What Making a Movie in an Ancient Camper Van Taught Us About America

The writer-director and one of the stars of American Folk share stories about life on the road and the kindness of strangers.

There we were, stranded on the side of the road somewhere in New Mexico. The 1972 Chevy camper van we had planned to drive across the country had overheated and now refused to start. Again. It was Day 10 of our shoot and in that span of a week and a half the van – the “hero van” – had already caught fire, disappeared off a car hauler in the middle of the night, and been in and out of the shop countless times.

We were a ragtag bunch of about a dozen young crew members, all clearly displaying early warning signs of heat stroke underneath the unrelenting July sun. At the helm was a first-time writer-director and in the leads were two musicians who had not only never acted before but also never had any formal acting training either. At that point, we were about four days behind schedule.

Our lead actor Joe Purdy was on the phone with his dad in Arkansas, desperately trying to get some sage advice on the famous (infamous) Chevy 350 engine, when from down the street a stranger called out to us …

Joe Purdy examining the Chevy 350 engine

Sam walked up and introduced himself with a big smile on his face. He was a pleasant guy who happened to live up the block and also happened to be a former mechanic. He was intimately familiar with the 350 and immediately had some ideas on how to get the finicky beast started back up again.

Devin Whetstone, our trusty cinematographer, wisely hoisted the camera back onto his shoulder and started rolling. And what he caught next was a simple act of kindness that has now become an important scene in the film and in a way encapsulates the entire idea of the movie we were making, American Folk.


Folk music, and music in just about every culture, is centered around the idea of shared experience. It brings people together to celebrate, pray, mourn, connect. It’s a collective experience that’s not about how in-tune or on-key you can sing, but about the energy created when voices sing together and the emotion and stories that are shared in that song.

On American Folk, we didn’t really know what we were getting into, but we all walked away believing that filmmaking is magic. There are so many moving parts, and it truly feels like a miracle when something is born that didn’t exist before. Everyone has distinct roles that must work together in a (hopefully) graceful way, but what is created is a true mix of everyone pouring in, each individual showing up and all these moving parts dancing their way into a whole.


With Sam’s help, we got back on the road that day and though we were already way over budget and embarrassingly behind schedule, we persevered and made it all the way to New York City. In the hero van. And, believe it or not, no one died or even suffered full-on heat stroke (that we know of). It was a miracle.

And in truth, Sam is just one of countless strangers we relied on to help us make it across the country. To help make the miracle happen. Without their generosity and kindness we wouldn’t have finished the film. Not even close.

Joe with Sam, a true American hero

But then again, we set out to make a movie about the kindness of strangers. About when people come together and look out for one another, when barriers come down and people open themselves up to connectedness. That’s something our country could really use a reminder of in this particular moment. So, if you think about it, it’s only fitting Sam and the other strangers we met along the way enabled us to continue. It really couldn’t have been any other way.

The process of making American Folk was a wild, collaborative, living experiment. Maybe a little something like America. We made it as earnestly and honestly as possible, attempting to infuse it with as much heart and emotional authenticity as we were capable of. And sure, it was messy and yes, it isn’t perfect but we’re all damn proud of it and honestly we wouldn’t have changed a single thing about the process of making it. (OK, maybe we could have done without the van catching fire when we were all packed inside of it, but you get the point!)

For the past decade, David Heinz has been working in cutting rooms on both independent and studio pictures alike. He edited Adult World with John Cusack, which was released theatrically by IFC, and served as the additional editor of This Means War for Fox, as well as several other independent features. David recently contributed as the visual effects editor to The Jungle Book, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Live Free Or Die Hard, to name a few. American Folk, his feature directorial debut, is out in theaters and on demand from January 26.

Singer-songwriter Amber Rubarth became a fixture in New York’s indie music scene, named Best NYC Songwriter by Deli Magazine and grand prize winner of NPR’s Mountain Stage New Song Contest. She also composed the score for the documentary Desert, and with Paul Brill wrote the music for the Sundance Film Festival winner Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Her songs have attracted enthusiastic praise from NPR’s All Songs Considered, the Huffington Post, BBC Radio, Acoustic Guitar magazine, and a Sun Studio Session airing nationwide on PBS. She makes her acting debut as one of the leads in American Folk.