Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Conversation with Dean Butler--Part 3

Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura is a documentary about Almanzo’s childhood before he met and married Laura Ingalls. What made you decide to focus on this period of Almanzo’s life?

Well, I had been invited in September 2006 by the Wilder Homestead to be their special guest for Almanzo’s 150th birthday celebration the following year. During that year I had been making all this bonus content for the series and I started wondering what I could do for the Wilder Homestead that would really be meaningful and helpful to them in their mission to share Almanzo’s life experience with visitors. I decided to create a documentary for them about Almanzo and his life on the farm.

You and your crew traveled to New York several times for filming. Can you give us a preview of what viewers will get when they purchase this story of Almanzo’s early life?

The challenge is we had very few days to shoot. You can never shoot enough in four days to really tell the full story, especially when we didn’t have four uninterrupted days. We had four days with crowds there and autograph sessions and then there were breakfasts and dinners; all the things you do when you make an appearance. So, we shot two days last September and another two days this last June. In an effort to try and get as much of the farm experience as we possibly could out of those four days, we’ve come up with two separate pieces.

The core of Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura is Almanzo’s connection to the farm where he as raised as presented in Farmer Boy. That’s what our story is about. The fact of the matter is there isn’t a great deal written about Almanzo as a child beyond Farmer Boy so the book was obvious source material.

Again, shooting in four days you couldn’t do the book. You can’t get the seasons; you could never shoot enough to do that. Focusing on the book and through the life at the homestead—the house, the barn, the land—we selectively chose a number of events from the book and recreated those events using excerpts of text from the book and the Garth Williams illustrations to support the material we shot. In addition, we did a little bit about Almanzo’s family and where they came from; we talk contextually about what was going on in the world that Almanzo grew up in; the things he had, and maybe what’s more to the point for the audience who is going to see this, what didn’t he have that we have. In terms of technology and equipment Almanzo’s family had very little compared to what we all have, and yet, they survived, they flourished. As Laura wrote it, Almanzo had a fantastic, rich, abundant life as a child in Burke, NY; nothing compared to the struggles that she had to endure growing up. She wrote her life in this semi-optimistic way, but reading between the lines, this was not an easy time. Almanzo didn’t have an easy time either, but he lived in one place. He wasn’t moving around in Farmer Boy. This was a boy’s life on his farm as he’s growing up trying to convince his father that he is mature enough to raise and train his father’s beautiful Morgan horses. That’s really the central thrust of what carries us through this book. It’s about Almanzo wanting to be a man. I’ve thought about it, Farmer Boy is not a coming-of-age story; it’s a getting ready to come of age story. At the end of Farmer Boy when his father gives him Starlight, he is beginning to come of age. That’s the jumping off point. His life adventure really begins. Farmer Boy is all about what he had to go through to get to the point where his life is ready to begin as an adult. It established who he was as a person and it established the values he was raised with. We tried to capture that.

We’ve animated pictures from the book, we’ve re-imagined historic photos and we’ve composed a very lovely musical score for the program. One of the challenges that you have with something like this is that so few pictures of the Wilder and Ingalls families exist. There are literally two pictures I’ve seen of Almanzo as a boy. One of him standing with his sister Alice in a formal portrait and a separate one when he’s a little older—well past the age we’re talking about in this program—when he’s with his entire family. So, we had to find ways to use these pictures to help us tell the story, by essentially recreating the picture contextually in different environments. We’ve done the same thing with Laura, where we’ve taken her out of the picture of her as a little girl—the one where she’s with Mary and Carrie—and put her alone on the prairie. It’s a wonderful way to make a point about her life.

In addition to talking about Almanzo, I thought it was also important to set up how they (Laura and Almanzo) met. We hear about Laura and Almanzo’s meeting, we learn about them coming to De Smet, we go through their romance, get them married, and 47 years later she writes Farmer Boy.

We’re covering a large range of material: from Farmer Boy to These Happy Golden Years and Little Town on the Prairie. I handled their first meeting differently than Laura wrote it, so it will be interesting to see how fans react to that. It needed to be something I could shoot very simply and quickly. I alluded to it in the trailer when we say that Laura first saw Almanzo behind a team of Morgan horses. I think it’s nice and it’s a good way to step in since we had these beautiful Morgan horses.

We invited three people to participate in the documentary as experts. William Anderson is our on-camera expert. There is no doubt about it, when Bill speaks about Almanzo Wilder and Laura Ingalls, homesteading and life in that time, Bill tells a great story. So I think people are really going to enjoy his insights. We also had Barbara Walker, who wrote the Little House Cookbook. We have her on-camera talking about food and the role that food played in the writing of Farmer Boy. Then we have a woman named Karen Lassell, who is the equine manager at the Miner Institute in Chazy, NY. She’s there to talk about the Morgan horse, the training of the Morgans, and the Morgan breed. With Bill, Barbara, and Karen we have three people who can communicate about some of the important parts of Almanzo’s life.

I’m putting together a trailer now that I’m going to be putting up on YouTube and I’m going to make a trailer for the Wilder Homestead to run in their store. People are going to see that we got some really good stuff. [Author’s note: You can view this trailer at]

Can you tell us a bit about the talented actors who helped with the reenactments?

A very lovely young woman named Kylee Disotelle played Laura Ingalls for us. She could’ve come right off our set – very sweet and eager to play. We had three boys who played Almanzo doing different things on the farm. I took the position that Almanzo is a state of mind. Almanzo is not just one boy, but that he is a representation of boyhood. There’s a little Almanzo in every boy. All three of our boys were terrific.

Jarod Ball, who is on-camera most of the time, particularly with the horses, is going to remind people of a young Brad Pitt. I was sort of amazed as I watched Jarod on screen He has a very nice, honest quality—which is what you want.

A great horseman named Don Sayward played James, Almanzo’s father. He had a beautiful team of Morgans that he drove for us and he worked very well with Jarod. The setting was just gorgeous and we got beautiful pictures of the horses.

Are these local actors?

Yes, absolutely, they are all from right there. The key to casting Jarod was that he was comfortable with horses. He was referred to me by Karen Lassell at the Miner Institute. It was very important to the handlers of the Morgans that our Almanzo be at ease around large animals because they can sense nervousness and discomfort. I feel so lucky that Jarod was one of our boys. In a few shots he actually looks like Almanzo as we see him in the picture with Alice. A great deal of our show features Jarod and Don Sayward as Almanzo and James, but everyone who worked on-camera with us was great.

Can you tell us a bit more about the musical score for the documentary?

I hired a composer friend of mine, Jay Asher, who has a wonderful feel for this material. He’s a romantic spirit. The cues are touching and very much in keeping with the feeling that Little House evokes. His music adds greatly to the impact of the program. I’m happy with what Jay did and I hope audiences enjoy it too.

Will this documentary be eligible for any awards?

Our show is a direct to DVD documentary. There are award programs to which it could be submitted. I have not made any decisions about whether I will enter the program in any awards competitions yet. I’m more concerned about getting it out there.

What is the release date for the DVD and where can interested viewers purchase a copy of Almanzo Wilder: Life before Laura?

The program will available for sale at the Wilder Homestead in Burke, NY for $21.95 on September 25, 2008. This DVD can only be purchased at the Wilder Homestead. [Author’s note: The Wilder Homestead has received these DVDs and is working on filling the pre-orders. Be on the lookout for more information coming soon.]

Do you ever see your website being set up to handle Internet sales?

We’re looking at an online component and they’re (Wilder Homestead) doing an online component too. People will be able to buy it online there, if they choose to do that. The Wilder Homestead and I are talking about other online sales opportunities too. I’ll keep you posted.

Does your wife (Katherine Cannon) do a lot of the narration on this documentary?

Katherine did all the reading of the Farmer Boy excerpts and she was great. She’s a wonderful actress and she really brought great warmth to these excerpts and they worked beautifully. She’s been very supportive of this process.

The continued popularity of the show and Laura’s books generates new interest in the historical sites where Laura and her family lived. Should fans expect to see more from Peak Moore Enterprises and Legacy Documentaries about Laura and the members of her family?

I think that the next one will be about Laura. That’s all I want to say about that right now.

What about Laura’s daughter Rose?

I think Rose is the great wild card element in all of this. Rose’s skill and capabilities as a writer made it possible to craft these stories that allowed them to be taken seriously when they hit a publisher’s desk. It’s one thing to have the story; it’s another to be able to tell it in a way that is going to be compelling, touching, personal and engaging to an audience. Bill Anderson talks a little bit about what an important role Rose played working with her mother. I think Laura was lucky to have her daughter Rose on hand to offer moral support while she was writing.

We’ve talked about a lot this evening. Is there anything you would like to add?

I’m just gratified by the ongoing love affair people have with Little House: the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, our series, the historical sites, and the new musical. I’m very grateful and so honored to be a part of it because it speaks to so much that is good about people. To be connected to that in a real way is very rewarding. I thank everybody who loves this material and I am so honored to have the opportunity to share my passion for the Laura Ingalls Wilder experience with people all over the world.

Thank you for spending time with us today, Dean. Little House and Laura fans applaud your commitment to keeping Laura’s legacy alive.

We would also like to remind our readers that Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura would make an excellent holiday gift for the Laura Ingalls Wilder fan in your life. Go to to place your order today!

Go Back to Part 2


Mary said...

Very interesting interview! I really enjoyed learning more about the topics presented in the video and how it was created. I hope I here from the Wilder Homestead soon about my pre-order request!

Cheryl said...

Thanks for stopping by Mary. I loved all the behind the scenes stuff too.

It must be that curious writer's mind.


Anonymous said...

Dean's interview was well worth the wait. I am one of those that have pre-ordered the dvd from the Wilder Homested and I can't wait for my copy.

After reading your interview with Dean and all that's involved behind the camera, I am sure I will appreciate even more the hard work and dedication that went into making this film. I am sure I won't be disappointed.

Thanks again Cheryl and Thank you Dean for sharing a little bit of yourself with your loyal fans.


Cheryl said...

I'm waiting to hear about my copy too. You know I won't be able to keep myself from popping it in the DVD player the minute it comes in the mail.

Thanks for stopping by Lorrie. I'm glad you liked the interview.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this wonderful interview very much. Thank you Dean and Thank you Cheryl!
I loved the way how lovingly Dean talked about Almanzo, Laura, The Little House TV show and how he pointed out his in-sight view as an actor and as an producer. He really gives you the intense feeling how his heart belongs to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her admirable stories.

I also pre-ordered the Almanzo docu and can't wait to put it in my dvd player.

My best,

Anonymous said...


What a great interview and thanks for sharing that with us.


Cheryl said...

Thanks for stopping by Martha and Susan. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. It looks like we Laura fans should be counting our lucky stars that Dean is the one who got the part of Almanzo because he has kept his connection to Little House and continues to do his part in keeping Laura's legacy alive.

All my best,