To many visitors, Rappahannock’s rolling hills and fields already seem like a fantasy realm. But last week, they became an actual fantasy realm — doubling as Andrasil, the setting of director Ron Newcomb’s upcoming fantasy web series, “The Rangers.”
As part of a 10-day Rappahannock-centric shoot last week, Newcomb and crew took over part of Woodville resident (and filmmaker) Nina May’s house and surrounding woods for key scenes featuring the King of the Rangers — a role played by Harris Hollow resident Bill Walton — and an army of orcs.
“The Rangers,” Newcomb explained during a quick break last week as some of May’s downstairs windows were darkened, takes some of its inspiration from genre mainstays like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as well as more contemporary fare like George R.R. Martin’s ongoing “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, which serves as the basis for HBO’s popular TV series “Game of Thrones.”
“We’re not telling fantasy stories — we’re telling history in a fantasy world,” Newcomb said, adding that he believes the appeal of many fantasy stories is seeing real-world conflicts play out in more fantastical settings. “His battle buddy ends up as his betrayer,” Newcomb said of the scene in question.
One such conflict on display that day was Walton’s King, wrestling with dueling desires to be a good ruler and to recapture his former battlefield glory. Newcomb and crew spent most of the afternoon setting up a key scene where the king confronts one of advisors, Count Thrace, about the recent orc encroachments into the Rangers’ land.
Sounds a lot like Rappahannock.
“It’s a classic ‘good vs. evil’ story,” Walton said, pausing briefly between getting wired for sound and running through lines on the patio outside. Walton, who was recently named to the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation’s (NPCF) board of directors, joked that he was “discovered in a drug store. I’ve acted in various things before,” he added, “and let me tell you — playing the King is a lot more fun.”
Count Thrace, Walton’s counterpart in the scene, was played by Anton Kukal, who said he spends most of his non-acting time running his own theatre company in New Jersey. “Thrace is the Lord Commander of the Rangers,” Kukal said, “and he has a dark secret. But don’t all advisors?”
Walton isn’t the only Rappahannocker in on “The Rangers,” however. Walton’s wife, Sarah, Beverly and Hal Hunter, sculptor Nol Putnam, Beth Hall and others are all involved in one way or another. Local sculptor Lisbeth Sabol contributed two statues, while Washington resident Lynn Sullivan allowed Newcomb to film on her property — and sees the project as a first step to leveraging the many attractions of Rappahannock as a whole.
One of Sabol’s pieces, a bronze statue dubbed The Mermaid, graced the top of a pillar near Walton’s throne in last week’s scene, while a second piece — a white alabaster carving called Awakening Muse — will feature in a second scene.
Newcomb himself selected her pieces, Sabol said, adding that he thought they fit with the web series’ fantasy setting. The Mermaid took around a year to complete, Sabol said, and was specifically sculpted to “look like she’s floating.”
Awakening Muse, meanwhile, was carved entirely by hand during an artist residency as the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Sabol has always been interested in carvings, she said, and has worked in bronze for 10 years.
Sabol, who grew up in Virginia and recently resettled here in Washington, has four other pieces on display at R.H. Ballard’s in Washington. She recently returned from traveling the world — “A little fun and work,” she said with a laugh — and said she’s thrilled to return to a community so welcoming to artists and their creations.
For her part, Sullivan said she and her group of investors — named Thumbelina, of which Newcomb is a founding member — hope to use projects like “The Rangers” to entice tourists to Rappahannock County, especially younger visitors.
Part of the plan, Sullivan said, is to offer essentially everything seen in “The Rangers” for sale. “We produce unique artisanal goods here that you can’t get on Amazon,” said Sullivan, who also hosted a cast party at the end of the shoot. She said the group is also considering ideas like videos on sculpting lessons or how to pair wines — all possible through the use of the fantasy genre, “which is very popular right now.”
Rappahannock was chosen as a “beta test” for the Thumbelina project, Sullivan said, because of its diversity. “We’re 90 minutes from the city,” she said. “What it’s missing is young people. And there’s no reason for them not to be here; they just don’t know about it.”
Full disclosure: The majority owner of Rappahannock Media LLC, which owns this newspaper, Dennis Brack, is a partner in the Thumbelina group.
Backed by a Kickstarter campaign this past spring, “The Rangers” shares Rappahannock’s entrepreneurial spirit. The series is an entirely independent project by Newcomb’s Opening Act Productions, makers of “Rise of the Fellowship,” a feature film from last December. A modern-day action-comedy that pays homage to “Lord of the Rings,” the film is currently available on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and other online services and retailers.
“While ‘Rise of the Fellowship’ was a family-friendly romp, ‘The Rangers’ will definitely be a more intense, grittier outing,” Newcomb said. “We’ve pulled out all the stops for this one — custom-made costumes and weapons, incredible special-effects make-up, some up-and-coming actors who already have an impressive list of credits among them and great partners like the residents of Rappahannock.”
Newcomb sees “The Rangers” as the pilot for what he hopes will be a 10 or 12-episode season for a distributor like Netflix. But, he added, laughing: “I’ll shoot as many as they want.”
“Everybody is searching for content,” Newcomb said, “and everybody needs new shows. So there’s definitely a market and a window for something like this — but it’s a small window.”