After filming for 14 hours a day, six days a week, the exhausted cast of “Getting Grace” hosted a brunch at the Banana Factory with the Pediatric Cancer Foundation of the Lehigh Valley. They spoke with mothers, fathers and siblings of children who lost their battles to pediatric cancer.
The cast left the brunch inspired to finish their 35-day shoot in honor of these families. The meeting was especially rewarding for Madelyn Dundon, who plays the role of cancer-stricken Grace and had to shave her long, dark hair for the film.
“The most painful part about the process was shaving my head multiple times a day,” Dundon said, “…but meeting those parents and those kids made it absolutely nothing. Because my hair is going to grow back, and I’m not sick and I’m so blessed and thankful and grateful, just as we all should be.”
“Getting Grace,” an independent movie filmed in the Lehigh Valley, stars Bethlehem natives Dundon, a two-time Freddy Award winner and sophomore at West Virginia University, and Daniel Roebuck, an actor who has previously appeared on television shows “Matlock” and “Lost,” and films “Agent Cody Banks” and “The Fugitive.” Roebuck also directed and produced the film.
Bethlehem native, cinematographer and Roebuck’s brother-in-law, Cory Geryak, whose credits include “Inception,” “The Bourne Legacy,” and the “Batman” series, shot and also produced the film. His son, Cole Geryak, ’19, is a student in Lehigh’s IBE program.
The film is about spirited 16-year-old Grace who is fighting pediatric cancer. Grace befriends funeral director Bill Jankowski (Roebuck) to learn about what is going to happen to her after death. She then focuses on ensuring that everyone she cares about is going to be OK after she’s gone.
Dundon describes her character Grace, who is inspired by Roebuck’s own daughter, as a quirky old soul, with characteristics that Dundon connects with and Roebuck immediately saw in her.
Roebuck calls the film “a love letter to the Lehigh Valley,” and when the Lehigh Valley was named the filming location, he set out to find a native to play the lead role of Grace. He did so against the advice of his peers in Hollywood, but Roebuck said that of all the actresses he read with, he read only one Grace.
“I have a unique point of view on this because I was exactly what she was,” Roebuck said. “I was a boy from (Bethlehem Catholic High School) who decided to go to Hollywood, so I thought, ‘Why can’t somebody from the Lehigh Valley star in the movie? I did it.’”
Dundon’s mother Kristin worked on the film as costume designer and stylist with her other daughter, EV, at her side. Kristin attended Lehigh as an economics major before transferring to DeSales University for a degree in theater.
Kristin said the transition from working in theater to working in film was challenging for her as a costume designer but not as much for Dundon, who transformed into her role as soon as she first shaved her head.
“She was born with a natural something — I can’t really put my finger on it,” Kristin said. “I don’t know how she has it, but she has something that naturally makes her a performer. She loves being in the spotlight, and she tries really hard to push herself to be better.”
In addition to the paid cast and crew, a number of community members also volunteered to make “Getting Grace” a reality, including intern and Lehigh graduate Claire Serruto, ’17.
Serruto started out as a regular production assistant but was promoted to the locations manager and eventually the second assistant director. She said as locations manager she got to see a side of the Lehigh Valley that she did not experience as a Lehigh student.
“I kind of lived in this Lehigh bubble, as most students do,” Serruto said. “I got to see what the Lehigh Valley has to offer, and it opened my eyes to how many different, great locations there are in the Lehigh Valley and how passionate people are, and that’s what makes it so wonderful.”
The Lehigh Valley was not the first choice for the filming location, and it took the support of the community to make it happen the way Roebuck envisioned.
Filming took place at locations including Bushkill Park, Bethlehem’s Main Street, St. Luke’s University Hospital in Fountain Hill and the Bethlehem Herron Funeral Home.
“It’s so hard to actually make a movie happen, and to do it in a place that doesn’t really have the infrastructure for it is a pretty impressive feat to pull off and complete,” Cole Geryak said.
With a bus full of Lehigh Valley supporters, the “Getting Grace” cast and crew attended the Northeast Film Festival in Teaneck, New Jersey, where the film won “best feature film” and “audience choice,” Roebuck won “best director” and Dundon won “best actress.”
Community support was evident financially and through its presence on set. Friends and strangers alike would stop by daily to check out the shoot, and Roebuck welcomed them to watch the filming and often spoke with them.
“Bethlehem is so unique in that it’s a big little town,” Roebuck said. “It’s got such old visual icons, you could stand on a street corner and look to your left and see something old and look to your right and see something new…I just always wanted people to know how great of a place it was.”
Dundon said “Getting Grace” is searching for its best “home,” or a TV station or film company who is willing to buy and distribute it.
The Lehigh Valley natives involved with the film appreciated the collaborations between the filmmakers and community members to make “Getting Grace.” Roebuck is hoping to host a Valley-wide premier at several venues and to donate the proceeds.
“It was a difficult process, but having family and friends around made it very special,” Dundon said. “I am eternally blessed that it was my first experience working on a film with people that I know and love.”