Island on the screen 

The fall and rise of Sean Ackerman's The Diary of Preston Plummer

The Diary of Preston Plummer stars Rumer Willis (progeny of Bruce and Demi), Trevor Morgan ("Empire Falls") and Robert Loggia (Lost Highway, Jagged Edge, Big) and was made by filmmaker Sean Ackerman, who lived for a few years in Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley. But the story of how it came to be all starts a decade ago, when Ackerman wrote the original screenplay and brought it to Hollywood. He was a greenhorn then, fresh out of NYU's film school, emotionally invested in the story he'd written—a fictional tale about a disillusioned young man who falls in love with a young woman who harbors mysterious family secrets. Ackerman spun the story from a real place he used to visit during film school called Amelia Island, a 17-mile long, one-mile wide island off the coast of Florida.

"I had a friend whose parents owned two Southern-style restaurants on the island," Ackerman says. "It was a great cheap vacation to go and sleep on her parents' couch and eat for cheap or free at the restaurant. It seemed like there were so many possibilities for stories there, and so a lot of the inspiration for early plot lines came from that place."

At the time he pitched the script, he was working for producer Jean Doumanian, whose studio was putting out Woody Allen movies (until Allen sued her). Ackerman did not get the reception he'd hoped for. The studio he optioned it to wanted to change the plot.

"I had a kind of classic filmmaker-goes-to-Hollywood nightmare trip through the studio system," he says. "The studio was basically like, 'Either you change the plot ... or we don't want your script anymore.' And so I said, 'You don't want my script anymore.'"

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The film was was put on a shelf. A few years later, Ackerman decided to move to Montana to make a film that he wanted set in the Bitterroot Valley. He worked for the local ABC station in Florence and made Straight Line, the story of Bobby, who takes a road trip, which ends up being a self-discovery trip, in his old Buick to follow his girlfriend from Montana to Panama. The "no-budget" film, which cost $35,000 and featured Ackerman's non-actor mom garnered some good reviews, including one in Variety, and was accepted into the South by Southwest Film Festival.

Then Ackerman went to medical school at the University of Washington. He ended up back in Montana, doing clinicals in Missoula for his third year of school. He loved medicine but he also loved movies, so, after school, he dusted off The Diary of Preston Plummer, took a year off and started making the movie himself.

"If I had made The Diary of Preston Plummer 10 years ago, it would have cost 2 million dollars at minimum based on the equipment and the kind of filmmaking models that were available at that time," he says. "But you can do things cheaper now than you could then. And our budget this time was $125,000."

That's big bucks for some of us, but small bucks for a film. They shot on location at Amelia Island, flying people down, housing and feeding them for a month. The actors, says Ackerman, had read the script and believed in it enough to work for very little. "It's really hard to cast a movie of this size," he says. "You have to convince people you don't know to work for free and give away a month or two of their life for free to you. You have to get someone to fall in love with the story." Some nights, Rumer Willis cooked the crew dinner. It was that kind of down-to-earth environment, he says.

Amelia Island has some extreme socio-economic diversity. There's a Ritz Carlton on one corner; on another, there's a ramshackle part of town that has been plagued with drugs and crime. There's a state park with a Confederate fort looking out over the channel, and there's an island 100 yards off the coast of Amelia Island where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married.

"And so you can be standing at a gas station in line behind a CEO from a Fortune 500 company who's standing behind a crack addict who's standing behind a park ranger who's standing behind a tourist," Ackerman says. "There's all kinds of character in this epically beautiful place."

Ackerman is a David Lynch fan, but it wasn't until one of his friends pointed out the eerie similarities between "Twin Peaks" and The Diary of Preston Plummer that he realized how that Lynchian flavor had seeped into his work.

"The island, I think, is not only a very beautiful place, but it's also sort of a strange place," he says. "It's a place that has a lot of lights and also a lot of darks. There's a hotel at the center of the movie that's really Great Northern-y. I have shots of this pulp mill that towers over the environment and it reminds me of the Packard logging mill. And then, actually, the diary itself is a dictaphone of the very same model Kyle McLaughlin was using in 'Twin Peaks.'" (Even weirder, McLaughlin was slated to play the father role in Preston Plummer when Ackerman first pitched it in Hollywood. Chris Cousins, of "Breaking Bad," was ultimately cast as the father.)

There are some striking scenes in this film. In one, Willis's character has a breakdown and tosses furniture into a pool. The coffee cup lands perfectly on the table. With little money, Ackerman was creative with the underwater ocean shots as well. Instead of setting up a pricey underwater soundstage, they bought a black tarp and bricks from Home Depot for around $50. The tarp was held down at the bottom of a pool by the bricks, so that when the actors swam in it, it looked like a dark ocean abyss. That, interspersed with shots of real ocean—the shafts of light shining through the water—makes it look real. And some of it was.

"We had to do night shots in the ocean and we did it in shark-infested waters during hammerhead shark-mating season," says Ackerman. "When we shined the light at the water, all the little fish came to the surface, attracting a lot of bait to near where the actors were." Which is just another testament to the dedication of his cast.

"So, even if you don't like the movie," Ackerman adds, "I think the thing we're proud of is we made it with really sincere intentions and a lot of passion."

The Diary of Preston Plummer premiered at the Miami International Film Festival in March. It shows for one night only at the Wilma Theatre on Friday, June 15, at 7:30 PM. $8.

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