"The Family Tree" is a feature documentary about a man pursuing his American dream of having a family-owned Christmas Tree farm at the age of retirement and the local government doing everything they can to thwart his efforts.
Onondaga is a 65 square-mile town with a population of approximately 23,000 residents. Within that town between stretches of farmland are a handful of villages and hamlets, including Howlett Hill, which is the area where our film takes place. Sitting just west of Syracuse, it's closest landmarks are Onondaga Lake (known as the now 2nd, dirtiest lake in the world), the Erie Canal, as well as Destiny USA (the 6th largest shopping center in the nation). The town is by all intents and purposes, your average suburban small town in the northeastern part of America.
Nestled inside the Howlett Hill area, is Sycamore Hills - a development that is home to a number of families - some with very young children, most others with their children grown and moved to cities like Washington D.C., Cape Cod, Los Angeles and New York City. These kids grew up in a neighborhood where it was normal to leave your garage door open, just in case, someone needed to borrow a chainsaw. Where the annual block party had horses trotting down a neighbors backyard. Where the rounds were made every summer to rally the troops for Ghost in the Graveyard and Capture the Flag. Where in the center of Cherokee Circle, during January, you could count on a large mound of snow being piled for a perfectly short and fast sleigh ride.
Terry A. McHugh lives on that circle, and that circle is where his dreams began in 2007.
THE beginning of a DREAM
Terry spent most of his youth on a 50-acre Christmas Tree farm in a town smaller than Onondaga, called West Valley, about 50 miles outside of Buffalo, NY. His mother bought the farm in the 1950s and since then, he and his two older brothers and one older sister would come to the farm every summer to plant and cultivate the farm under the tutelage of his father Howard. The farm quickly grew into a business, which extended into having a number of Christmas tree lots in the Buffalo area during the holiday season.
After he met his now wife, Emma, at orientation of college at Buffalo State University, she would ride on the back of his motorcycle to the farm on weekends and that was how they dated.
43 years later and their marriage and love is still growing strong.
After bouncing around to a number of teaching jobs, Terry landed a job with Niagara Mohawk in Syracuse and then he and Emma settled into Sycamore Hills with their adopted daughter Amy, and a year later adopted Amanda.
my name is AMANDA MCHUGH
and yes, I found the flag 8 out of every 10 games, live in New York City and am the director, producer and cinematographer of this film.
Sycamore Hills defined a very idealistic, middle-class, American childhood. I was raised to pursue my dreams at all costs, live my passion and not settle. Both of my parents have supported me through my twists and turns in the entertainment industry starting out working in musical theater, then moving into film acting and now directing. I would have thought that 27 years-old would have seemed a bit late in the game to pursuing what I discovered to be my life's calling, except that my dad has shown me that dreams only have an expiration date for the day that you die.
WHY this film is being MADE
Terry's passion for Christmas Trees stemming back to his grandfather's teachings, rest deep in his soul.
I started to notice this in December 2013 when I saw my father having to stop at every pine (excuse me "conifer") tree we saw during our traditional Niagara Falls holiday trip - to point out the variety of the tree, the way that the needles lay, the bark and a lot more that I have no idea how he remembers.
In 2012 he bought 4.97 acres of property behind my childhood home - which included the woods that I used to sneak back into and play enchanted forest in. Soon after he, my mother and a number of supportive neighbors began to clear out the woods and take care of some drainage issues. What I didn't know, was that the woods was being prepared to have a barn built on it to hold all of his equipment and work on his projects he's always creating, and that the field was being prepared to have Fraser Fir Christmas trees planted on it.
A year later and countless hours put into the land, Terry was ready to begin building, except that he was .03 acres short of the required 5-acres to build a structure on the property - even though the land he all ready owned from the house was a mere 60 feet away from the property he bought and with that had much more than 5 acres. More problems arose for him as the one neighbor that he potentially could have bought property from wasn't willing to sell any and around the same time a moratorium had been placed in the Town of Onondaga for building agricultural structures. This is in part due to the fact that a number of microbreweries had been popping up in central New York and there was concern for whether or not 5 acres was large enough to consider the proximity of neighbors with the noise and smell that accompanies microbrewery production.
I didn't understand this. I didn't understand owning property and not being able to do with it what your hearts desire was. It almost seemed as though, he didn't own the land at all being that he couldn't cultivate his dreams there. I talked to a number of friends about this and no one else seemed to understand it either. They also didn't understand the fire behind my fathers desire to have a Christmas tree farm and to have it in that neighborhood and not simply move out of the R1 district. So I decided to film this process of his fight to have his dream and all of the obstacles that came along with it.
Taking the advice of his attorney, Terry had included in the deed that the land would never be used for the building of a distillery or brewery - yet still the town had reservations about the building of a barn.
In addition to this, having grown up on a Christmas Tree farm that his brother purchased after my grandmother died in 2001, there had been some family tensions and distance that interrupted our tradition of cutting down our own trees every year. Around the same time that I started shooting this film, I noticed a reconciliation beginning to form - and longed for an ending that would result in the two brothers walking their childhood farm together, talking trees.
What I learned instead, was that families are often more complicated than that. While gathering my post crew together last November (I have since hired a new crew), misunderstandings about what I was trying to do with this documentary have caused this strain in the family to become even worse, and therefore the documentary took on a new layer.
Having my father there as a prime example for how to overcome adversity has taught me a lot about how to overcome my own when making this film. Post-production was paused while I continued to shoot my father's story and we are now back on schedule and excited and raring to go to show you what we've been working towards.
WHY is this IMPORTANT?
Todays' culture is showing us that retirement as we have known it is becoming a thing of the past. In reaction to a survey conducted by the Harris Interactive on behalf of CareerBuilder.com, Rosemary Haefner (VP of HR at CarreerBuilder.com) says that many retirees will pick-up part-time jobs because they enjoy working as a means of fulfillment. She also says that a number of those who would retire keep their jobs because they have to, due to the losses incurred in the recession. Terry's boss, a 98 year-old wealthy industrialist says that the reason he will never retire is because he feels as if not working is boring.
Terry doesn't ever plan on retiring either. Instead, during the year approaching his 65th birthday, he was working tirelessly in both his job as a property manager as well as clearing out the land and working with a lawyer to gain his right to build a barn on his own property.
"I'm at the 35th inch of my 36-inch yard stick of life" he says. There is no reason to take a break, however, in fact, this only motivates him further to have his dream of having a farm of the trees that he loves in the neighborhood that he loves surrounded by the community and wife that he loves.
This urgency comes from the fact that growing a Christmas tree from a seedling to a size that's ready to cut for the holidays takes about 12 years. Terry has always planned on planting seedlings and is still what he plans to do.
Land legislation laws are a tough nut to crack, especially in a small town with not much else going on except for families trying to live out their lives to the ideal of the "American Dream."
To think that a mere 300ths of an acre would make it so that a town wouldn't allow a man, who is loved and known by all of neighbors as the "mayor" of the community, to build a simple barn on his property makes us wonder what the real issue is here. If Terry were to instead of a barn, build two houses on the property and sell it, that wouldn't require any sort of permits or extensive meetings from the Board of Appeals. Why might this be? Taxes. Houses can be taxed much higher than barns. Also the definition of a farm can mean any number of things depending on the farmer growing it.
For Terry, a Christmas tree farm that is facing a road would mean minimal disturbance to his neighbors and he has an open-door policy when it comes to the property in that anyone is welcome on it at any time to enjoy as they please. However if this were to be a microbrewery, which have seen a huge surge in popularity in Upstate NY since the New York Farm Brewery Law was instated (not coincidentally around the same time that the first moratorium in the Town of Onondaga was imposed) the issue becomes about potential disturbances to neighbors as that would entail more smell, noise and a disturbance in traffic.
The solution for the town board was to re-evaluate the 5-acre minimum and to increase it to 7 acres for anyone looking to build a barn of a certain size on their own property. So when Terry and Emma applied for a permit to build a barn, the application wasn't accepted because of the upcoming moratorium - even though applications of this kind are all supposed to be accepted for review, regardless of future plans from the town. Because of this, there was no paper evidence showing their attempts began before any of these changes began to take place and therefore weakened their case when asking for a variance.
So we must ask ourselves, how do we handle adversity with a local government that holds the power to either give us what we desire or destroy all hopes for our swan song American Dream?
How do we approach our friends and family in humbly asking for their help and support? Who will come through for us when we really need it?
Finally - what's most important?
Terry had a vision, a story of "convergence" - which is what he will name his barn - when he bought the property. That everything he had been working so hard for for so long was coming together at one place at one time.
I have a vision of doing the same with this documentary while having met a lot of adversity of my own. From unsupportive extended family members, people who don't quite understand what it is that this film is about, to financial limitations and geographical challenges.
For both of us, it has been a given that self-doubt has crept in and we have had to re-evaluate our priorities and what it will take to necessitate this dream for others as well as ourselves.
It's understandable. People are complicated. Dreams are complicated.
Life isn't always going to pan out the way you had planned - but with enough tenacity and belief in your goals, attaining your dreams is possible.
This is the story of a man pursing his, and how he meets those obstacles when they arise.
Pursuing the American Dream has in a way, become a common denominator in American traditions. To pursue happiness and attain success no matter where we are at in life, nor what our situation is.
To support this theme, we are highlighting Christmas traditions and how Christmas trees have affected those traditions and touched our lives. This holiday season may be the mother of all traditions - and we often forget how important they are in our lives. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, the season itself tends to either give us the "warm fuzzies" or stress us out - not unlike the range of emotions that the McHugh family went through themselves during this time.
Not only were the McHugh's and their neighbors interviewed about their family traditions, but I also interviewed New Yorkers at the Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting Ceremony, and those working at 5 different tree lots around Brooklyn, Queens and South Philadelphia.
The result? Everyone had a story to tell about their trees growing up, the ornaments passed down from generation to generation, the various rituals on Christmas Eve - always told with a smile on their faces and a feeling of nostalgia.
In a world that is constantly changing, if we can get back to our traditions and spear-head them forward, we can have something to hold onto that continues to connect us as a family and as a community.
You know the STORY. Now, WHO are WE?
Amanda Kari McHugh
Amanda Kari McHugh is a bi-coastal filmmaker who in January 2014 couch-crashed for a month and took all of the money she made from a variety of odd jobs including working in advertising and hair modeling to purchase a Canon 7D so that she could film "The Family Tree." She holds a BFA in Acting from The University of the Arts, studied directing, playwriting and scene design at the esteemed National Theater Institute fall intensive, and is a member of SAG-AFTRA. Amanda’s passion rests in building empathy in a society that is becoming more technology-centric. This has lead to her booking and promoting indie rock shows in Philly, co-founding two non-profits in LA focusing on outreach to DTLA’s skid row and event coordinating for Creative Migration. Behind the camera, she has successfully art directed two award-winning films and now frequently works in the art department on various television shows and commercials. She also works as a party photographer under the name Manda K Photo, and founded What Now? Productions, which produces documentary films and videos. Her aim is to engage audiences in conversation with her films about social issues and generational gaps, aiming to close the gap, and balance the old with the new on the ever-changing landscape of this planet.
Lillian Mauser-Carter was born on a couch in Dayton, Ohio, where the roots of her love of the weird and creative first unfurled. Deepening their reach, Lillian moved to Chicago to learn Digital Filmmaking and Video Production at the Illinois Institute of Art. In the process of creating her first documentary, "Learn Free," she realized the power of nonfiction storytelling and discovered her love for the craft. Upon completion of her degree, Lillian gained commercial experience while working at a major, fast-paced production house as an Associate Graphics Producer. Craving to play a bigger role in the creative process, Lillian moved on to produce a weekend-long, immersive multimedia experience with Subconscious Development Motion Project. She continued to produce and edit video content mainly focusing on performance art. Hungry to explore new techniques and experiences, Lillian moved to New York City in 2013, eager to return to her documentary roots with works that question social norms through character driven pieces.
Dan Duggan is known nationally for his wizardry on hammered dulcimer and flat-picking guitar, and is the recipient of the National Hammered Dulcimer Championship. He is a true multi-intsrumentalist, equally at home on guitar, slide guitar, piano, banjo and his signature hammered dulcimer. Included in his extensive array of recordings (18), are six recordings of original compositions including the recently released "For the Love of Friends." He and his wife Peggy Lynn have released two trio albums with Dan Berggren, the more recent titled Jamcrackers, and as a duo have released four recordings: Keeping Christmas, A Stitch in Time, Be the Light and the recently released Esperance. Dan's children's album, Pieces of Our Life, earned a Parent's Choice Award in 1998. His dulcimer work can also be heard on Paul Simon's CD You're the One, released in October of 2000 and "The Paul Simon Collection" released in 2004.
Thomas Ouziel is a sound aficionado with a passion for telling and enhancing story through sound who has been working as a professional sound designer since graduating from Chapman University in 2011 with a BFA in Film Production (Sound Design emphasis). After graduating he learned much working closely with world-renowned Sound Designer Dane Davis (The Matrix, Ender's Game) - the intricacies of how the nuances of ambiance, or the timbre of an effect all play into the overall emotion and experience of the film. Today he continues to try to capture the right feeling for each moment, having worked with nearly every visual medium from short films, web series, feature films, feature documentaries to video games. He currently works out of the Los Angeles area.
Kickstarter is an All or Nothing campaign. If we don't reach the goal by 11:59pm on April 5th, no credit cards will be charged, no rewards fulfilled. I've chosen $15,000 as the minimum goal - that's the bare minimum needed to complete video editing, audio mixing and the score.
So far I have been single-handedly directing, producing, shooting and recording audio for this film. I have uprooted my life in Los Angeles 6 times over the past year to keep coming back to the cold to make this documentary. It has been one hell of a ride, and it's not over yet.
So far I have been shooting it on a zero budget entirely on my personal DSLR and basic sound equipment and paying for that equipment and travel completely out-of-pocket. Now my pockets are empty and there is still a month and a half of principal photography to be completed, pick-up shots to get over the summer, 2 TB of footage to be transcribed and old family 8mm footage to hunt down and convert. That's just for my end of the work and I'm happy to keep doing it for no pay because I care about this and the fulfillment I get from working on it is enough.
However, there are certain things that I can't cut corners on and that is post-production. In order for us to stay on schedule and for my post-crew to be able to afford to focus on the documentary and complete the work in a timely manner for festival submissions in September we need to begin editing no later than April.
If we acquire the minimal funding we need through this campaign we will be able to do the following:
- Transcribe the footage - essential for documentary editing, especially when the film has 2TB of footage to go through.
- Convert 8mm footage from Terry's upbringing on the farm to add to the background of the story which will give us a more complete story.
- Complete a full video edit with an estimated completion date of June 5th.
- Use Dan Duggans all ready established and written music and have him write and record connectors and companion pieces for the score with an estimated completion date of July 5th.
- Have the sound design completed with an estimated completion date of August 5th,
- Stay on schedule in completing the film for the submission deadline of Sundance Film Festival - which is our ultimate dream for a premier.
The Win: If we hit the 15K mark, we will be able to complete video editing, the score and the sound design of the film on schedule. This will mean that we will be able to send out rewards as well as have something to show grants we will then apply for in order to get the funding needed for other necessities such as PR, legal, DVD pressing and quality screening masters - AND have a completed film to send out to festivals on time!
The Kicker: If we don't hit the 15,000 mark by the deadline of 11:59PM on April 5th, 2015, the project won't be funded, your credit card won't be charged, no rewards will be fulfilled. I will continue to shoot the film on my own dime, however without the success of this Kickstarter, it will remain on hard drives with out an audience. My efforts and struggle over the past year will have gone to nothing and my family won't have their story told.
While we would love more than anything in the whole wide world to offer you one of the first Convergence Farm's Fraser Fir trees available on the market, you wouldn't be able to receive that reward for another decade. So we came up with some other campaign-exclusive ideas that are just as unique and sure to tickle your fancy. We will ALSO will be adding more rewards to the campaign as it moves through its campaign month so keep checking back for new incentives!
get in TOUCH
Feel free to message me through this Kickstarter campaign and I will be happy to respond as quickly as possible to any questions you might have.
As a director I love questions as they help me clarify my own thoughts as well as assuage you of any hesitations you might have about this film.
Wow! You made it all the way to the bottom. For this I can't thank you enough. It has been such a long haul and having the people I have on board and the supporters I've gained so far is the greatest feeling ever. Now all we need to do is translate that into funding and we can put our dreams to ACTION. It is your support that makes movies possible.
Let's make this dream come true, together.
Amanda Kari McHugh
"The Family Tree"
Risks and challenges
There are few risks when supporting post-production of "The Family Tree." Amanda has been capturing footage and interviews completely on her own since February 3rd, 2014. This has allowed her to capture the story as it has been happening. The bulk of the story has been filmed all ready.
Once we reach our goal, the film will have the necessary means to be completed.
There are other costs involved with the distribution of a film that go beyond just finishing the film, such as legal, marketing, DVD pressing, screening masters and festival submission fees. Not getting the additional means for that from this campaign means we will need to apply for grants which will take more time and potentially affect our schedule. However, if the funding for that doesn't come through, the completed film will still be finished and able to screen. As long as we have a completed film, we will be able to raise the additional funds necessary to get it screened and distributed.
- (31 days)