“And Where Did the Idea for the Film Come From?”

Writer-director Angus MacLachlan shares some of the stories behind his latest film, Abundant Acreage Available, which opens this week.

Everyone wants to know where a story comes from. My new film, Abundant Acreage Available, was inspired by a photo I saw in the New York Times of three older brothers walking across a field in Poland. There was something evocative about the land, and the idea of older siblings. My film is about a grown sister and brother (Amy Ryan and Terry Kinney) who live with their father on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. When their father dies, they argue over whether to bury him in consecrated land or in the middle of the fields that he loved. About a week later, they discover three older men (Max Gail, Francis Guinan and Steve Coulter) camping in their field. They come to find out the three men are brothers whose family used to own the farm. They haven’t been back in 50 years.

The film is about loss. And grief and mortality. And ownership and letting go. For me, stories develop slowly through the unconscious. An admixture of observation, imagination and life experiences. Just before we started shooting in February 2016, I took one of my best friends to the E.R. because he had a flu he couldn’t shake. To the shock of everyone, he was dead in a week. My wife and I were executors of his estate and had to organize his funeral. We began production two days later.

One of the older brothers in my story is facing his own mortality, and the losses in his life. He says to Amy Ryan’s character, “I’m sorry your Papa’s gone. I know what that’s like. You just want to hold his hand again, I bet. Hear his voice? Chat about nothing much. Do you feel sick in your tummy? Does it wash over you in waves? … It’ll pass.”

The photo that inspired Abundant Acreage Available.

There is a mystery where stories come from, and where they lead you.

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 10 years ago. But, mysteriously, his manifested as the most benign, gentle form of the disease. In fact, it made him sweeter, cheery, and he maintained a sense of humor about his situation. People talking to him might not have realized he had Alzheimer’s. Except that Time didn’t exist for him. If you asked him what was new or what he’d had for breakfast, he couldn’t tell you.

I’d quiz him just to see how much was still there. One time I asked him if he knew who I was. “You’re my son.” I asked him which one, if he knew my name (I have two brothers). My father smiled, and shook his head. He couldn’t come up with it. “My name is Angus.”

“Angus?!” he said. Like it was the most ridiculous name he’d ever heard. Then, he laughed. And I laughed.

“Do you remember when you used to worry all the time?” I asked him. His reply: “I used to worry?”

I had always heard my father’s tales of Austin Lemon, who had been his best friend in Raleigh, North Carolina, before the War. One day, my father suddenly came out with, “I never understood why Austin was shot.” “What?!” “Yeah, and they never caught the guy who did it.” “Austin was shot?” “Sure. When we were about 16.” “I don’t believe it!” I sputtered. “Why not?” “You’ve never said he was shot. How? Where?” “Well, we were standing outside his house on The Circle and a man on a souped-up motorcycle came down the street and shot him in the head with a shotgun.” “And what did you do?!” “He fell back in my arms and I held him as he died.” “I can’t believe this! Was there a lot of blood?” “Surprisingly not, for a head wound.” “Why have you never told me this before?” “Well,” he paused. “I don’t like to talk about it. I couldn’t face it, psychologically.” Then he asked me if I’d contact Mr. and Mrs. Lemon to ask how they were getting on. And I told him that I couldn’t do that because it happened 70 years ago and Austin’s parents would be more than a hundred now.

It was astounding to me that, at the age of 89, my father would all of a sudden reveal this profound event from his life. My mother is no longer alive to verify the story, so I decided to call the Raleigh News and Observer to see if anyone there could help me.

I told the story to the woman in the obituary department, but she said her online records didn’t go back that far. “Wait,” she said, “You know – this might be something I could … let me look in one more place.”

A few days later, she sent me an article that she’d found from 1988. The columnist wrote that he’d heard a Tall Tale that someone named Austin Lemon, who grew up on The Circle, in Raleigh, had been stationed in Massachusetts in 1944 and was a bomber for a routine maneuver flight that crashed into Mount Holyoke on take-off. All of the crew were killed, except Lemon. The writer wanted help in finding out if this was a true story and asked anyone who knew what had happened to Austin Lemon to please contact the paper.

Then there was a second column dated two weeks later. A number of friends and vets had written in, saying they knew the man. They knew what his father had done for a living, which local girl he’d married, and that he was indeed on that flight when it took off. It was the same Austin Lemon. It was my father’s best friend.

But the real story was that the plane had been recalled shortly after take-off. Austin was ordered off and another soldier who needed the flight hours got on. On the second flight, the plane crashed and everyone on board was killed. Austin survived. And spent another 30 years as a pilot, finally dying of cancer in 1977.

Where did my father’s story come from? Did he know someone else who was shot? Or did he get it from a movie, or TV? He was so convincing. And I wondered, if I told him the truth would he believe it?

The next time I saw my father, I gently brought up Austin, and he shook his head and said he wished he’d known why that guy shot him out of the blue: “You know, it’s hard to lose your best friend.” Then I told him I’d contacted the paper. I read him the articles. “Really,” he said. “Where did you get this?” I told him they were from Raleigh News and Observer. I asked him where in the world he got his story. He looked intently at me, but had no answer. “Austin got married. He lived another 30 years. He died in 1977,” I said. My father paused, shook his head again, then looked at me, “Well. Don’t tell anyone. My story is better.”

Then we both laughed.

One week after we completed photography on Abundant Acreage Available, my father died.

Angus MacLachlan has written numerous plays, an 18-minute short film, Tater Tomater, directed by Phil Morrison, and the award-winning feature Junebug, which was selected for the Dramatic Competition for the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and won a Special Jury Citation for Amy Adams, as well as her first Academy Award nomination. MacLachlan was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay and the film was listed on more than 50 Top 10 lists. His other screenplays include Stone, starring Robert DeNiro, and Fortroligheten, which won the Golden Goblet for Best Screenplay at the 2013 Shanghai International Film Festival. In 2013 he wrote and directed Goodbye to All That. The film debuted at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and won Best Actor for Paul Schneider. It was released by IFC and was chosen one of the Top 10 Films of 2014 by Brandon Harris of Indiewire and Filmmaker magazine. MacLachlan’s latest film, Abundant Acreage Available, starring Amy Ryan and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won Best Screenplay. It opens September 29 in NY.