Yesterday, I wrote about a great lady I haven't had the pleasure of meeting, yet. Today, I get to write about one of the greatest talents I've worked with personally.
"The Blimp Trap" was a passion project for pretty near everyone involved. Based on the story of Harwood Taylor, director Shawn Welling's best friend, adapted by a father-daughter team (of my father and myself!), and set right here in Texas, it was to be an emotional journey right from the start. Plus, our co-executive producers, Jana Fant and Renée Redden, long time friends who were making each other's dreams come true by making this movie possible in the first place.
Renée would win the difficult role of the alcoholic, bipolar, well-meaning mother figure, which she would pull off with aplomb, including a fast-firing scene opposite accomplished Houston legend Bob Boudreaux, a newsman-turned-classical-actor who recently appeared in a Xerox ad aired during Super Bowl LI. Renée's character comes to the rescue in the film, and director Shawn Welling even likens her to a female Han Solo, as a rebel rescuer!
The film has won several awards since its release, including four Remi Awards at Worldfest, the Houston International Film Festival and best Docu-drama at the Gulf Coast Film and Video Festival. But this film, and one young star, are on the verge of setting a new milestone in Welling Films' history.
Isabella Blake-Thomas is a rising star in the field of film. By the time she was ten years old, she had made great strides, appearing in a small but vital role in "Johnny English Reborn" as "The X-Files'" Gillian Anderson's stoney character's young daughter. She also accrued an impressive television resumé in her home country of the United Kingdom, appearing as a series regular in the BBC's "Green Balloon Club" for one season.
Things would only look up from there, as young Isabella landed roles in top productions, including parts in episodes of cult favorite "Doctor Who," British staple "Midsomer Murders," and BBC-turned-Starz hit "The White Queen." Of special note to this writer is a part in "Red Faction: Origins," as young Lyra, sister of the hero in this video game spin-off film, a chronically underrated video game to film adaptation. Also of note is a bit part in the Hollywood A-list animated film, "Rise of the Guardians."
Then came Worldfest 2015, the famed Houston International Film Festival. Sitting in the back of Shawn Welling's seminar on the use of drones in indie film, I watched as a twelve-year-old girl, listening attentively to every detail of the advanced talk, raised her hand enthusiastically when Shawn asked for volunteers to act out a scene.
That day, Isabella shocked us all with a brilliant performance of an uninspired scene. She took "hello, how are you?"-style dialogue and made it sound Shakespearean. And it wasn't just the accent. This was a little girl with "star quality" or "stage presence" or whatever you want to call the elusive "it."
After the workshop ended, we spoke with Isabella again. We exchanged business cards, and discussed projects. It is worth noting here that Shawn Welling and I met in a similar fashion the year prior at the same film festival! Networking is invaluable to the independent filmmaker.
Shortly thereafter, we examined our projects in production. My father, prolific writer and college professor Nathan Carliner Goldman, and I were in the process of co-adapting master storyteller Harwood Taylor's childhood story into our featurette screenplay, "The Blimp Trap."
The story of "The Blimp Trap" centers on two children, Harwood and Billy, who overcome adversity in 1970s small-town Texas, using the powers of imagination, hope, and love to surmount the pressures of past tragedies, societal pressure, and disability to make something wonderful happen.
Shawn had the magnificent idea of changing the character of the mentally impaired Billy from a boy to a girl, to accommodate this sublime young talent. Within weeks, Isabella was cast as Billy, and the great young actor Blaze Tucker was cast as child Harwood.
We shot the bulk of the film in Kerrville, Texas, a homecoming of sorts for Michelle Simmons-Welling. We had an idyllic shoot, working as hard as we could from dawn to dusk, and pulling together as a team to get meals together, watch child-friendly movies ("Air Bud: World Pup" was a favorite), and then lounge poolside (or in-pool) until an early bedtime came.
As much fun as I had wrangling Ranger the golden retriever, swimming in the murky Guadalupe river, and making grocery runs with Elizabeth Blake-Thomas, Isabella's wonderful (and incredibly hard-working!) mother, one of my personal favorite memories is doing last minute rewrites, Isabella scrawling out narration as Elizabeth and I tossed the words back and forth, trying to make them work. Minutes later, Isabella and Elizabeth were recording the brand new narration track, which I feel is one of the things that ties the story together best. That's just one example of the amazing teamwork that was ever-present on this set.
Casting a neurotypical actor as a character with any mental or intellectual disability is always tricky. In the case of Billy, I had diverged slightly from history, basing her on a handful of friends I have had who are on the autism spectrum. This is especially risky, especially for a child actress, but Isabella pulled it off beautifully, playing the part with such aplomb that sometimes it shocked me when the character came off and she was able to look me in the eyes and speak to me as she usually did.
She did an amazing amount of research for such a young performer, constantly poring over scholarly websites and nonfictional videos, searching for the truth in her acting. Sometimes, she refused to break character even when the cameras stopped rolling, preferring to be a little more method. In my opinion, this tack worked wonders, and I'm not alone in thinking so.
Shawn Welling and Renée Redden, our intrepid executive producer and actress, spent the next months tirelessly editing the movie. Before we knew it, it was time for Worldfest again.
At the next Worldfest, in 2016, our lead actor, Blaze Tucker, was nominated for and won a best rising actor Remi award for his work in a different movie, "The Last Man Club." Although this was not our movie, we were thrilled for our young star, and proud for him, too.
That night, a surprise award winner was announced. Another acting award, for Isabella Blake-Thomas, for her stunning work in "The Blimp Trap!" The Welling Films team went wild. Although that would be one of multiple awards that the film, Isabella, and I would individually win that night, that one is still special. It was such a surprise, and such an honor for the film. But more honors were still to come.
In 2016, Isabella's career would continue its stellar ascent, with mature-beyond-her-years turns in cult hit shows "Shameless," "Da Vinci's Demons," and, most prominently, an episode of ABC's "Once Upon a Time." She also appeared in Nickelodeon's "Game Shakers;" as an amusing aside, I only found out about that when I was watching that network (a certain show featuring Japanese heroes in colorful spandex), and a commercial came on, prominently featuring Isabella!
In early 2017, as I write this, "The Blimp Trap," is nearing the end of its festival rounds, although we have a few film festivals left to hear from. It has recently earned one exciting accolade, however.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is famous for putting on The Golden Globe Awards every year, a glamorous party, known as the more informal cousin and predictor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Oscars. In 1978, a member of the association founded an organization to award young talent, and the Young Artist Association was born. An alignment between the two organizations still exists, as the HFPA funds the YAA's Young Artist Foundation scholarship fund, in fact.
The Young Artist Awards are affectionately known as "the Kiddie Oscars" in Hollywood, and rightly so. These are the most selective and important awards for young people in film since the juvenile Academy Award was eliminated in 1961.
It is in this prestigious competition that Isabella Blake-Thomas is nominated, for best teen actress in a short film, for "The Blimp Trap." I am proud as a writer, proud as a fan, and proud as a friend. And, on March 17, 2017, we will know who the winner is.
So, I mentioned a milestone, earlier. Well, here it is. At Welling Films, of all of our seven acting awards and nominations, only one actor has received multiple accolades for one acting role. That was Nick Nicholson for his dark turn in "The Legend of DarkHorse County." He was nominated for best actor at Worldfest, and won at Lagniappe Film Festival.
With her nomination here, Isabella joins this prestigious company in the history of our small production company. With a win? She becomes the winningest actor in the history of Welling Films.
As much as we want Isabella to win, we're proud of her for being nominated. However, as much as we're proud of her for being nominated, we're just as proud of the work she did, on and off the set.
On behalf of everyone here at Welling Films, we're rooting for you, Isabella!
One last note:
To be honest, all our actors were award-worthy. Nick, donning a realistic southern accent to go with his cutting sarcasm, Renée managing to be funny, alluring, nurturing all at once, Blaze being hopeful and sweet even while being defiant and angry, Sebastian being a terrifying bully despite his gentle and fun-loving nature, Bob being a forceful man to be reckoned with behind the desk, and the list goes on. We salute all our actors for their pitch perfect performances in "The Blimp Trap." Of course, to have the patience and guts to be a film actor is worthy of recognition, in and of itself, so we salute that, too.
We also have to thank Dutch-Christopher Lindeburg, the maker of our Blimp Trap, Art Giraldo for his spot-on drone operation, Duncan Johnson and Michelle Simmons-Welling for their inspired cinematography, and the Simmons family and the town of Kerrville for their generosity and hospitality.
All in all, this wouldn't be possible if it weren't for the people believing in us. Thank you to Renée Redden and Jana Fant for all you've done for us.