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FILMING IMMORTALITY: Independent filmmaker Tanya Fermin brings unreal life to Wilmington’s film industry

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Local writes and directs new TV series in ILM.

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The words “Tanya, I’m losing you,” echo through the interior of Art in Bloom Gallery. The space is populated by cameramen and gaffers coordinating their movements while actors rehearse. The commotion renders the normally tranquil gallery a chaotic mass this evening, but once everything is in order, all falls still as cameras roll. An aging doctor, trying to avoid a mysterious woman who beseeches his help, is shown an image that chills him to the bone. Suddenly, he has no choice but to help her.

FERMIN ON THE JOB: Writer and director of “HAON” films newest series in Wilmington, NC. Courtesy photo

FERMIN ON THE JOB: Writer and director of “HAON” films newest series in Wilmington, NC. Courtesy photo

The shoot ends and its director, Tanya Fermin, addresses crewmembers who were trying to find her. “It’s like a maze in here,” she sighs, as she makes her way to the exit. Her current TV series, “HAON,” is a supernatural drama she will pitch to Netflix. The story centers around a small girl who begins to exhibit strange abilities, and those who want to protect her from being exploited. Some characters have a range of special abilities, like telepathy and clairvoyance, while the “haons” display longevity that borders on immortality.

“The main villain has been taking advantage of clairvoyants to attain wealth this entire time,” Fermin explains, “but now that he knows haons exist, he thinks they hold the key to eternal life.”

This isn’t Fermin’s first foray as a writer-director. Her short film, “The Arrangements,” made the rounds in 2016, and aired on over 90 stations across the United States. “It’s a true story,” Fermin explains. “It deals with the passing of a loved one seen through the eyes of the family.” The film was written for her grandmother, Ophelia M. Pridgen, shortly after her passing. “She’s my inspiration,” Fermin declares with pride. “I’ve never had writer’s block after I wrote ‘The Arrangements’ for her.”

Pridgen inspired the main concept of “HAON” when she looked at Fermin’s adopted daughter and exclaimed, “I think you’ve been here before.” Upon hearing it, Fermin took the mysterious statement and ran with it.

“You never know an adopted child’s medical history,” she notes. “So you’re warned about not knowing what kind of medical conditions could come up years later. But what if something comes up that isn’t medical? What if it’s something you can’t understand?”

Fermin also was moved by her grandmother’s clear recollection of Southern history throughout life. “It was like having an historian right there with you,” she recalls. “She could tell you about things the history books never covered.”

To keep these memories alive, Fermin places characters in “HAON” throughout different eras in time. “We cannot accurately go further than the 1860s in the historical record, due to our heritage,” Fermin explains, “but that’s not going to stop me from showing some things that history tried to hide.”

The show’s theme of paranormal longevity affords Fermin the ability to explore these concepts, adding substance to the series’ supernatural elements.

Local sites are chosen for their conceptual similarities to the script: plantations, replicas of Christopher Columbus’ ships, and in particular, the Octagon House in Swansboro. It became a perfect location for filming the pilot episode.

“A drowning took place there,” Fermin explains, “and the first episode opens with a girl drowning. The girl’s name on the tombstone is the same as the character who drowned.”

The script’s supernatural theme often requires Fermin to shoot in unpleasant locations, such as fetid swamps and abandoned graveyards, but she refuses to back down. “I’m not afraid,” she exclaims. “I’ll pray the ghosts away. I’ll pray the snakes away.”

“HOAN” is far from a one-woman ordeal.  The show’s producer, Carol Stephans, has worked with Fermin for years. “She’s always ready to go,” according to Stephans. Fermin attributes successes of “HAON” and “The Arrangements” to Wilmington’s willingness to help independent filmmakers. It is what keeps bringing her back to the Cape Fear when other states offer better film incentives than NC.

A dire side effect of NC’s nulled film tax credit program (axed by former-governor Pat McCrory in 2015), is the lack of jobs for all positions in film, like actors of all stripes in Wilmington. “It’s hard to find older actors because their roles are diminishing,” Fermin tells. To help fill this void, she writes characters of all ages, genders, races, and sexualities. Once written, she casts them appropriately.

“It’s not stereotypical, and they’re not written to conform to stereotypes,” Fermin tells. “They’re actual people who happen to be who they are. And I always have some tough, fierce women characters. It’s just a part of life.”

Pat Gallaher, who plays the main villain in “HOAN,” affirms Wilmington’s value for independent filmmakers. Gallaher met Fermin when they both played police officers in “Sleepy Hollow” and “Two-Eleven,” both of which were filmed in Wilmington. “You don’t have to train someone from scratch to get the job done here,” he says. Gallaher doubles as HAON’s assistant director when not on screen. “We all switch roles,” he says.

Plenty of students from Cape Fear Community College assist the crew, but the level of professionality displayed on set is equal among them. Professionals may run the cameras, while students assist them.

Fermin also called in a special favor from local cinematographer Joe Dunton, who has worked with cinematic luminaries like Stanley Kubrick. Dunton consulted with Fermin on her debut film and encouraged her to use certain angles to provoke emotion. “I think that’s one reason the film did so well,” she explains. “I called him for another favor [for ‘HAON.’]” Pivotal scenes in “HAON” have been filmed at Dunton’s camera shop to honor him.

“HAON” is still in development, but you can follow its progress at www.facebook.com/findthehaon.

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