News Column

Tech grad returns to St. Cloud to talk about 'Walter'

August 16, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 16--A St. Cloud Technical High School graduate stumbled upon making a film about another former Central Minnesota resident, one-time world's oldest man Walter Breuning.

Breuning was born in Melrose in 1896 and died at age 114 in 2011 in Montana. He made for a fascinating subject for Sarah Hall and her filmmaker husband, Hunter Weeks, who now live in Montana.

The couple returned to Minnesota this week to visit Hall's family, some of whom live in Central Minnesota.

Weeks initially interviewed Breuning for a different project. On a whim, he had used Google to search for the oldest person and found him. He couldn't get the interview out of his head, and Hall urged Weeks to make a movie about him.

"He was so exceptional," Hall said of Breuning, who remembered even his earliest days. He didn't have kids or much family, so he made a family out of the people who were at the senior living facility he resided in.

The film that would become "Walter: Lessons From the World's Oldest People" took Hall and Weeks around the world -- Atlanta, Texas, Italy, Cuba -- to meet some of the world's oldest people.

"There's an entire subculture," Hall said, of people who are interested in supercentenarians, people who have lived to their 110th birthday. That includes the 110 Club, a website for a group of people from around the world who are interested in supercentenarians.

Save seniors

One of the most important things she took away from the project is to recognize the history in seniors and supercentenarians. She said the percentage of nursing home clients that get regular visits from families and friends was small.

"We want to remind people not to discard these people," Hall said.

The one phrase they kept returning to when making the film?

"We have to save grandma and grandpa," she said. "Take an interest in seniors. There's a lot of oral history."

"These people have done everything before," she said. Too often, younger generations think they have it together, when in reality, they have a lot to learn.

"I think it would make people a lot happier, in the decisions they make in life," she said.

While some people are interested in these people whose age make them outliers in the human population, Weeks and Hall didn't want to concentrate on the science behind longevity. Instead, they sought out the personalities and personal philosophies of these people.

"What made them tick," as Hall put it.

Showing the film

Weeks and Hall hope to have the film on some of the festival circuits then maybe a broader release. They'll also have a week each of screenings in New York and Los Angeles this fall.

Hall hopes to bring the film to Minnesota but doesn't have anything nailed down yet. They also started a Kickstarter campaign to run the film in theaters nationwide. It's just over halfway to the amount they need.

The site and marketing for screening can cost as much as the production of the movie.

For those who want to get a sample of the film, Weeks and Hall are posting minute-long "Words with Walter" clips from his long interviews at www.walterthemovie.com. They include reminiscing on meeting his wife, working and other memories.

She said one of the questions that got the most interesting answers was this: "How did you learn to drive?" For one Minnesota supercentenarian, it was learning to drive a horse and buggy. Changes in transportation and entertainment were other big topics. Breuning liked to talk about economics as well, having been in his 30s during the Great Depression.

"It makes you realize how spoiled (our generation is)," she said. "These people were starving, literally standing in bread lines."

From TV to film

Weeks has been making films for 10 years. Hall went to Brown College in Minnesota and sought a career in television production. She worked in the Twin Cities for Hubbard Broadcasting for eight years before meeting Weeks. Initially, he inspired her, and she knew she wanted to work with him in film. A relationship blossomed, and the two got married a year after the day they met.

She said Weeks loves tales of adventure and enjoys meeting people.

"He has a nose for those stories," she said.

Next, they're working on a movie about the Potomac River watershed and the importance of clean water. They chose that river because of its history.

Hall's early ambitions of working in the television industry led her to think she might someday make hourlong documentaries for PBS or the Discovery Channel.

"I liked the idea of having a new job every day," she said. These days, she especially loves the editing process, distilling all the research and the interviews in a cohesive story. An English teacher at Tech inspired her writing.

Hall's and Weeks' jobs require that the couple spend a lot of time together. An average day can include 12-15 hours of filming, interviewing, researching, editing and scheduling.

"I'm so amazed we can spend so much time together and still get along," she said.

"If we didn't have so much fun working, we couldn't do this job," she said. "Our friends think we're always on vacation."

"This becomes your life. You have to want to do this," she said.

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(c)2013 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.)

Visit the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.) at www.sctimes.com

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