer's eats up her memories.
Set mostly against the backdrop of Cass, W.Va., Mr. Arbogast returned to his roots to film the movie.
Cass was once a thriving mill town, but in 1960, it came to a halt when it could no longer sustain the lumber industry. That's when Mr. Arbogast's grandparents and other local business owners teamed up to work with legislators to transform their town into a state park known for its railroads and scenic views.
"I had always known growing up that I would try to write something about this place that would highlight it," Mr. Arbogast said. "After [my grandmother] passed away and I took a little bit of time, I started to think about how I could combine my love of this place and that experience that my family went through in a fictional story that would allow me to accomplish the goal of highlighting the area and also raising awareness about the disease."
Co-produced with his wife, Kimberly Dilts, and directed by Charles Haine, the film is not about Mr. Arbogast's personal experiences, and although he plays the lead, that was not Mr. Arbogast's intention when he wrote the script.
He made sure to keep a separation between himself and his character but admits it was sometimes difficult, especially because the movie was also shot in his grandmother's old house. "There were moments where I was in the house that we spent every Christmas at, every Thanksgiving at and I'd have these moments looking around where I had to remind myself, 'I'm not at my grandmother's house, I'm on set.' "
Ultimately, "Angel's Perch" could be anyone's story. More than 5 million people in the United States suffer from Alzheimer's disease and just as many people are caregivers, friends and families of those who have it. "Angel's Perch" received an outpouring of support from people around the country who contributed $32,000 to the Kickstarter campaign that would partly finance the film.
"The really cool thing about it is that suddenly we weren't by ourselves anymore," Mr. Arbogast said. "We weren't just Kim and Charles and J.T. working on this film. We suddenly had 300 people who wanted to be a part of it and wanted to support it."
Mr. Arbogast also reached out to the local Alzheimer's Association Branch in West Virginia. It became a partner, got more people on board and worked closely with the cast and crew to make sure the film accurately portrayed the realities of Alzheimer's.
Apart from Mr. Arbogast, some of the cast and crew have had experiences with Alzheimer's in the family. Ellen Crawford, who plays Betsy, joined the cast after seeing initial footage of the film. Her mother-in-law had Alzheimer's.
Like Mr. Arbogast, Mr. Haine's grandmother also had the disease. "In the early writing after we had a first draft, Charles brought elements of his own experience with the disease," Mr. Arbogast said. "Everyone was sort of bringing elements to the film that they wanted to touch on in the story that would also allow it to be personal to them."
As an independent film operating on a $160,000 budget, "Angel's Perch" won't be for everyone. "We know we're not going to compete with 'Man of Steel,' " Mr. Arbogast said laughingly. Rather, it was important to find an audience that would be receptive to the film.
The film was released using TUGG, through which individuals or organizations interested in seeing the film can host a screening at their local movie theater. All they have to do is promote the film and get a set number of people to reserve their tickets online.
Many Alzheimer's Associations across the country are scheduling screenings and using the film to create dialogue about the disease. A percentage of the money raised through ticket sales goes to the local chapters.
"Angel's Perch" will be screened at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront tonight at 7:30. Tickets must be reserved in advance through www.tugg.com/events/4406 or by calling TUGG customer support at 1-855-321-8844. More information: Angelsperch.com.
Kitoko Chargois: email@example.com or 412-263-1088.