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Hannah Black & Megan Petersen: The co-everything forces behind award-winning indie film “Drought” (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)

Updated: Jun. 11, 2021 at 5:30 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Hannah Black and Megan Peterson have spent a lot of time together since first meeting in an acting class in 2014. What started as a friendship morphed into a creative partnership that produced the award-winning independent film Drought.

The movie is set in North Carolina in 1993 as the state experiences a historic drought. It follows the story of Carl, a teenager with autism who is fascinated by the weather and predicts that a storm will soon hit in his rural community. Carl’s sister Sam develops a plan to help him chase the storm. Black and Petersen co-created, co-directed and co-starred in Drought, which debuted in 2020 and is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

“We really connected there because we really learned how each other ticked, what makes each other emotional, what is each other’s strength,” Petersen says about their meeting and studying at Actor’s Arsenal Studio in Wilmington. “At the end of each year we made a short film with our class, and I think that’s where we saw that we really loved acting together in film. We took it one step further and we made our first short film outside of class together, where Hannah directed it and I was in it. She was also in it. That’s when we realized we really liked creating our own content together.”

Black and Petersen took different paths toward that first meeting. Petersen, who grew up in Lincolnton, used to tag along with her father for community theater performances. She considered studying theater and film in college, but followed another love and majored in forensic science. After moving to Wilmington in 2008, she was cast as an extra on One Tree Hill, caught the acting bug and enrolled in class.

Black is a Wilmington native who says her love of acting did not develop until after she had started a career as a teacher. “I knew that, although I really did love my students and the school that I worked for was incredible, it wasn’t right for me,” Black said. “Around the end of the year I knew that I was probably going to transition out, but I didn’t know when. Then I saw a wonderful little indie film and was like ‘I think I want to do that!’ It came out of nowhere. Truly, out of nowhere and I think people thought it was a phase, and I even thought maybe it was a phase. But I decided to leave teaching after the school year pursue acting, and that’s where I met Megan.”

Once they submitted that first film, called If, to several film festivals, Black approached Petersen with her idea for a feature length film that would eventually become Drought. Within a month, they had a first draft of a script. But it would go through at least a half-dozen re-writes over the next two-and-a-half years before any shooting would begin. That work continued while the two held down ‘regular’ jobs, Petersen as volunteer coordinator at Port City Community Church and Black as an employee of her husband Christian’s company, Half United.

When it came time to start the ball rolling on the production, the two started a crowdfunding campaign that drew donations from more than 400 people (who are given a shout out in Drought’s closing credits). The effort got a major boost in 2017, when Black and Petersen won $25,000 in the Hometown Heroes Crowdfunding Rally, sponsored by veteran filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass, who then became Executive Producers of Drought.

“I think our hearts were like ‘We’re going to make this movie no matter what!’ is what we said in our pitch to them (the Duplass brothers), and I really believe that we would have,” Petersen remembers. “I do believe it would have been a challenge, because the funds they gave us helped tremendously. But also their knowledge of microbudget filmmaking helped us to really make the film for the budget we had.”

Black and Petersen made it a priority to hire a local crew for the production. Another commitment they made was casting an actor with autism to play the role of Carl.

“That was so important to us, authentic representation in the casting process,” Black said. “We were overwhelmed with the amount of talent that came in. It was hard to choose. We want to spread that message if people are nervous for some reason or feel it would be difficult, it is not. It was so wonderful to see all this talent across the U.S. that could play the role of Carl. But we were lucky enough that the right person, which felt too good to be true, was here in Wilmington.”

Owen Scheid won the role, in what would be his film debut. Black played his sister Sam, who stands up for Carl and ultimately hatches the plan to steal their mother’s ice cream truck for the storm-chasing adventure. Petersen played Lillian, a somewhat estranged older sister who reluctantly joins in on the trip. Drew Scheid, Owen’s older brother who has several years of acting experience, was cast as Lucas, the fourth member of the team. The cameras started rolling on locations across southeastern North Carolina in September of 2018. But just six days into the schedule, Petersen received a heartbreaking phone call. Her mother had passed away unexpectedly.

“Not the thing you want to get a phone call about, especially when you’re surrounded by these people trying to make this project and all of that,” Petersen said. “But Hannah was amazing, and our team was so amazing to really surround me and come together. We truly became not just a crew and people making a movie, but we really jelled as a family to support each other.”

Just days later, Hurricane Florence arrived along the coast, which would delay production for about a month and a half. Once the crew could get back to work, production resumed and wrapped in late 2018. Post-production next, with release targeted for early 2020. But then another speed-bump showed up. The COVID-19 pandemic kept the film from being screened in front of live audiences.

“I remember when we made the decision to do our virtual world premiere at the Vail Film Festival,” Petersen remembers. “When we knew it was about to go live, I think I was pacing around my house. I wore a dress like it was a world premiere, I had my champagne, and I was just pacing around the house.”

Drought went on to win the Audience Award at the 2020 Vail Film Festival, and the Indie Spirit Award at the 2020 Naples Film Festival. It became an ‘Official Selection” of the Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival in May and has been screened at many other festivals across the United States. It also received several positive reviews from critics, including from Isaac Feldberg writing for rogerebert.com:

“Drought is ultimately about the sacrifices we make for family and the significant ways they reward us in return. It suggests little acts of love are all we have, but that they’re enough.”

“I think sometimes we read it and we’re reminded of how intentional we were in creating it,” Petersen said. “We created it in 2015. The production was in 2018. It’s so neat now in 2021 to read these comments and think ‘Oh my goodness, they get it!’ They understood the, maybe even at times nuanced and subtle themes that we intentionally put throughout the story. I cannot express to you what those words mean to us and how much it warms our hearts to hear that people got it.”

Black and Petersen have gone from aspiring filmmakers to sought-after interviews for podcasts and virtual audiences, sharing their experiences of bringing Drought to the big screen carrying their messages about family and acceptance.

“It’s such an honor that people are resonating with the film, that people are interested in chatting with us about how it was made and the message behind it,” Black said. “Hopefully it will continue, this cool transition of people reaching out, because we want to spread the word about the film.”

Both Black and Petersen are quick to praise the support of their husbands, not just in helping to make this film, but for the unwavering encouragement to chase their dreams.

“He works in the hospital, in the ICU,” Petersen said about her husband, Lucas. “Just being a nurse, that’s his character. The physical and emotional strength. He’s totally been so supportive of my dream. I think he’s also part of the reason why I’m not allowed to say ‘can’t. He’s like ‘If that’s what you want to do, just do it!’

“He has been such an encourager, even before Drought, “Black shared about Christian. “When I was teaching and I said ‘Hey, I’m really unhappy. I want to pursue acting. I know this is out of the blue. I’ve never taken acting classes or anything!’. I think a normal response would have been ‘Hey, I think you’re having a quarter-life crisis. Let’s talk about it’. He was like ‘Then quit your job, and let’s get you enrolled in classes. You can do it!’. Just like Megan said, ‘can’t’ is not allowed in the vocabulary.”

Black and Petersen are working now to get Drought into international markets. They promised more projects are on the horizon. I hope you enjoy the conversation with them as much as I did.

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