UPDATE: Because of the weather, the film Ethan Alien — which had been scheduled to be shown on the Statehouse lawn today, Nov. 2, at 5:30 p.m. — will be streamed virtually. The link to stream is https://www.balladofethanalien.com. Or, people can watch it on the Western Terrestrials Facebook page.
Right before the pandemic began, Nick Charyk and his band, the Western Terrestrials, were in Nashville, recording an album that includes “Ethan Alien” — a song with a simple premise: that Ethan Allen, founder of Vermont, was an extraterrestrial.
“You can’t take the green out of these mountains/or the ET out of Ethan Allen/Can’t take Champy out of the Vermonster lake/It was immigrants from outer space/Helped to make this country great,” the band sings in honky-tonk style.
The song was written with Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, a band that Charyk is a huge fan of.
“Certainly in the music world, they’re top shelf,” he said. “As good as it gets.”
The pandemic put the Terrestrials’ album on pause, but after a few months, they were able to reconvene and release the album. And when they did, Charyk said “Ethan Alien” took off — and he is building on that momentum.
Charyk said the Western Terrestrials had tried livestreaming concerts, but the feeling was nowhere close to a live performance.
“It’s a loss that everyone in the creative industries is feeling right now — both a direct financial loss and also the loss of a performing outlet, which is fundamental to your character if you’re a performer,” he said.
The idea to turn the song into a full-length feature film started as an abstract idea — all Charyk knew was that he wanted to do some kind of multimedia project. But he said with the realities of Covid, making a movie seemed like the only viable option. A traditional concert would have brought too many people together.
“We wanted to make as much of a spectacle as we could,” he said. “We wanted to capture the energy of a live rock ’n’ roll show, in a different medium.”
So late in the summer, Charyk got started on “The Ballad of Ethan Alien.” He used his connections in the Statehouse and in the Vermont music scene to put together an all-star cast, including Hollywood actor and Vermonter Luis Guzman, entertainer Rusty DeWees who’s known for his character “The Logger,” former U.S. Senate candidate Donny Osman, artist and songwriter Bow Thayer, and former state legislator Kiah Morris.
“I realized that everyone I want to work with is available right now, and everyone is looking for an outlet, or a project,” Charyk said.
The film is set in a dystopian near-future in Vermont, where a fascist leader has banned music, singing, dancing and creativity, and a lot of young people have forgotten about music entirely.
Over the course of the film, Vermont’s musical history is rediscovered, reigniting a full rebellion to overthrow the fascist leader. The film premieres on the Statehouse lawn just days before the Nov. 3 presidential election.
“The song is a love letter to the eccentric, weird, slightly off-kilter Vermont that I love,” he said, citing Vermont’s legacy of outsider art at places like Goddard College and Bread and Puppet Theater, and progressive politics being woven into that through people like Ben and Jerry and Bernie Sanders.
“It feels to me that it’s important to put this out into the world right now,” Charyk said. “And we thought doing it on the Statehouse lawn would be the biggest, proudest way to do it.”
So what is the difference between making music and making a movie?
“It’s much, much harder,” Charyk said. “When you’re recording sound, you’re working in one dimension, which is plenty complicated. When you expand it to the dimensions of lights and sounds and costumes and props, there’s so many logistics.”
He had to get used to spending three hours setting up lights for a shot that took 10 minutes, and ultimately would only make up only 20 seconds of the movie.
During filming, Charyk said his team worked 18-hour days for 15 days straight.
The whole project ran at light speed, from conception to on set in just a month. Then, the entire movie was filmed in just two weeks. Now just two months into the movie-making adventure, a rough cut is ready to be debuted on the Statehouse lawn.
“By anybody’s standards, that’s super quick,” Charyk said. “Only in this unique moment were people available and willing to put in the barnraising to get this done before the snow falls in Vermont.”
A Kickstarter for the project has so far raised $3,800 of the $10,000 goal, but Charyk said he’s optimistic he’ll get the rest of the money that’s needed.