Take a stroll through your local farmer’s market this weekend, even if it’s only to ogle the foodies reveling in the abundance of their favorite time of year: Heirloom tomato season.
If that’s not enough to inspire you to whip up some fresh gazpacho, check out “Heirloom,” an artful new web series on Vimeo. When the movie that was supposed to be her big acting break suddenly fell apart, creator and star Paten Hughes absconded to her family farm in the Sonoma Valley to grow tomatoes. At the time, she had no clue that those tomatoes would lead to her greatest role yet.
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In “Heirloom,” Hughes plays Emily, an actress who is worn down by the audition grind. When her mother (Margaret Colin) informs her that her recently deceased uncle bequeathed the family a farm in Healdsburg, California, Emily heads out West in search of greener pastures. What she finds is a dried up former vineyard with spotty wifi, and a small town full of friendly faces wondering about the girl from the big city.
Her first friend is a barista named Gwen (Pascale Armand), but the person most intrigued by Emily is handsome chef Bobby (Ryan Cooper), a welcome distraction from the depressive boyfriend she left in New York, Roger (John Lavelle).
When she manages to convince “the tomato whisperer” (Tom Wopat) to skip the five-year waiting list and sell her some starter plants, she enlists a day laborer named Raul (Luis Vega) to teach her how to till the land. Turns out, Emily has something of a magic touch when it comes to tomatoes, and soon every restaurant in town is ordering her baby reds.
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The story — minus the love triangle — is taken directly from Hughes’ life. “I had a really big movie fall apart that I was sort of like, ‘Oh, this is it! This is my big break!’ And then it just vanished. And my response was to plant half an acre of tomatoes, like a normal person does,” Hughes told IndieWire over a basket of Brandywines. “I don’t have a green thumb, I could kill a cactus, but the tomatoes did really well. All of a sudden, I was looking at a couple hundred pounds of tomatoes. You’re like: ‘Oh god, I made these, I’m responsible for them,’ and so, I had to figure out how to sell them.”
Hughes set about selling them the only way she knew: By pounding the pavement. (Or in this case, the dirt road.)
“The tomatoes were really good, so they started selling themselves. As this whole thing happened, I had all of these weird, crazy, hysterical, lovely, awful moments,” Hughes said. Her friend Bekah Brunstetter, the notable playwright and a writer on NBC’s new series “This is Us,” saw the potential in the story.
“I was instantly charmed by Paten — the fact that she’s not just an actor, but also grows tomatoes,” Brunstetter said. “I loved the purity and simplicity of the intentions of ‘Heirloom’ — which was always just, lets just tell a story about a girl trying to figure out what to do with her life — and her tomatoes.”
Hughes admires the content produced by WIGS, a female-driven YouTube channel that boasts talent like Julia Stiles and Jennifer Beals. Hughes and Brunstetter considered a pilot or a feature, but went the web series route to make the story more accessible.
Brunstetter believes the growing number of quality web series bodes well for all storytellers: “I like that the next generation still craves stories, and lots of them. Yes, the stories they crave are truncated, as their attention spans are shorter, but they still want to watch characters, follow them as they live and feel and try and get the things that they want.”
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Aesthetically, “Heirloom” looks and sounds as good as anything on television, a place where many web series stumble. Shot in the stunning Sonoma Valley, Director Michael Melamedoff lets the landscape breathe life into the story, giving the valleys and vineyards ample screen time and space. The B-roll in “Heirloom” would not look out of place in “Sideways.”
“Healdsburg is such a special community, and I think you can see that in ‘Heirloom,'” Hughes said, gushing about her home away from home. “Our sets are amazing because the whole community came out in 100-degree heat to build a fake garden so that we could get the shot. Our actors, our crew were put up and housed by different vintners. Our catering was paid for by the tomatoes.”
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Brunstetter visited Healdsburg for a few days during filming. “I got to literally live the premise of the show for a few days,” the writer said. “I was so stoked to just be a part of that world for a minute, to snake through the back of restaurants to the kitchens and introduce the chefs to their produce.”
“I just needed to grow something, I needed to be creative in a way that wasn’t knocking my head against the audition wall,” Hughes said of planting her tomato garden, though she could have easily been speaking about making “Heirloom.”
By creating her own work, Hughes is rejecting the one-dimensional female roles so often written by straight, white men. “I’m not just gonna stand around and be club girl number two,” said the actress. “That’s not why I trained, that’s not why I’m an artist. You’ve got to constantly be creating and expanding and developing the vision, or else you’ll go crazy.”
Check out “Heirloom” on Vimeo.
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