You have a personal connection to Summer of ‘67. In a way, it is about your parents — your dad was aboard the USS Forrestal when it caught fire on July 29, 1967. What made you share such a personal story?
We were wanting to make a period movie and chose the sixties thinking it would be easy to capture and fun. Originally, the USS Forrestal fire was going to just be a side note, but as I began doing more research,
I realized the fire was the perfect event to tie the stories together and provide the perfect climax.
Out of all the movies we’ve done, this one is closest to my heart, but I deliberately made it so that it was truly a fictional story and not retelling their story. After they’ve learned the story is inspired by true events, a number of people have reached out to find out if my dad survived the fire. Fortunately, he did. In the closing credits we include historical information about the fire.
I’m sure your parents talked a lot about your dad’s experiences, but did making this film give you a new perspective on what your mom went through?
It really did. Honestly, even though I’d grown up hearing about the USS Forrestal fire, I’d never given it much thought. It was just part of our family history. But as I began asking my parents questions and reading up on the fire from other accounts, I developed a greater appreciation for what it must have been like for her to be a young mom, alone with a baby, hearing about the fire on the news, but not knowing for three days whether or not he’d died or survived. My mother and I have had a number of conversations about those three days and what she went through. In the movie I tried to capture that part of her story as closely as I could make it. For example, it was a woman from the local Red Cross who first came to the house to let her know that my dad had made it through the fire. Then a little bit later, she got a letter from my dad.
What do you hope younger generations get out of learning, through your film, about the sacrifices made by the men and women during the Vietnam War?
To research the movie I talked to everyone I could find who was alive during the Vietnam War. With each person, I asked them what it was like for them, what they remembered, what stuck out to them. One gentleman shared about being in college and watching tv to see the lottery numbers called that week. The lottery numbers were the birth dates of young men who were being drafted. He remembered all the guys gathering around the tv and then when someone’s number was called, they’d often start crying. He said how haunting it was to see these tough guys break into tears because they were so scared of going to war.
Another guy shared with me his mom’s diary. She was a young wife and mother whose husband was drafted. Each day she’d write a sentence or two about what she did, then she’d close with “Only 132 days until ________ returns.”
I know for me, I certainly gained a greater appreciation for sacrifices made that I’ve never had to deal with. I hope that I’ve portrayed it so that younger generations can appreciate it as well. I’d love for younger generations to gain a new respect for Vietnam veterans and their wives. More than anything, my desire is for Summer of ‘67 to be a springboard of conversation between generations as we each gain a better understanding of what the other is going through.
Summer of ‘67 is a very emotional film, you don’t shy from conflict between characters. Was this a metaphor for war?
Yes, in a way. We all go through our own battles. No one is guaranteed a struggle-free life. Some of us are thrown into the heat of war. Others skirt on the sidelines, thinking we’re safe until the unexpected turns our world upside down. We can try to hold our loved ones close to us to try to keep them safe, but it doesn’t work. We can’t protect them from life. As a Christian, though, I wanted to show that even though we go through battles, we don’t have to go through them alone. We can find comfort in knowing that God is bigger than anything we might go through. He won’t keep us out of war, but He’ll walk beside us and guide us to safety.
The female characters in the film play many roles: sisters, wives, moms, friends. How did you illustrate their many functions in the family and how it affected their point of view?
My goal was to show the Vietnam War from as many angles as possible. I wanted to show that it wasn’t black and white, and there were no good guys and bad guys, just a lot of individuals struggling to make sense of a situation that no one truly understood. Each of the women view the war from a slightly different angle, based on their past experiences, and they each deal with the situation uniquely.
It’s important to me in each of my movies that I include racial diversity. I love to break stereotypes. I was limited with this film, though, because of the confines of the times. If I wanted to illustrate the black experience and I wanted the races to interact, the only way I could do that and make it believable was to have black characters in servant positions. This bothered me and made me uncomfortable, but I embraced it, hoping that others could see the racial barriers as well. I wanted to show that the girls in that time could love each other in their own ways, but when it came time for weddings or funerals, they were in two different worlds.
One thing that caught me by surprise has been how many people who have truly gotten upset that Ruby Mae (the family’s black maid) didn’t have a bigger storyline. Milly and Kate had the bigger stories since they were dealing directly with the USS Forrestal fire, but a lot of people have complained because they loved Ruby Mae so much and wanted to see more of her.
How can films that tell this kind of story be used to illustrate how women can use their strength in their relationships, especially those taught to sacrifice so much for others?
Women tend to have an inner strength that we don’t even realize we have until something happens and our world is turned upside down. Then we rise to the occasion. Milly starts off seemingly very weak, always trying to please. But in the end, she discovers that she’s not weak. She’s much stronger than she could have imagined.
Joanna comes across as a bulldozer of strength, but she loses it when her son leaves for Vietnam. Her strength is all a facade. When she and Milly team up, though, they give strength to each other.
The role of the war hero dad was played by Jeff Lester, who suffers from MS and is in a wheelchair. What do you see as the benefits of casting actors with disabilities?
I wanted the role to feel authentic, so originally I was hoping to cast a disabled veteran. We had several who submitted, but for various reasons, they didn’t work out. Jeff isn’t an actor. He’s just a guy at church who had recently been diagnosed with MS, and we’d watched his health quickly declining. We mentioned to him about being a part of the movie to help occupy his time since he’d recently lost his job. He joked, “You got a role for a cripple?” Yes, we did.
It was definitely a challenge for Jeff. Since he wasn’t an actor, he wasn’t used to the whole filming process, but he was a trooper. His wife, also, was great, working behind the scenes to help take care of him and get him ready for his scenes. It would have been a lot easier to have an actor who could hop in and out of the wheelchair, but it would have felt inauthentic.
What was so great was the blessing that Jeff was to everyone. Despite all he’s going through, he is a joy to be around and he was constantly encouraging everyone else on set.
Your husband also has many roles behind the scenes in this and your other films. How do you keep the partnership strong during such a stressful project?
Cast and crew always comment on how smoothly we work together. We are a well oiled machine. However, it wasn’t always that way. In our early days making movies, we didn’t work so well together. We would blame each other for our own shortcomings. We finally reached the point where we agreed to divide up the responsibilities, each give it our best, and let the other do their job. We may each have input, but whoever feels the strongest about something gets the final say.
It’s nice being a married team because we do so much planning ahead of time that by the time filming comes along, we both know what we’re going to do.
You describe yourself as a Christian filmmaker. What does that mean to you?
Every movie reflects the worldview of the filmmaker. Whatever you think about life, it’s going to come out on the big screen. For me, as a Christian, it’s only natural that my religious beliefs are going to be reflected in my stories. I’m a storyteller, though, not a preacher. I pray that God will give me stories that only I can tell in a way that only I can tell them. Then I write the stories. I don’t deliberately try to inject spiritually into my stories, but it just comes through.
My biggest objective as a Christian filmmaker is to show hope. Our world can be quite dark. 1967 was a very dark time in our country’s history, but God was there, and He’s with us now. Regardless of how hopeless a situation may look like, He’s always there loving us and offering us hope for the future.
Where did you go for funding a project like this?
All of our movies are self-funded. They’re very low budget, and we just work with the resources that we have available to us. We’re fortunate to live in a historic home that makes a great film set. We’re blessed with neighbors who are used to us filming and don’t mind when we make them move their modern cars or garbage cans out of the picture. We have a town that encourages filmmakers. Because I’m super organized, we do a lot of advance planning, and we do so much of the work ourselves, we’re able to keep our expenses to a bare minimum. We do pay our actors and crew. They won’t get rich, but we take care of them and treat them with honor and respect.
What advice would you give other women looking to direct a film?
Embrace who you are and direct accordingly. Don’t try to mimic the men. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Create your own vision and work to bring it to life. Give it all you’ve got and then some.
Always remember that directing a movie is a great responsibility not to be taken lightly. You set the tone for all that goes on when you’re on set. Be sure to treat each and every person, from the biggest star to the background actor in the far distance of a shot, with dignity and respect. Create an atmosphere of family among the actors and crew. Hire the best you can get then let them do their magic. Don’t try to micromanage. Dream big and allow others to join in the creation of the dream. When everything is going wrong and you want to cry, try laughing instead.
You can learn more about The Summer of ’67 on the website, and you can stream it on several platforms including iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon. To see what else Sharon Wilharm has done, visit her on her profile, Facebook, and her website. Learn more about Denise Papas Meechan on her profile.