By Shanna Perkins
It’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction. When it comes to Louisiana’s truths, its history is not only stranger – it’s more entertaining, heartbreaking and compelling. While Hollywood has tried its hand at this story, it’s not an easy one to tell from the outside. Film producer and Lafayette native Nicholas Campbell decided that there were untold parts of this story and that he was going to be the one to tell them.
In 2012, Campbell was finishing up his last year of graduate school in Los Angeles. His commute gave him three hours a day to think; his mind always led him home to South Louisiana. Throughout his life, his father had told him stories about growing up in Forked Island, and these tales of home in particular were the ones that began persistently nagging Campbell.
“They were fascinating stories,” Campbell professes. “My father grew up historically different than I did. He grew up in an economically underdeveloped area that was very poor. That was his upbringing, living off of the land. He grew up speaking a language that I didn’t speak, Louisiana French. That difference between just one generation was something I wanted to share with the world. Not just from a personal standpoint, but the message is universal that cultures and languages can be lost pretty quickly.”
Campbell began developing a script with the hopes of conveying a story that could supersede any niche drama classifications. He aimed to create a storyline that was universally relatable. The script, completed in 2013, is a narrative of the cultural ebbs and flows of South Louisiana dating back to the 1950s titled, “Forked Island.”
The same year, Campbell’s short film “Common” was featured in the Montreal World Film Festival and while he was there a chance encounter, which can only be attributed to Louisiana luck, with South Louisiana native Warren Perrin led to an integral step in the progression of “Forked Island.”
“In August, 2013, I was preparing to go to Montreal, Canada on a CODOFIL-related trip and saw a local newspaper article about Nick’s work and that he was entering a film in the Montreal World Film Festival,” Perrin explains. “I called him to introduce myself and let him know that I, like his dad, was a native of Vermilion Parish and experienced being made to feel low class because of speaking French.”
The two decided to have lunch while in Montreal. Campbell had long looked up to Perrin for his work in cultural preservation, but the chance to talk shop with him wasn’t the only serendipitous event that happened. One of the men at lunch was a French director by the name of André Forcier.
“André Forcier had worked with an actor named Roy Dupuis who I wrote one of the lead roles for,” Campbell says still amazed by the course of events. “It was so strange. It was a year after I’d written the script. I was in Montreal and I was sitting next to a guy who had a direct link to the person I wrote the script for. I asked Forcier if he would forward the script to Dupuis and we were able to attach him to the script. He had enough clout in Canada and Europe to make his attachment to the project really worthwhile.”
This project is one that Campbell describes as “fiercely personal.” The story lines are ones that will strike chords with many South Louisiana natives. The deterioration of the French language in Louisiana and the impact of the oil and gas industry are two of the cultural shaping factors that “Forked Island” will, for possibly the first time cinematically, bring to a broad audience. The story follows widower Emile Hebert, his eldest son Louis and his youngest son Peter. The Heberts are a low-income family living in South Louisiana in the 1950s struggling with the rapidly changing Louisiana landscape.
“There’s an arc that the family has in which the father want to hold on to the culture. The eldest son, Louis, wants to move on to greener pastures and the youngest son is stuck between the two and he sees this divide,” Campbell says of the characters who are based off of his father’s family. “It’s about language and the preservation of a culture, but it’s also about seeing how cultures change and shift and how there are many different ways in which they can be preserved. I think Cajun culture has done that in a very unique way.”
The “Forked Island” concept begins in the 1950s and continues to present day. Making the issues that they deal with transgenerational, the first being the Americanization of South Louisiana. Most Acadiana denizens have heard the stories of former generations being punished as children for speaking their first language, French, in school. This film will be the first to depict these incidents. As well as give a rare look into the cultural impact of the oil and gas industry.
“We see the youngest son, Peter, struggle with the language and get punished for speaking it in school,” Campbell says. The oldest son Louis sees all of this economic prosperity that comes from the oil and gas industry and he realizes that what comes with that industry and that prosperity, isn’t the culture he was brought up in. He views his culture as backwards and not economically beneficial to the region. Louis wants to succeed in life and he’s pretty sure that if he continues to speak what he perceives to be a dead language, then his future and career will be dead as well.”
Desiring to create a film that would inspire cultural preservation, Campbell wanted the Hebert family’s issues to be accurate while remaining entertaining. To keep events and experiences as factual as possible, they formed an advisory board. The board included local historians and authorities on topics touched on in the film. There was another portion of the film Campbell knew had to be as authentic as possible – the accents.
“It’s a bilingual script so we’re hiring a dialect coach as well to help guide Dupuis through the Louisiana French,” Campbell explains. “We’re also hiring locally for other roles, because the accent is important. I grew up hearing it and I grew up loving it. I want the Cajun accent to be done authentically. Producing an authentic film, but producing one that has broad appeal has been one of the most difficult aspects, but it’s been very doable. We’ve found some local actors who are beyond capable and international actors, as well. That’s been a major concern for us – authenticity. I’m not willing to sell my people out. We’re doing it right.”
With authenticity at the forefront, it was another chance encounter that led Campbell to the Lafayette based digital entertainment company Believe Entertainment. In 2015, Marcus and Yvette Brown, the power couple behind Believe Entertainment, hosted a small get together to celebrate the film “Dirt Road to Lafayette” that they coproduced with a company out of the U.K. They invited locals who had an interest in film and naturally, Campbell was one of those people. Believe’s role in the film has been pivotal to its progression and future success.
“Marcus and I are functioning as two of the producers of ‘Forked Island,’” says Yvette Brown. “This means we are working with Nick to secure financing, crew, talent, locations, marketing and distribution partners. In other words, we assist in overseeing the project until it is completed.”
The ability to produce the film locally was a major accomplishment on multiple fronts. One being the Browns’ vested interest in producing authentic local content as well as their shared passion for the film’s message.
“Locally based film content is huge for us,” states Brown. “History plays a vital role in who we are and who we become. Many of us today are familiar with the struggles that came with becoming more ‘Americanized,’ but I don’t think most truly grasp the impact that it had on our culture. This story gives us a clear understanding of our past and explains why our culture is so important to us today. This includes our language, our customs, as well as our intimate relationship with the oil and gas industry.”
Adding to the long list of unique aspects of “Forked Island,” Campbell wrote it so that it could serve as a stand-alone film or a long running serialized drama. In the instance that it becomes an episodic, the feature film will serve as the pilot. Campbell says he believes the story could be broken up into seven seasons. Seasons one through four have already been written and Campbell shopped the concept to several networks at a conference in January.
“I don’t want to be too short sighted with this,” Campbell reveals. “It has a lot of potential to tell the story of the culture of an entire region. It shows the trajectory of the Cajun culture from the 1950s to contemporary times. Each series is a decade and you see this one family evolve and almost dissolve and be remade while their culture is, as well. The Hebert’s story follows the same arc as Cajun culture does and they have their own renaissance and rebirth.”
In 2014, the “Forked Island” team shot a fundraising trailer at Vermilionville. The responses were inspiring, including one from former Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco stating her belief that this film could heal the shared traumas of a culture. Warren Perrin, who met with Campbell in Montreal when the film was still in its infancy, was in attendance. Perrin recalls the film’s powerful impact.
“After seeing the trailer, I was very impressed on many levels, particularly the powerful scene showing a young boy being punished, admonished for speaking French in school in Vermilion Parish, which I believe is the first time any director has tried to depict this on the screen,” Perrin recalls. “I committed to help him raise funds for the project and our Acadian Museum has donated money to the effort.”
Filming of “Forked Island” is set to begin in the spring of this year. While the community support for the project has already proven to be overwhelming, Campbell hopes that locals and Cajun descendants alike will continue to invest in the film, both emotionally and financially. Though Campbell and the Believe team hope the film is a success and well received on a wide scale, there’s something more at stake.
“I hope it opens a dialogue,” Campbell professes. “Not everybody experienced the themes in the film in the same way and these elements aren’t the crux of the film, but they’re a major component. We don’t want to over dramatize anything, but it should be cinematically preserved. I hope that people choose to invest in their culture so that it will have longevity. From an economic standpoint, preserving our culture is vital.”
To find out how you can support “Forked Island,” send a written request to email@example.com.