Aug. 20, 2018
To this day, Erik Harken isn’t exactly sure what the police officer said to his mother. The next thing he heard was his mother’s scream as she found out that her eldest son had died.
Harken lost his brother Mark in a car accident four years ago. Harken was 17. Mark was 20. Now Harken, a senior studying film, is making a short film to honor his brother and the lessons he learned from his death.
The 14-minute film is called “Tell My Family I Love Them,” and is largely autobiographical, according to Harken. It follows high school student Thomas as he reckons with the loss of his brother. At the beginning of the story, Thomas is focused on his track career and nothing else — he’s “blatantly an asshole.” But losing a brother makes him reevaluate what’s really important. Thomas emerges from the tragedy having learned to better appreciate his friends and family.
“I wanted to write something that was authentic to my experience and hopefully would be to other people’s, and also I wanted it to be something that dealt with grief in a positive way,” Harken said. “That’s the part that never gets discussed, that there’s a lot of hope in the whole situation. You can’t change what happened, but you can make something right.”
The title “Tell My Family I Love Them,” has a layered meaning. For one, they were Mark’s last words.
“I think the last thing that my brother said to the first responder was basically like, ‘Tell my mom and dad that I love them,’ or ‘Tell my family I’m sorry,’” Harken said.
The words are also the lesson Thomas learns from grief. Like Thomas, Harken hardly, if ever, said I love you before his brother died. He said he couldn’t remember ever saying it to his parents, and he certainly never said it to Mark.
“My biggest regret about the whole situation is that I never did get the chance to tell my brother that I loved him. Up until that point, I don’t think I really said it to my mom or my dad or anybody,” Harken said. “Once you get to know someone in a relationship, it’s really important to show affection and vulnerability toward people.”
It was the day after the Fourth of July in 2014. Harken and his family were on vacation at Truman Lake in Missouri. Members of their extended family were there as well, along with family friends the Millers. Harken was on his way back to his family’s cabin with his mother Sarah, aunt, and best friend Cole Miller when they encountered a roadblock. The police wouldn’t let them pass, and Harken immediately got a bad feeling.
“I think at first Erik was pretty upset, and I didn’t really understand why,” Miller said. “I guess he had a feeling that something happened to [Mark].”
Hours passed. No word and no Mark. He had been in the car with Miller’s older brother, Clay, as well as four friends.
Finally a police officer approached Sarah and broke the news. Mark had lost control of the car on the gravel road and crashed into a tree. He died shortly after. The four other passengers, who had been in the backseat, had only minor injuries.
“At that point I didn’t even cry or get upset, I just kind of went into shock and I walked the other way,” Harken said. “And I just sat down on the curb, and was like wow, that just happened.”
They were on their way to the hospital to view Mark’s body when Miller got a call from his parents. The accident had also killed Clay. Policy required police to notify the parents first.
Miller and Harken were friends before the accident, but they’re ever closer now, Miller said. Later that same day, they were sitting next to each other, still processing the events of the last few hours.
“And I said, ‘We just need to keep hanging out all the time now.’ So that’s where it started,” Miller said. “We just started hanging out more to try to make ourselves feel a little better and talk about it when we needed to. Ever since then we’ve been closer than ever.”
A scene in the movie is inspired by their conversation that day.
“I started reading it and I was like, ‘Oh my god. I cannot read this. This is too powerful,’” Miller said.
But Miller was supportive of the project. He visited the set and even appears as an extra.
Production of the film was completed over a two-week period in July. Principle photography took place in Harken’s hometown of Prairie Village. The remainder was shot the following weekend at Lake of the Ozarks.
Production went smoothly, but it wasn’t easy for everyone on set. Harken said his family tried to visit, but it was too painful for them to stay. It was too familiar for them. Many scenes are an almost exact retelling of what happened that day in July, such as a scene in which Laura cries over her son’s body at the hospital.
I love you so much Mark.
She clutches onto him waiting for a response.
He can’t say it back.
“Those are all experiences that I went through,” Harken said. “It literally has to be that cut-and-dry for me to comprehend what I was looking at in the moment. I wanted it, for the audience, to be mostly the same.”
Harken set his sights high for “Tell My Family I Love Them,” his directorial and screenwriting debut. He wanted to shoot on location with a professional crew — and he did. Supporters raised $4,200 in three days on the indie film crowdfunding website Seed&Spark. A month later, the amount was up to $7,000.
“Every once in a while you get someone who hustles this hard and works this hard, but not all the time,” said University theater professor Laura Kirk.
Kirk, an Equity actor, plays Thomas’ mother in “Tell My Family I Love Them.” Kirk, along with other University faculty Kevin Willmott and Matt Jacboson served as advisors as Harken wrote the screenplay.
Kirk has a personal connection to the film. Her husband died in a car accident in 2009. She said she didn’t take the role lightly, given her own experience with grief.
“Especially when [the death of a loved one] happens to people at a certain age, there’s all these different ways people process it, and it has to do with what age you are, where you are in your life,” Kirk said.
It wasn’t intentional, but Kirk wasn’t the only member of the film crew who’d experienced a loss similar to Harken’s. Director of photography Gary Lange lost his father in April. Lange had already signed on to the project — he’d been there since Harken started writing the screenplay in February — but he said his father’s death gave the film a deeper meaning to him.
“After my father died, I had a better understanding of what [Harken] was trying to do,” said Lange, a 2018 University graduate. “Understanding the grief aspect of it and realizing that there are so many people in this world who are touched by grief.”
Lange shot the Lake of the Ozarks scenes on Super 8mm film stock to give them a nostalgic feel. The unconventional choice was a compromise — Lange said he had to talk Harken down from shooting the whole project on Super 8.
That’s one of the few instances where Harken budged on his vision, said producer and University junior Jake Honer. In other instances, when Honer asked to divert from the script or change a detail, Harken said no. He wanted the story to be as honest as possible.
“He was incredibly driven to make sure that he told this story, that we paid attention to the details of certain things because he wanted to bring justice to the story,” Honer said.
“Tell My Family I Love Them” is in post-production with an anticipated public release date sometime in 2019. Harken’s goal is to finish editing the film by October 10, the final deadline for South By Southwest’s short film submissions.
Four years after Mark’s death, Harken said one of the hardest things to deal with is the good that has come from his loss.
“I gained an emotional maturity from this happening to me that has allowed me to have more in-depth relationships that I probably wouldn’t have had if I was a little more immature or self-centered or whatever,” he said. “For those first months or a year after, it’s shit. It’s sad and you’re lonely and you feel like no one can empathize and it’s shitty, but then goes away and then all of a sudden the emptiness and the reality of, ‘Oh my god, my life is never going to be the same. It’s going to move forward from here and I’m never going to see this person again.’ That’s when it hits you, and you realize how much it’s changed you as a person.”