When you’re making a historical film set in the 16th century, one thing you want to avoid is the sound of helicopters. Writer-director-producer Alex Willemin and producer Alina Willemin — the married owners of the Alix Filmworx production company — had a lot going for them when they set their new feature Albert and Claude near Huguenot Memorial Park in Jacksonville, Florida, where they live. The location was once occupied by real colonizers like the ones portrayed in their film, it looks remarkably unspoiled, and it is only about 40 miles from the suspected location of the Fountain of Youth, which figures prominently in the film.
“Working with the City of Jacksonville Film and Television Office, we were able to get a very secluded part of the beach where we were filming,” says Alex Willemin, who is also a professor at Jacksonville University. “It was beautiful. I could not be happier with the picture.”
But the location did have some drawbacks, including heat, insects, and helicopters from the nearby Mayport Naval Station — problems the Willemins were able to overcome through planning and flexibility.
Albert and Claude follows a lost soul named Claude (Eric Newcombe) who is haunted by the deaths of his wife and daughter — and by the presence of Albert (Erik DeCicco), the leader of the French Huguenot expedition that brought them both to the so-called New World. (The Huguenots were Protestants who fled Catholic oppression in France.) The film finds room for lightheartedness about contentious subjects — like heaven and hell, and whether Catholics or Protestants have it right about what really happens during communion. But most of all, it is a moving look at what matters during our short time on earth. The Fountain of Youth seems the answer to Claude’s prayers, but he’s one of many who find it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
The film’s ambition, high concept and rigorous dedication to historic accuracy — this is not a movie where power lines ever slip into the frame — might make it sound wildly expensive. But given their experience — they met at the University of Miami while she was earning her MFA in producing and he was earning his in production and directing — the Willemins were able to put everything together for $30,000. They did it by planning meticulously, preparing for the worst, and making sure everyone on their team felt invested and valued. (Full disclosure: They got an assist from MovieMaker Production Services, which helps filmmakers stretch their budgets.)
Here’s our talk with Alex and Alina Willemin about bringing Albert and Claude to eternal life. Visit alixfilmworx.com for updates on its progress and wide release.
MovieMaker: When was the moment in the development process when you said, “This is really happening — we’re doing it”?
Alina Willemin: We’re in our mid-30s. We have a kid together. We thought, “It’s time — you’ve got to stop waiting for somebody else to give you a shot or to give you permission.” We talked about it, and decided, “We’re gonna refinance the house, we’re gonna max out the credit cards, we’re going to beg, borrow, steal and call in some favors. But this year, we’re going to make a movie.” And lo and behold, that year we were hit with the pandemic. So Alex, being as smart and clever as he is, wrote something that was tight and outdoors and doable. We didn’t have to find all sorts of crazy locations, we didn’t have to feed throngs of people. It made sense for the story. We didn’t shoehorn in efficiencies — we created a story that was efficient enough to be done. So as far as what that moment was? Pen to paper, we set out to make it makeable.
Were there obstacles you were able to anticipate and overcome? Not anticipate but still overcome?
Alina Willemin: I’m making a mental list, starting with Day One — getting pushed because of a tropical storm. And Day Three or Four, we were attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets.
Alex Willemin: This is part of the reason why I’m a proponent of film school. If you go to a good film school, they are going to teach you that everything is going to go wrong and how to be ready for it.. And at all times — at every second of your production — something is going wrong.
Alina Willemin: I’m from Florida and I’ve been bitten by bugs! As a producer and as a mom, really it’s about tapping into that mom brain. Murphy’s Law says if you’ve got people outside, anything that can possibly go wrong sooner or later will go wrong. I kept people hydrated, I slathered them in sunblock, I slathered them in bug spray.
What about the helicopters?
Alex Willemin: The day we were out there, they were doing helicopter drills: one helicopter goes out, flies right over our location, goes out a couple miles, turns around, comes back right over our location, lands. Then the next one goes up. And so that was happening the entire day. But we could shoot around it. That’s the good thing: It was the military, so there was a lot of precision. We learned the timing by the time the third copter came back. We were also lucky to have a great sound guy who not only was booming the actors, but was really good with lav mics, and not only hiding lav mics but getting really good sound quality from them, especially being outdoors.
Sound is something that we were definitely worried about because we were outdoors — obviously we’re not in the studio. And Jey Mayberry, who’s a local sound recordist here in Jacksonville, did fantastic work on set, absolutely fantastic. I knew if we could get a really good sound person and a really good DP, we could make something that people would want to watch and listen to.
How did you assemble a top-notch team on an efficient budget?
Alex Willemin: So, so number one, straight out of the gate, is know what people are worth. I know we didn’t pay Jey or Logan Miller, our director of photography, anywhere close to what they deserved — not just by their rate and by their time, but what they deserved in terms of their skill. If you are trying to recruit people, don’t try to undercut them. Be honest. The conversation I had with Jey was, “I know what you’re worth, I am embarrassed to offer you this. But this is all we have.”
If you’re going on this journey, find people who are in the same boat as you. We’ve done plenty of shorts and commercials, but we hadn’t done a feature before. Find people who have worked, but not at this level. Reach out to an assistant cameraperson and say, “Hey, I can’t pay you DP price. I can’t really pay you AC price. But if you can take a pay cut, you can be the DP on a feature film.”
Alina Willemin: Find people who are as hungry as we are to get to this level, so we can all help each other and level up together.
Main image: Claude (Eric Newcombe), left, and Albert (Erik DeCicco) in Albert and Claude.