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Folklight Film Club founder is out to change the way movies are made

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From her home in the redwoods of Guerneville, actress Brooke Tansley is waging a quiet revolution against the powers that be in her profession.

The Broadway actress whose credentials include a turn as Belle in the Broadway production of “Beauty and the Beast,” began imagining what it would be like to reclaim storytelling from the Hollywood moguls who make movies by the numbers, deciding with a godlike power, what stories get made and for whom.

She remembers the exact moment the concept for a new form of filmmaking came to her. It was while driving a winding 6-mile stretch of Highway 116 between Forestville and Guerneville in the summer of 2015.

“My first thought was, ‘What if we made a wine club, but instead of wine we would make movies?’ ” she recalled.

It’s an idea that as far as she can tell, has never been tried, but which she’s beta testing in Sonoma County with a hope that it can be launched in other communities as well.

More than just crowdfunding, club members would get to have a hand in the whole filmmaking process from the ground up, including driving the storyline and characters for what would become a full-length feature film, written, directed and filmed by Hollywood professionals, but set in Sonoma County and reflecting the people who live here.

She’s calling it “the world’s first farm-to-table” film, a nod to the locavore food movement that extols the virtues of eating food that is fresh, seasonal and grown close to home.

“The local members would be the farmers and the professional Hollywood team would be the chefs and we would make a film inspired by local people and the land and the community and the culture here,” she said.

Members of what she has called “The Folklight Film Club,” for $79 a quarter get to collaborate with other members to shape a film.

“There’s a lack of representation of marginalized people in film,” said Tansley, who came to Sonoma County to perform with the professional Transcendence Theatre Company at Jack London State Historic Park, fell in love with the area and decided to stay. “What we have right now is an industry created from the perspective of and serving the tastes of one kind of person.

And it isn’t logical to believe one kind of person can accurately choose the stories we are all going to want to be told. This is a real opportunity to include a broader breadth of humanity in the storytelling tradition.”

The intent, however, is not to be art-by-committee and Tansley is quick to point out that storytelling, going back to prehistoric times, was a way of bringing communities together through “shared wisdom and values.”

“The business that created the film industry of storytelling shifted the focus instead toward creating illusion, collecting power and money and influence and in a large part, fulfilling their own personal fantasies,” she said, a theme she articulates with passion in a video on the Folklight website, folklightfilmclub.com.

“We want to take storytelling through the medium of film back, and realign it with the original purpose of bringing community together.”

Shoot high

While anyone with a digital camera can make a movie nowadays, the 41-year-old Tansley is aiming to shoot high, drawing on connections built over more than 20 years in the entertainment business.

She wants Folklight Films to be polished, using a professional cast and crew. Her goal is to create a movie that is good enough for commercial distribution to theaters and/or streaming.

Some 55 people so far have joined the Folklight Film Club. Many have provided input to a screenplay being written by professional screenwriter and actor Bradley Fowler, whose film “Love Meets Hope,” (which he wrote, and starred in along with Ed Asner and Amanda Markowitz) was released in 2016.

Fowler culled through a series of profiles provided by club members to come up with a storyline and characters inspired by their lives and stories.

Club members were then invited to a “table reading” of his first draft, a story centering around four Sonoma County women in their 60s who grew up together and reunite.

The initial tension of the story just didn’t resonate with the group. So Fowler went back to the keyboard, building a whole new scenario around the four women. He’s about ready to bring his revision back to the club.

The script includes characters that reflect Sonoma County’s demographics and diversity — older women, LGBTQ and Latino — not always Hollywood’s first target audience.

Sharon Hawthorne, a real estate agent from Graton, is one of the founding members of the fledgling Folklight. She said she’s always been a “filmmaking wannabe” and was intrigued by the opportunity to take part in the making of a feature film, something she otherwise wouldn’t have the equipment or technical skills to do on her own.

“I’m a great fan of the art of filmmaking,” she said. “When they do the documentary film festival I’m there, from the first hour of the first day to the last hour of the last day.”

Intrigued by concept

Folklight members Frank and Nancy Tansy of Sebastopol got to know Brooke Tansley while serving as volunteer hosts for Transcendence, which brings in young professional actors and singers to work for the summer staging Broadway quality shows.

Frank said he is intrigued by the concept, having grown up in Los Angeles, where his grandfather was a prop master for MGM. His idea of a film centered around the drama of The Press Democrat staff’s coverage of the 2017 wildfires, which resulted in a Pulitzer Prize, wasn’t picked up by the group.

“To me it was a great story because you’ve got a fire story, but it’s not a fire story. It’s a people story,” he said. But he said he was impressed with the group process, and the honest feedback that resulted in a big change in the first script.

“It’s one thing for somebody to do a short story movie and put it on YouTube and get a bunch of people liking it. It’s another thing to say we’re doing a feature film and this feature film is reflective of the interests and the perspective of the inner thoughts of a group of people coming together to try to collectively share something with the world.”

Cynthi Stefenoni of Sebastopol, who spent a career as an assistant director in Hollywood, including the series “Lois and Clark,” was persuaded to reach out to Tansley after reading about Folklight online.

She’s now signed on to be assistant director on the film, a job that entails handling many of the logistics. Tansley hopes to shoot on a tight production schedule in September, followed by discussions among the crew, cast and club members.

Stefenoni believes her experience in the fast-paced turnaround of television will be an asset.

“I met with her and really like what I heard and who she is,” Stefenoni said of Tansley, calling her “a ball of fire.”

Tansley brings a breadth of experience to her venture, beginning when she was a child performing in local theater in her hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut.

“Throughout my childhood in my family we all produced community and school theater together,” she recalled. “We would all produce shows. My mom did costume design; my dad was director. I did choreography and my brother did sound and lights.” Her father, Bob Tansley, still runs the children’s theater company.

Her first paying job came when she auditioned as a child for a part in a dinner theater production of “Annie.”

“I instantly fell in love with it and knew I wanted to do that with my life,” she said.

Improv, sketch comedy

While studying musical theater and acting at New York University, she worked under a Broadway costume designer, learning that part of the business.

She later did improv and sketch comedy as both a performer and writer with Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade Training Center. .

As a child of 13 she heard about “Beauty and the Beast” being developed for Broadway, sparking a dream to grow up and perform in it on Broadway. Her first turn on the Broadway stage was as a “Swing” in “Hairspray” (a swing is an actor who understudies for multiple roles.)

“I understudied for 11 people,” she said. “And every time I went on as a different person. It was an incredible experience.” In 2004 her childhood dream came true when she landed the lead in “Beauty and the Beast.”

It was during her Broadway years that she was recruited for Transcendence in 2012. An 8-mile hike through Jack London’s Beauty Ranch, where the company performs under the stars, convinced her she didn’t want to go home.

Immediately after she made that decision, she met future husband Scott Herrmann, director of hospitality at Williams-Selyem winery in Healdsburg. The couple now are parents to Clara, almost 2, a budding singer, and Herrmann is on the board of Folklight.

Tansley also recruited her friend, Michael Berry — an actor and director whose latest film, a musical drama called “Stuck” was awarded “Best Narrative Feature” at the 2017 Napa Valley Film Festival and was just released theatrically — to direct. He didn’t hesitate to say, “I’m in.”

“I think this won’t be about a paycheck. It will be about seeing if we can do something new and in a different way,” he said.

Belle on Broadway

Berry’s wife is Sarah Uriarte Berry, who grew up in Cotati and coincidentally, also once did a turn as Belle on Broadway.

Berry, an actor and director whose credits include the indie film “Frontera” with Amy Madigan and Ed Harris, said it’s so hard to get a film made that when it actually happens, it’s like a miracle.

Tansley’s budget for the production is $350,000. She’s raised $65,000 through memberships and private donors, which she continues to solicit.

“I’ve been meeting with different and various community organizations and small groups,” she said. “And some people have been lovely enough to hold cocktail parties in their homes and invite their friends. It’s been very grassroots. ...We will be looking for, and have found, some angels. We need large donor support from people who are inspired by the vision of this company and want to help make it happen.

The long-term vision is we get as many people in the community as possible involved because we want the community to really have ownership over this and we want each film to be representative of the full breadth of the community we have here.”

Berry said if anyone could pull off this unconventional approach to production and financing, it’s Tansley, who has what he characterized as an “intelligent innocence” that will draw people in and which may enable her to power through a multitude of obstacles without becoming discouraged.

“People will follow her. I’ve always believed when someone takes off, people will jump on the boat,” said Berry. “If you look for others to give you the green light you may be sitting around forever. Brooke isn’t afraid to take a stab at something.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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