'SILO the Film': Go Behind Scenes of Independent Film That Depicts Grain Entrapment Accident in Gritty Detail

By Jerry Perkins

SILO is a first-of-its-kind independent film that depicts in gritty and consuming detail a grain entrapment disaster that befalls a teenage boy who tries to rescue a doomed farmhand from a grain bin of corn. When the boy himself is sucked into the corn, a rescue effort ensues that is fraught with the personal entanglements of a rural community.

The 77-minute film was inspired by true events and researched rigorously by the film’s writer, director, and producer. It was filmed on a farm in Kentucky and in an airplane hangar in Mason City, IA. SILO was released on May 7 for widespread distribution after being shown in 250 rural communities as an educational vehicle to promote grain safety.

Statistics cited at the end of film explain that, since documentation of grain entrapment incidents began in 1964, at least 1,200 people have died after being trapped in grain. More than 20% of the fatalities have happened to teenage boys.

Teamwork and Partnership

How the film SILO came to be made is a testament to the teamwork shown by a variety of partners and participants who shared a common belief and commitment to demonstrating dramatically the dangers of grain entrapment.

The genesis of the film was sparked by an incident that occurred when three teenage boys were engulfed in corn on a farm near Mount Carroll, IL in 2010. Two of the three boys died. Film director Marshall Burnette heard a report about the tragedy on National Public Radio and thought the issue cried out for a dramatic portrayal.

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Burnette grew up in rural Tennessee and knew about grain entrapment incidents. He thought that rendering such a tragic occurrence in an authentic way would not only produce an engrossing and entertaining film but could also shine a light on the character and courage of the rural people he had grown up with.

Burnette took his idea to Sam Goldberg, the lead producer of SILO, and Ilan Ulmer, Goldberg’s producing partner, in September 2014. Goldberg’s and Ulmer’s company, Blood Orange Pictures, was looking for a low-budget, independent film to produce, Goldberg tells Grain Journal, but a film about a farm tragedy had not been on the production company’s radar.

Goldberg, who is a native of New York City, had never heard of grain entrapment. “Because I had never heard of it, I was originally very intrigued when it was explained to me by Marshall. It’s a shocking, visceral experience,” Goldberg recalls of his initial reaction.

Finding Financing

As producers, Blood Orange needed to come up with the financing to bring Burnette’s vision to life. Enough starter capital was raised to do the research for the film and to finance the travel that was needed for Burnette and Jason Williamson, who was brought in to write the script.

Eventually, Goldberg notes, the script evolved over approximately 50 different versions. “We were sticklers for coming up with a screenplay that was ready to go,” says Goldberg. “We were ready to start making the film in 2017, but it took us until 2018 to raise enough money.”

The genesis of the film was sparked by an incident that occurred when three teenage boys were engulfed in grain on a farm near Mount Carroll, IL in 2010. Two of the three boys died.

SILO cost less than $2 million to make, according to Goldberg, but he is quick to emphasize that the dollar amount does not include a wealth of in-kind value added to the film by three main partnerships that made the film possible.

The first partnership was formed early on with Dale Dobson, safety administrator for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and a former firefighter and farmer, as well as one of the foremost experts about grain safety in the nation, states Goldberg. Dobson co-invented a rescue tube in conjunction with Turtle Plastics, called “The Turtle Tube.” Dobson, who is one of the inventors of the rescue tubes depicted in the film to extract people trapped in grain, was one of the main inspirations for the film and has become one of Goldberg’s closest friends.

Farm Partnership

The second partnership developed when Quint and Leah Pottinger invited the filmmakers to shoot the film on their family-owned Affinity Farms near New Haven, KY, where many of the on-farm scenes were filmed. Shooting on the Pottinger farm went on for 14 hours a day, five days a week for 10 weeks between July and September 2018. “They were the most incredible partners,” Goldberg says of the Pottingers. “They are young and articulate and forward-thinking. There was no way we could have made the film without such incredibly kind partners.”

There was no way we could have made the film without such incredibly kind partners.

- Sam Goldberg, producer

As an added benefit, the volunteer fire department in nearby New Hope, KY lent their fire trucks to the production company for free.

Sukup Enters the Scene

Working with the Pottingers led to a third partnership, which was remarkable and unique for an independent film, according to Goldberg. The Pottingers had grain-handling equipment on their farm made by Sukup Manufacturing Co., which is the world’s largest family-owned and operated grain storage, drying, and handling equipment manufacturer.

The company, which is headquartered in Sheffield, IA, employs more than 600 people and is one of the largest employers in North Central Iowa. Three generations of the family are now active in the business.

The Pottingers and another Kentucky farmer, Bob Wade, recommended Sukup to Goldberg because the company is family-owned and is known for its customer service.

Goldberg recounts that the Sukup family stepped up when the film production team was trying to come up with a way to safely film the actor who was trapped in corn and his rescuers. “We needed a grain bin company to help us make that happen,” Goldberg notes.

Two Partial Grain Bins

After Goldberg reached out to the Sukups, the company came on board and built two partial grain bins in an airplane hangar at the Mason City, IA airport, which is located 26 miles north of Sheffield just off Interstate 35. The two partial grain bins were used for filming the grain entrapment scenes and the scenes set on the top of the grain bin, so the actors didn’t have to climb 50 feet up a ladder to face the cameras.

It is our position that farm safety is a family issue. As a family-owned business, we felt that if we could save a life, we should do it

- Emily Schmitt, Sukup Manufacturing Co.

Emily Schmitt, chief administrative officer and general counsel for Sukup Manufacturing Co., recalls that, in 2016, Sam Goldberg cold-called the company’s sales director about participating in the making of the film.

Schmitt is the daughter of Sukup CEO Steve Sukup and the granddaughter of company founder Eugene Sukup, who died at 89 while filming was underway in 2018.

“Sam flew to Iowa, and we talked about making film while we sat at the dinner table on the farm where I grew up,” says Schmitt. “We could tell they (the filmmakers) were committed to the message of the film, which is safety. They wanted to not just make an art piece but to save lives, and they have been good to their word. We read the script, and it was about saving lives. It is our position that farm safety is a family issue. As a family-owned business, we felt that if we could save a life, we should do it.”

Schmitt notes that the Sukups also are very aware and concerned about the urban and rural divide that seems to be growing wider, even in a state like Iowa, where agriculture represents a large part of the state’s economy. The Sukups felt that, as a rural business, the company should do whatever it could to bridge that divide.

Film Observers

Sukup employees and family members were frequent observers of the filming inside the airplane hangar, including Emily Schmitt’s two daughters who were three and five years old at the time. “We got to meet the actors, and they all came to feel a connection to our company and to our town,” she recalls. “Iowa is all about relationships, and having those relationships is what our company was founded on and what it is all about.”

This was a very special project. It was very interesting to be involved behind the scenes.

- Rachel Geilenfeld, Sukup Manufacturing Co.

Rachel Geilenfeld, external relations manager at Sukup Manufacturing Co., says that because the company is family-owned, the company’s principals could quickly decide to become involved in the project. Other companies that have a larger, more corporate infrastructure might not have been able to commit to the project as quickly, she says.

“This was a very special project,” notes Geilenfeld. “It was very interesting to be involved behind the scenes.”

In fact, Geilenfeld says, the Pottingers were considering having a new bin built on their farm and ordered a 50,000-bushel Sukup bin before filming started on their farm. “We scrambled to get the bin erected in time for the film to be shot at the Pottinger farm,” she adds.

Filming in a Hangar

Sukup had manufactured the airplane hangar at the Mason City Airport, and it was the right height for adding the partial grain bins for the interior and rooftop shots. The film’s set designer and the Sukup staff worked closely to build the sets, says Geilenfeld.

The bin built for the rooftop shots was two rings high with a partial roof. The more complex construction, she notes, concerned the bin where the actors were to be filmed inside. “We constructed a bin with a huge rectangle cut out of the side for filming inside the bin,” she explains.

A floor or platform was built to support the character who is trapped in the corn. As a safety precaution, paramedics from the Clear Lake Volunteer Fire Department were brought on-site.

Shooting in the airplane hangar took place over 10 days in August 2018.

“It’s been almost three years since they shot the film inside the airport hangar,” Geilenfeld recalls, “but one thing that struck me was that they lit the scenes inside the grain bin to mimic the movement of sun” during the day-long rescue of Cody, the character trapped in the corn.

‘Nothing Could Prepare Me’

Jack DiFalco, who played Cody in the film, said he had no idea what he was getting into when he auditioned for and got the part of Cody.

“Nothing could prepare me for being trapped in corn,” says DiFalco, “but I had some kind of idea what the set would look like and how the hydraulics would work. I was standing on a rising and falling platform with somebody controlling how my body falls into the corn. It was kind of like sitting on a tray of corn that went from my chest up to my neck. The pressure on my chest was very noticeable. For the first few days, it was kind of scary.”

It was horrifying and very educational after being in that bin and really feeling what that experience would be like

- Jack DiFalco, actor

Playing the part of a character trapped in grain was physically taxing, he adds. “It was exhausting from morning ‘til night. I was huffing and puffing because Cody, my character, has asthma. I was so tired at the end of the day, I didn’t have any problem going to sleep at night.”

DiFalco grew up in a small town in upstate New York with a lot of farms in the area. “Growing up, I had no idea how dangerous grain entrapment was. Although I knew it happened, I didn’t know how common it was.

“It was horrifying and very educational after being in that bin and really feeling what that experience would be like.” DiFalco adds that he learned about grain entrapment by talking to a lot of people, including Sukup CEO Steve Sukup.

Farm Progress Show Debut

The film debuted at the 2019 Farm Progress Show in Decatur, IL.

“We’ve taken it to schools and rural communities for viewings to get audience reaction,” says DiFalco. “We’ve had people walk out (during the film), because it’s so real. I have been very humbled to get my creative paws into a film that people can learn about an experience not many people know about. It’s surprising that this is the first film ever made about grain entrapment. I’m honored to have been a part of it.”

Goldberg notes that, after shooting was finished, it took eight months to edit the film to its 77-minute runtime.

After it was finished, the producers made the film available to rural communities and schools that could license a copy of the film for $2,500 for showing to up to 500 people. A curriculum on grain safety also was developed to go along with the screenings. Community events lasted for a year and a half.

Goldberg acknowledges that the pandemic made it exceedingly difficult to conduct in-person community screenings because of restrictions on large gatherings. “We did a lot of virtual events,” Goldberg recounts, “but it was definitely a financial and logistical hit.

"However, without it, I don’t think we would have partnered with Oscilloscope Laboratories, a fantastic Brooklyn, NY-based film distribution company that is our partner in distributing the film worldwide on all the traditional film-going platforms.

“Oscilloscope is doing an incredible job, and it has the film scheduled to be shown in over 200 theaters in 36 states and counting. For a small, independent film like ours, that’s a huge deal,” he adds.

The film can be rented from its website, silothefilm.com. It also will be made available on cable on-demand channels.

Oscilloscope is doing an incredible job, and it has the film scheduled to be shown in over 200 theaters in 36 states and counting.

- Sam Goldberg

Although the film is set on a farm and concerns an on-farm accident, Goldberg says that SILO will be distributed as widely as possible.

“It’s a universal story,” he relates. “It’s for everybody. People in New York and Los Angeles will be as impacted by it as anyone in Indiana.”

- From May/June 2021 GRAIN JOURNAL

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