If it weren’t for a middle school teacher who was willing to embrace his book report, Dave Jannetta might’ve never ended up in Chadron, Neb. And anyone who’s encountered that area’s unforgiving landscape may well think Jannetta nuts.
But for a young filmmaker hoping to marry a blunt look at the human condition with some of nature’s starkest reality, Chadron was a perfect spot. And Poe Ballantine was the perfect subject.
This spring, Jannetta delivers Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, a full-length documentary based on Ballantine’s book of the same name. The Malvern resident hopes to land spots in film festivals around the country, with an eye on wider distribution down the road. Mostly, though, he just wants to deliver a compelling story.
In its purest form, Love & Terror is a mystery. In December 2006, Steve Haataja, a mathematics professor at Chadron State College, went missing. Three months later, his body was discovered, tied to a tree and burned beyond recognition. After an investigation, police ruled his death a suicide. Ballantine didn’t buy that, and he began his own inquiry.
The book deals with the life of Haataja, while delving into Ballantine’s marriage and his role as the father of an autistic son. As for the documentary, it addresses a variety of themes. “Part of this is how we need to create stories that are not objective or based completely in reality,” Jannetta says. “We tend to create more subjective versions.”
Though he earned a finance degree from Penn State University in 2005, he ended up minoring in film study. “When I was in college, I asked myself, ‘Why am I majoring in finance?’” says Jannetta, who’s now 30.
Apprenticeships with directors Tim Chambers (The Mighty Macs) and Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) gave Jannetta his post-graduate introduction to the film world. Since then, he’s stepped out on his own, forming 32-20 Productions, named for an old Robert Johnson blues ditty. For Love & Terror, his second feature, Jannetta brings us Haataja’s story, right alongside the people of Chadron.
“He was well prepared for this, and he’s a quick study,” says Ballantine, an award-winning writer whose creative output includes novels, short stories and nonfiction. “Once I met him and saw what he was about, I noticed the level of passion he had for the project and went to great lengths to give him as much information as I could.”
Sit across from a person with a pen and an open notebook, and it’s not easy to pry personal details from them. They’re typically guarded and somewhat wary of having their thoughts put down on paper.
Turn on a camera, though, and it’s often quite different. “Even people from small towns want to tell their stories,” Jannetta says. “The camera opens them up. [They] end up saying things [they] probably wouldn’t otherwise.”
Chadron is a ranching town built around the college. Its inhabitants thrive on their individuality. The land is flat. The wind howls. The winters can be bleak, and the summer sun bakes the soil. There are also tornadoes. Believe it or not, people seek out this sort of landscape—people like Ballantine, who was born in Denver and came to Chadron in 2001 (he also spent about six months there in 1994) after living in other parts of the country. He used his “outsider” status to his advantage as he worked on the book. “If I died here, it would never be my place,” he says.
Jannetta bonded quickly with Ballantine, and his interviews helped the author look at the subject in new ways. Haataja’s case remains unsolved, and Ballantine continues to search for clues that could bring more answers. While Jannetta is interested in the death, he has been focused primarily on creating a film that will bring the town and its people to a broader audience. His sense of wonder over the place has played a role in the finished product. “I’ve never been anywhere like [Chadron],” Jannetta says. “There were 5,000 people in my hometown of Mechanicsburg, and if you drove 10 minutes, you were in the next town. In Chadron, you can drive five hours in any direction and not see much. The landscape was a metaphor for Ballantine. A lot of lonely people end up there.”
Jannetta began the life of a working filmmaker in 2009, with Rachel & Diana, an independent feature about a young woman’s search for her real father. Jannetta describes the project as “my first chance to put to work everything I had been seeing and watching.”
Out of necessity, Jannetta has done work for businesses and hospitals, which funds the projects that truly inspire him. “The trade-off is to be a waiter,” he says.
He was in charge in Chadron, and the finished product is “a mosaic of facts,” he says. “You create a subjective version of the story that is not fully formed.”
Love & Terror is already slated for inclusion in a Portland, Ore., event this July, and Jannetta is waiting to hear from other film festivals as he continues to learn about the business and look toward future projects. “My idealistic, young self wants to make projects that are interesting to me,” he says. “If I get to make a $200-million film, I’ll only do it if it has some sort of value outside of the box-office take.”
Or if it’s inspiring enough to make some young kid pick up a camera.