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‘Ethan Alien’ film brought to life by Vermont artists, performers and extraterrestrials

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    Actor Addison White, of South Burlington, Vt., works on a scene for "The Ballad of Ethan Alien" being shot at the Post Mills Airport on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, in Post Mills, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

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    Western Terrestrials band members Jason Pappas, left, of Jericho, Vt., and Jared Croteau, of Grafton, N.H., test a Spread Fred puppet for the movie "The Ballad of Ethan Alien." The 75-minute film features the music from the band. On Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, scenes from the movie were being shot at the Post Mills Airport in Post Mills Vt. Both Pappas and Crotteau are working on the production of the movie. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

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    Production designer Jamie Terrazzino, left, of Brooklyn, N.Y., works with Cameron Silliman and Seamus Good, both of Hanover, N.H., before the shooting of a scene in "The Ballad of Ethan Alien." Silliman and Good are playing drones in the movie being filmed on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, in Post Mills, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

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    Vegetables fashioned into weapons wait on set to be used in "The Ballad of Ethan Alien" in Post Mills, Vt., on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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    Executive Producer Nick Charyk, of Sharon, Vt., works with musician Bow Thayer, of Gaysville, Vt., at The Underground Recording Studio in Randolph, Vt., on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. Thayer is recording music for Charyk's movie "The Ballad of Ethan Alien." (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/24/2020 9:51:41 PM
Modified: 10/24/2020 9:51:39 PM

Popping in through the back door of Nick Charyk’s house in Sharon late on a rainy Tuesday morning, secure in the knowledge that a film shoot was taking place inside, meant that seeing a man in a gold bodysuit with a television on his head wasn’t particularly surprising.

Indeed, it was the kind of visual a visitor to Charyk’s world should expect. The founder and frontman of Western Terrestrials, a band that mixes classic country, Americana and radio waves from outer space, Charyk is on a peculiar journey through the coronavirus era.

The week that ended on March 13, when the coronavirus struck the U.S. in earnest, the band was recording in Nashville with members of country music royalty, including Georgette Jones, the daughter of Tammy Wynette and George Jones, and Dean Miller, son of Roger Miller. The band was due to play in Memphis, and the recording was a creative breakthrough.

“It felt for me like I could kind of touch what was going to happen next,” Charyk said. Instead, the band had to pack up and drive straight home to Vermont.

Whatever was about to happen when the band was in Nashville might well have been miraculous. Thanks to the pandemic, we’ll never know. But it’s hard to see how it would have involved a gaggle of young filmmakers rambling around the Upper Valley, to shooting locations in Fairlee, Post Mills and Sharon, for the entire first half of October, a former state representative in the aforementioned gold bodysuit (and gold-tasseled cape and slippers) singing in Charyk’s living room and a feature-length film that mixes Ethan Allen, Fred Tuttle, Luis Guzman and space aliens.

“This has ended up being the most uplifting, meaningful thing I’ve ever done,” Charyk said in an interview on his porch. For him, the recording and the film are not the end of a creative journey, but the beginning.

Rooted in Vermont

Charyk grew up in Thetford and graduated from Thetford Academy in 2004. His parents, who had met while working in film and TV, moved to Thetford when Charyk was 3. They now live on Cape Cod.

His education moved on two tracks. He studied international relations at Harvard University, and played in Pariah Beat, an Upper Valley- and Boston-based Americana band. A review of their 2008 recording, Pariah Beat Radio, called them “Thetford’s gypsy outlaws,” and the band’s shows, whether at White River Junction’s Main Street Museum or farther afield, were characterized by a raw, up-tempo fervor.

Charyk moved back to Vermont in 2010 to manage Hartland native Matt Dunne’s campaign for Vermont governor. Since then, Charyk has worked in political campaigns and public relations, including on Dunne’s second bid for governor in 2016, while also playing music.

Members of the final iteration of Pariah Beat — which has steadily changed personnel — formed Western Terrestrials last year and cut a record, The Clearlake Conspiracy, at Nashville’s celebrated Cinderella Sound. True to their name, the band revels in classic country-western music, looking back at Roger Miller, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and the like and using the genre’s rowdy past as a stick to prod its formulaic present.

The band was beginning to build a following when Ketch Secor, singer and fiddler with Old Crow Medicine Show, commented on the Western Terrestrials’ Instagram account in March, suggesting a collaboration on the theme “Ethan Allen wuz an alien.”

Secor is a big, Grammy-winning deal in Americana music, and his idea resonated with Charyk’s background and with the current moment, when the distinction between “alien” and “native” is at the heart of our national divide. Charyk called it “a gem of a concept.” He wrote the song Ethan Alien and sent it back to Secor, who made some edits and recorded a vocal line for the song.

The story of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, who are credited with founding Vermont, is well-known, though even that profile is up for debate. Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom, a 2018 book by journalist and Thetford resident Christopher Wren, points out that Allen, who was born in Connecticut, wanted not only to set roots down in the Green Mountains, but to wrap his tentacles around them, too. At a reading, Wren called Allen “a loudmouth opportunist.” The idea that “Ethan Allen was an alien” also points out that everyone was once from somewhere else.

Ethan Alien is at the heart of the new album, which the band finished after having recorded a little less than half of it before leaving Nashville. Half of the tracks on Back in the Saddle of a Fever Dream refer to space in their titles, including Space Cowboy’s Got the Blues, Flying Saucer Rock n Roll and Space Coyote. The rest are straight-up country rambles, including Who’s Going to Fill These Boots, a duet with Georgette Jones.

For Vermont listeners, at least, Ethan Alien has the makings of a cult classic. The chorus, “Ethan Allen was an alien, and so were all the other little Green Mountain men,” accompanies a litany of latter- and present-day Vermont personalities, from the titular leader of the Green Mountain Boys through Chester A. Arthur to Ben and Jerry and other contemporary Vermont residents like the alt-country singer Neko Case and character actor Luis Guzman, who has a home in Vermont.

The film is an outgrowth of that love-letter to Charyk’s home state.

“I really wanted to do something with my creative momentum,” Charyk said. He and the band and other collaborators filmed an “Ethan Alien Spectacular” on CATV8, the White River Junction-based community access station. It’s still available on YouTube, a lo-fi slice of TV weirdness filmed at the Main Street Museum.

Going big

The feature film is something else entirely. Charyk said he wanted to do “the biggest thing we could pull off that would bring in a bunch of young, creative people.” He also wanted to rescue young, creative people from the inertia and depression of the pandemic, pointing to the July death by suicide of Micah Porter in White River Junction as a motivating event.

Charyk estimated that around 40 or 50 people have put in time to make The Ballad of Ethan Alien, many of them young Vermont artists, actors and filmmakers.

That includes Nick Mees, 25, and Priya Ghosh, 22, filmmaking partners who met at Savannah College of Art and Design. They’ve worked on other feature films, but this is the first shoot that they’ve led.

“We did not expect to be able to make this massive film,” said Ghosh, who grew up in Bucks County, Pa.

Mees, who lived in Vermont until he was 15, met Charyk at a music festival. Pariah Beat invited Mees, who was then 12 or 13 and performing puppet shows with his father, to join them onstage during their set and then played when Mees was performing.

The Ethan Alien filming was “a 30-day shoot condensed into 15,” Mees said. Filming took place during the day, and the filmmakers were editing a rough cut in the evenings, putting in long hours.

Was it an ideal way and time to be making a first feature?

“Weirdly, yes,” Mees said. “I don’t think anyone has a set plan for themselves where everything’s going to work perfectly.”

Mees and Ghosh spoke in Charyk’s kitchen during brief breaks in filming. The man in the gold bodysuit, former state Rep. Donny Osman, D-Plainfield, took frequent breaks so he could remove the claustrophobic plastic TV shell that set dressers Nancy Heyl and Seamus Good buckled and unbuckled from his head.

While he wore it, Osman, who served three terms in the Vermont House and ran unsuccessfully for state Senate, sang about building a “space wall” to protect Earth from marauding aliens. Osman has had a much longer career in theater than in politics.

(There’s an undergraduate poli-sci thesis to be written on the intersection of the performing arts and Vermont Democratic politics.)

That’s the theme of the film, that an archetypal fascist leader has taken control of Vermont and banned music and other forms of free expression. But Western Terrestrials hold forth in a secret location and rally a group of young rebels to overthrow the despot. Also, aliens.

The film is full of “not really subtle metaphors for topical events right now,” Charyk said. “It’s also really funny.” And it features a kind of who’s who of Vermont people, including the Guzman; Rusty DeWees, best known as “The Logger”; former state Rep. Kiah Morris; and musicians Bow Thayer, Dylan Giambatista (who’s also a state representative), Ben Dunham, Sara Grace, Urian Hackney and Bob Stannard, among others. State Rep. John O’Brien, D-Tunbridge, loaned one of Tuttle’s old caps to the production. Tuttle, a dairy farmer in Tunbridge who died in 2003, starred in O’Brien’s film, Man With a Plan.

In focus

Charyk is still raising money to finance the film. Screenings of the rough edit are planned for Halloween weekend, including at the Fairlee Drive-In, where much of the filming took place. Then work will begin on a finished cut of the film, and that will take longer and cost more than the shoot did. There’s a Kickstarter appeal, and Charyk has spoken with the Vermont Arts Council and other donors. The long-lived Burlington music collective Big Heavy World has provided funding and is serving as fiscal agent.

“I know, from political campaigns, I’m going to be doing the fundraising,” Charyk said. “I have zero anxiety about this working out.”

He feels the film has the makings of an instant Vermont cult classic.

At 34, Charyk was one of the senior statesmen on the set among the 20-somethings. He has made a decision that sounds like the kind of calculated risk an adult would take: He is devoting his full attention to the band and is leaving politics behind. “I saw my value not as a policy guy in Vermont, but as a storyteller,” he said.

The shooting concluded on Oct. 15 at the Post Mills Airport, where his parents rented their first place when they moved to Vermont. Charyk said the shoot brought him full circle, but also is launching him, like a comet whipped back out into space by a planet’s gravity. Rather than stall out during the pandemic, Charyk feels he’s moving on.

“I think we’ll be able to do our work in a much bigger way than I could have imagined before,” he said.

The Ballad of Ethan Alien opens with a screening at Fairlee Drive-In on Saturday. A premiere is planned for 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 2 on the lawn of the Statehouse in Montpelier, which is home to a statue of Ethan Allen.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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