On Her Own began as a project to satisfy my personal curiosity about farm life.

Farming was a topic I first started hearing about in the ’70s in Berkeley, California, where I was born and raised. My multiracial, bilingual family of seven lived in a 100-year-old Victorian house in a neighborhood comprised of law students, communists and working class folks. The closest thing to a ranch I ever saw was the pot farm down the block, and yet I was fascinated by the stories my mother and great-grandmother told me about small-town farm life in Iowa. My great-grandmother was a third-generation farmer and her grandparents came from Norway and settled in Iowa. They helped found the city of Badger, where corn was the primary crop. I heard stories about my mother and her brother John going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and was told that prepping dinner was a lot more complicated then. They didn’t go to the market for “store-bought food.” A chicken dinner required hard work, including the strange but intriguing act of wringing chickens’ necks, two at a time.

At first, making On Her Own was a personal attempt to reclaim a part of my mother’s history and, in turn, a part of mine. But after five years of shooting, the story became something more meaningful than a quest for connection to my past.

In 2009 I was shooting a one-minute segment for a television show that featured local and sustainable farms in Northern California. One of the subjects of the show was Nancy Prebilich, a farmer whose family owned Gleason Ranch in Bodega, California. Her family began farming in the area in the 1860s, around the same time that my family began farming in Iowa. As I listened to Nancy talk about her farm and watched her as she worked, she reminded me of the stories my family had told, as well as the connection they had to the land and the animals that they raised. After the shoot, I asked Nancy if I could come back to the farm and film her and her family. I didn’t have a specific plan or agenda at that point, and Nancy viewed my request as an opportunity to get some video footage for the Gleason Ranch website.

Family and Farm Unraveling

I continued to shoot for about a year before the Prebilichs’ lives took a dramatic turn: Nancy’s father, Tony, suddenly died in his sleep. Nancy phoned me to give me the shocking news and I asked if I could come. As she recalls, everyone in the family was aware that if I came, I would be bringing my camera. No one objected; in fact, her mother, Barbara, told Nancy to tell me I was welcome.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there to shoot the burial due to a prior commitment, but with the family’s permission I got help capturing the graveside service from a trusted friend and seasoned cameraman, John Kabasakalis. This was the only time during the film’s five years of shooting that I didn’t shoot a pivotal moment for the Prebilichs. When I came to Bodega’s community hall later that day, I focused on being with the family at the wake. Shortly after Tony’s funeral, I asked my brother Marlon to edit the footage and create a DVD of the funeral, which I gave to Cindy (Nancy’s older sister). Cindy had always been less comfortable about being on camera than the rest of the family, but I think that after she saw the DVD of the funeral, she saw the value of my documenting their lives.

Losing Tony was a terrible blow to the surviving family and, ultimately, to the operation of the ranch. Nancy and her family were still in mourning over the loss of Tony when Nancy’s mother suddenly passed away. After the death of both parents, the pressure to keep the ranch going was nearly impossible to manage. Mounting bills, broken vehicles and legal issues intensified an already contentious relationship between Nancy, her sister Cindy, and Cindy’s husband, J.D.

Seeds of Frustration Begin to Sprout

One of the scenes that reveals the tension between Nancy and her sister took place on the back porch of the ranch house. The trust I established within the family allowed them to relate to each other unselfconsciously in the scene. Even when things got pretty heated between the sisters, they didn’t ask me to stop shooting.

In the scene that takes place prior to the porch scene, Nancy opens a shed at the ranch and discovers a messy pile of feed sacks that someone had thrown haphazardly on the floor. She makes her way to the pig barn where she and her brother-in-law, J.D., discover a dead piglet, and another one that appears to be sick. Nancy takes the sick piglet to the house to try to help it.

The sick piglet on the Prebilichs' farm in On Her Own

The sick piglet on the Prebilichs’ farm in On Her Own

Nancy is upset about the animals and the state of the ranch. In the next scene, she gently confronts her nephew, Nicholas, about the mess in the shed and the importance of developing good habits so that everyone’s chores will be made easier. Cindy comes onto the porch from the back door of the house to show Nancy a bottle of medicine and Nicholas goes back into the house, followed by Cindy. Then Cindy catches wind that Nancy has spoken to Nicholas. She returns to the porch to ask Nancy what she said to him. Nancy recounts her discussion with Nicholas, angering Cindy, who sternly reminds her that the kids have spent their spring break working the ranch. While all this bitterness and anger filled the air, I remained stationary at the outside entrance to the porch, my camera rolling. The action was minimal but nonetheless challenging to cover.

There were spatial challenges in the scene that I had to deal with. In the movie we see Nancy, J.D. and Cindy tending to the piglet, which lies in a box at Nancy’s feet, about eight feet away from me. The back porch was cluttered and only about five feet wide and 15 feet long. I had nowhere closer to move, and during this scene I had to cover Nancy, Nicholas, Cindy, J.D. and the piglet. As Cindy moves in and out of the house at the other end of the porch, Nancy is sitting on a feed sack at the center of the porch, and J.D. enters the scene from behind me to prepare an injection for the pig. While Nancy is well-mic’d with a wireless, Cindy and J.D. are out of range for my shotgun mic, but their dialogue was captured partly by Nancy’s wireless. Thankfully I had a long ENG zoom lens, ergonomically designed to make quick, subtle adjustments to focus, iris and framing. This lens could go from close to wide very smoothly.

(L-R) J.D., Cindy and Nancy in a tense scene from On Her Own

(L-R) J.D., Cindy and Nancy in a tense scene from On Her Own

Building Trust With Smart Camera-Work

So how did I get the family to trust me during the shoot? I took time with them so that they could get to know me. I knew that I didn’t want to control how this was going to go. As Nancy has often said, they liked my laid-back approach.

Unlike my day jobs, where every minute is planned or storyboarded, this project was dictated by what happened to be going on at the farm that day. My preparation for each day of shooting was to place a wireless on Nancy and rely on her mic and my camera mic for sound. If I was shooting on my long lens for landscape and establishing shots I would use my tripod, but whenever I was up close, the camera was on my shoulder. I tried to stay out of the family’s way so they would get used to me and the camera and simply go about their day, starting further back on a long lens and moving in closer and closer as the day went on.

Another thing that helped build that trust was coming to the ranch and never taking the camera out of my car at all. Instead of shooting, I’d catch up with what was going on in their lives and listen to their stories as we toured places that were significant to them.

It was a unique privilege to get to know this hardworking, resilient family, and to have an opportunity to tell their story. MM

On Her Own will screen as part of the ArcLight Presents Slamdance Cinema Club at the ArcLight, Hollywood on Monday, July 13, 8 p.m. Morgan Schmidt-Feng is the founder of Filmsight Productions and is an award-winning director, producer and cinematographer. To learn more about On Her Own, visit its official website here.