Pilgrim Song

Pilgrim Song

A scene from PILGRIM SONG, a film by Martha Stephens. Picture courtesy Paper Moon Films. All rights reserved.

Pilgrim Song

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Executive Producer:
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* Most external filmography links go to The Internet Movie Database.

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Pilgrim Song (2013)

Opened: 05/10/2013 Limited

reRun Theater05/10/2013 - 05/16/20137 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Twitter, Facebook

Genre: Drama

Rated: Unrated


Seeking escape from his stalled relationship and unhappy place in the world, James, a recently pink-slipped music teacher, sets out to hike Kentucky's arduous Sheltowee Trace Trail. Ignoring his girlfriend Joan's plea to stay in Louisville and look for work, James sets out on his two-month journey in hopes of discovering the source of his restless dissatisfaction.

For a time, the lush but unforgiving terrain offers James a short-lived respite. But just as he adjusts to the quiet rhythm of life on the Sheltowee--making camp, serenading the open woods, ignoring Joan's frequent phone calls--the trail rejoins with civilization, abruptly spilling out onto a paved road. Toting his fiddle, James is offered a ride to a community barn dance taking place near the next trailhead. Though he knows he should get back to the trail before nightfall, a local girl leads him astray. In the morning, realizing he's low on supplies, James tries in vain to brush aside his guilt and navigate the trail towards town before dark. However, a pot-smoking, philosophical Park Ranger has other ideas.

In his haste to reach town, James sprains his ankle and winds up stranded with Lyman and Bo, a gregarious father and son duo. Eager for James' companionship, the two have spent their summer alone in a tiny camper after being left by Lyman's wife. With his meditative journey bombarded by the social pair, James reluctantly calls Joan and asks her to meet him at a nearby motel. Lyman happily offers James a ride into town, but first he wants to drop by an Appalachian Heavy Metal concert where he hopes to make amends with his estranged wife.

While Joan waits alone by the motel poolside, James finds himself entangled in Lyman and Bo's family saga. Eventually a fight breaks out and James must choose between taking care of himself and reaching out to his new friends. Set among the verdant hills of Appalachia, PILGRIM SONG is a Southern Odyssey that leads James away from isolation through a labyrinth of strange characters who help him discover what he's been missing.

Director's Statement

Growing up in the Appalachian foothills of Eastern Kentucky, one discovers at some point in one's adult life the gift one has been given: the beauty of the ancient hills, the smell of the sweet damp earth during springtime, the intoxicating sound of the creatures of the forest pulsating like one giant heartbeat. Both subconsciously and consciously, Appalachian Kentuckians will take these things with them wherever they go and will long for them whenever they're away. The word sehnsucht comes to mind. That's a German term used to describe inconsolable longing in your heart for an unnamable something. It's a desire that pierces you and can be triggered by the smallest moment, the slightest sight; the sound of crackling firewood, the haunting melody of a pop ballad from yesteryear, the fragrant smell of rhododendron, the glimpse of a flock of birds in flight. I have often found myself without words when trying to narrow down why I love where I'm from, why it has become such a big part of who I am.

For a brief period of time, I returned to Kentucky to teach reading at a rural county middle school. Often I felt isolated and on the fringe of society. This was both terrible and wonderful. I spent many nights looking out my window, witnessing the breeze pass through the derelict main street of town. I took note of the tiny halfway house across from my storefront apartment. I watched the weathered bodies of men and women who had lost their minds, absently chainsmoke and huddle together during cold nights. It was a depressing yet weirdly wonderful world that was as much a state of mind as it was a place. Come springtime, I discovered my position was released due to state budget cuts, and I was no longer with a job. Instead of making a rational, mature decision to look for another teaching job elsewhere, I decided to take my thoughts on the road.

Through the month of June, I made my way to Montana. I camped at night with a machete by my side and consumed more peanut butter sandwiches than I care to recall. I was in desperate need of spiritual gratification, a way to fill an unexplainable void in my soul. There's something in the human condition that makes us search for that connection to something greater; some find it in religion, others discover it in art, some find it in the company of others. During this trip, I can recall standing alone on the Battlefield of Little Bighorn. The sky was dark and ominous, wild horses grazed nearby. It was here that I was drawn to contemplate the past. I considered my great-great grandmother, a Cherokee infant abandoned on the Trail of Tears, who with a stroke of luck, was discovered by a white family and taken into their brood. I gazed at the landscape; it was one of the most holy and beautiful sights I had ever seen. Like a surge of power and love, I felt whole, I felt complete. To this day, that experience remains a lovely mystery.

In Pilgrim Song, I wanted to deliver a film that simultaneously showcased the natural wonder and serene beauty of my home place, while also observing a character grappling with sehnsucht and a void in his own heart. I wanted the character to be a Kentuckian, but from a very di!erent place than Appalachia. I chose the bustling city of Louisville as the beginning backdrop for the film, from which the character finds his way into the true heart of Appalachia. My extremely talented friend, Karrie Crouse co-wrote the screenplay with me. She is a master of story and character development. For four months, we chipped away at the screenplay and finally completed it on the cusp of summer, 2010. For the next year, funds were raised, parts were cast, and locations scouted. In July of 2011, we started filming over the span of three weeks. Between poison ivy, a broken nose, heat rashes, and mysterious hay loft bug bites, no one left the production unscathed. The land was gorgeous and unforgiving, but a daydream-induced image of Werner Herzog extending a thumbs-up kept a smile on my face when the crew was tired and broken down.

Ultimately, I hope Pilgrim Song connects to many of us who have felt fear, longing, and dissatisfaction with where we're going and who we are. It's also, in a way, a tribute to the fire that burns inside each of us, an accolade to the spirit of the human condition.

About the Cast

Timothy Morton (James)

Timothy Morton is a filmmaker based in Louisville, KY. His acting credits include Kentucker Audley's TEAM PICTURE and HOLY LAND, as well as Stephens's PASSENGER PIGEONS.

Bryan Marshall (Lyman)

Bryan Marshall previously worked with Stephens as Moses in PASSENGER PIGEONS. His other credits include Paul Schattel's ALISON and SINKHOLE. He is based in Asheville, NC and plays honky tonk music in his spare time.

Michael Abbott Jr. (Pharmer)

Michael Abbott Jr. is a classically trained, East Tennessee native with extensive theatre credits across the U.S. His film credits include the award winning drama SHOTGUN STORIES, VACATION!, BE STILL, and MUD (directed by Je! Nichols & starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon), just to name a few. He is currently in post production on his first documentary feature ACCEPTABLE LIMITS of which he is producing and codirecting, and he continues his sustainable sanitation solution e!orts in Haiti through ONETRUCK. ORG, a non-profit organization he created with his directing partner, Cosmo Pfeil. Michael resides in New York City.

Harrison Cole (Bo)

Harrison Zane Cole is a native of Mooresville, NC. While PILGRIM SONG is his first feature film, Harrison was the principal character (Ray) in the award winning short film, BE STILL. He also played Iago in the musical Aladdin and Shan-Yu in Mulan at Masterworks School of the Arts. When not acting, Harrison loves the computer where he plays Minecraft and Wizard 101. He is also active in chess, horseback riding, tennis and scouts.

Kristin Slaysman (Rae)

Kristin Slaysman was born in Texas, raised in West Virginia and graduated with a degree in theater from Northwestern University. Recent film work includes SAVE THE DATE (Sundance '12) and her short film project (with filmmaker Josh Crockett) can be found at explosivebolts.tv. She has performed in theaters all over NYC and co-founded the international theater company 404 STRAND. Kristin lives in Venice, CA where she can see the ocean.

About the Filmmakers

Martha Stephens (Writer, Director, Producer)

Raised in the hills of Appalachian Kentucky, Martha Stephens longed to create films celebrating and investigating her native land and people. A graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, School of Filmmaking, Martha's first feature film, PASSENGER PIGEONS premiered at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival, and won the "We Believe In You" Award. Martha is currently writing her third Kentucky-centric feature length script, PAPAW EASY with writing partner, Karrie Crouse. She hopes to film it in 2013.

Karrie Crouse (Writer, Joan)

Karrie Crouse is a graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts and recently received her MFA with Honors from Columbia University in New York, where her short film, BE STILL, was awarded "Faculty Selects" and the "David Jones Memorial Best Director Award." Karrie writes and directs for SUNSET TELEVISION, a comedy series that was picked up by Pitchfork.tv as their first non-music program. She has acted in Stephens's PASSENGER PIGEONS and Aaron Katz's QUIET CITY.

Adam Tate (Producer)

Adam Tate is a North Carolina School of the Arts graduate and just finished his Master's degree at the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked for Austin Film Society and Troublemaker Studios.

Nick Case (Producer)

Nick Case produced Cam Archer's WILD TIGERS I HAVE KNOWN and SHIT YEAR, which premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and the 2010 Cannes Film Festival respectively. His other previous work includes Leonardo DiCaprio's environmental documentary, 11TH HOUR, which premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Nick graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in Marketing.

Ryan Watt (Producer)

Ryan Watt is the Director of Marketing at New School Media Group, consulting for web marketing and video solutions. He is the executive producer of DAYLIGHT FADES, the latest feature film by Old School Pictures. Securas Consulting Group acquired his technology firm Metro Backup in 2006, where he served as Director of Marketing until late 2008. Ryan graduated from University of Tennessee with a degree in Marketing.

Alexander Sablow (Cinematographer)

Alexander Sablow is a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts where he received a BFA in cinematography. He is currently based out of Atlanta and works in the camera department on feature films. Some camera credits include: PASSENGER PIGEONS, TAKE SHELTER, GET LOW, THE WALKING DEAD, and THE WETTEST COUNTY. He recently shot the Seattle based film, NEVER, for Brett Allen Smith and Cherie Saulter (No Matter What, SXSW 2011).

Nathan Whiteside (Editor)

Nathan Whiteside is a native of Wilmington, NC. His resume includes Stephens's PASSENGER PIGEONS, Aaron Katz's COLD WEATHER, and the NBC program "Poker After Dark." He is a fellow graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts and is currently based in Pittsburgh.

Elizabeth McKee (Production Designer)

Elizabeth McKee studied film at Boston University. She worked for New York-based distributor Zeitgeist Films from 2007-2010. Currently she lives in Pittsburgh.

Andrew Iafrate & Jonathan Wood (Composers)

Jonathan Wood and Andrew Iafrate are Louisville-based musicians originally from West Virginia. Wood plays in Louisville bands Old Baby and Thomas A. Minor and The Picket Line. He is releasing his debut solo album in 2012. Iafrate has released a number of solo recordings and is currently working on a new album. Iafrate composed music for director Martha Stephens' debut film PASSENGER PIGEONS. When not playing music, Jonathan and Andrew enjoy fine bourbon and daydreaming about West Virginia.

Paper Moon Films is a Memphis-based film production company, co-founded by Nick Case and Ryan Watt in 2009, to increase the visibility of talented southern artists. Paper Moon Films produced Kentucker Audley's OPEN FIVE as well as Martha Stephens's PILGRIM SONG and Sarah Ledbetter & Matteo Servente's THE ROMANCE OF LONELINESS. Their upcoming projects include Brent Stewart's 2011 Sundance Creative Producing Summit Fellow film CHILD OF GOD and Robert Machoian & Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck's NEBRASKA.