Video: The Filmmaker — Alex Schwarm took a legendary family story about his grandfather's return from World War II and made it into the film "As Ever, Stan." Here he reflects on the filmmaking process. See more videos from Northwestern magazine.
It's ironic that Alex Schwarm became a filmmaker. He comes from a small Midwestern town — Loogootee, Ill., — where there is no movie theater.
Schwarm grew up on a livestock farm, where he helped raise registered Angus cattle. The farm has been in his family since 1902.
Schwarm spent his summers cleaning manure out of barns, fixing fences, stacking hay bales and showing livestock at county fairs as a 4-H member.
"The first director's chair I ever called my own was not one that I sat in on a movie set but one that I won as the prize for raising the Grand Champion Bull of All Breeds at the Effingham County Fair in Altamont," Schwarm says.
One summer during junior high school, Schwarm picked up an 8 mm video camera out of boredom. He has been making movies ever since.
This spring marked a convergence between Schwarm's filmmaking career and his small-town upbringing. Although Schwarm never met his grandparents (Stan died in 1975, and Edith died in 1986, 14 months before Schwarm was born), he recently finished a short film about their relationship at the end of World War II. His material for the film came largely from the letters his grandfather, Stan, wrote to his grandmother, Edith, from anecdotes from family members and from his Aunt Pat's baby book.
The 12-minute short film, As Ever, Stan, documents Stan's return to Edith after a life-changing tour of duty. Stan was a prisoner of war in the German camp Stalag IV-B in Mühlberg near Dresden for four months. After being liberated, he recovered at a hospital in London.
The twist at the end, Schwarm says, occurred on the day the couple reunited.
Stan and Edith were married before the war, and Edith gave birth to their first child — a daughter, Pat — while he was away. According to Schwarm, when Edith went to the train station to meet Stan, her plans for a perfect reunion went awry.
"I didn't know what had transpired on this day when my grandfather came home from the war," Schwarm says. "No one will ever know what happened. There is only the three-line anecdote that's passed down to my parents' generation and then down to me."
This reunion, Schwarm says, "changed things forever." (You'll have to see the film to see the shocking outcome.)
Schwarm shot the film over three days at six locations, all in McHenry County, Ill. He hired Chicago actors to play the roles of Edith and Stan and two older actors from the drama group at the Levy Senior Center in Evanston to play his great-grandparents.
Schwarm received half of the film's funding from the University, and the other half came from private donations from members of his community, including friends and relatives of his grandparents' who wanted to support a small-town story about a couple they knew.
Schwarm said he learned a lot about himself through reading his grandparents' letters.
"I think I share a lot with my grandfather in terms of sense of humor," Schwarm says. "I find that I share the same sort of reactions in how I write about different episodes, especially in the letters."
Schwarm says he no longer identifies his grandparents as one-dimensional personages in a photo album but rather people he relates to and understands.
"You start to uncover the mystery that's in the text of all these letters," Schwarm says. "You find out things about your grandparents that you didn't necessarily want to know, but it makes them more human than having those war heroes that we keep up on pedestals. You learn their voices, and you connect with them, and you learn more about the journey that they went on."
As for his own journey, Schwarm plans to submit his films and scripts to festivals and see where that takes him.
"I want to keep my options open," Schwarm says. "I'm not looking to jump into a career where the emphasis is on reading and developing another person's material rather than creating my own. Maybe I'll find my way there eventually. However, my artistic voice has developed and matured while at college, and I want to pursue the dream of telling my own stories while I still have it in me."