The COVID pandemic shut down television and movie productions all over the world. Producers couldn’t figure out ways to keep adequate social distance between performers and crew members, and the safest bet was simply to close up shop and wait for the pandemic to ease.
Peter Wickliffe, a director and writer who lives with his family in the Summit area northwest of Philomath, had a somewhat different idea. As he tried to figure out his next step during the pandemic, it occurred to him that Summit had a natural advantage: It was about as isolated as you can get in western Oregon.
“I mean,” Wickliffe said in a recent interview, “what better place to be social distancing?”
Wickliffe reached out to his acting and stage colleagues, a list compiled during more than a decade of stage productions throughout western and southern Oregon.
“I said, ‘Hey, do you guys want to go out and partner with me and make some of these short films and get this Western series going?’ And everybody was like, ‘Well, we’re not really doing anything right now creatively.’ So they said, ‘Sure.’”
The resulting three episodes of the Western series — “The Fairfield Boys” — are available now for rental or purchase on Amazon Prime, with a fourth episode, part of a planned six-episode season, due soon. A short film he made during the pandemic, “Cut It Out,” has won awards at various film festivals. Another short film, “Speculatin’,” was filmed at a farm near Monroe where he lived at the time.
They’re shoestring productions, to be sure: Wickliffe estimates that each 15-minute-or-so episode of “The Fairfield Boys” costs just a few hundred bucks to produce. “Cut It Out,” which he describes as an Alfred Hitchcock-style thriller with a Christian-based anti-suicide message, was made for basically nothing.
But each of them represents a step forward for the 34-year-old Wickliffe, as he tries to carve out a career from a home base in a remote part of western Oregon. He’s also working as a writer — he self-published three books during the heart of the pandemic — and launched a podcast. To help make ends meet, he works for a variety of delivery services and also has done freelance video production for businesses.
The thread that unites Wickliffe’s passion projects is a deep faith in Christianity.
“I just talk to God,” he said. “The closer I get to God, the more he talks to me, the more I talk to him. Someone will be like, ‘Oh, well, can you hear him talk to you?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah. If he isn’t that real, then there’s something wrong with what I believe.’ … That’s what being a believer is — talking with God, walking with God.”
He understands that his faith could work against his efforts to crack the entertainment business. But that doesn’t bother him — and he notes signs that creators are starting to break free of what’s been termed in entertainment circles as the Christian “ghetto.” For example, faith-based films are increasingly opening at the nation’s multiplexes — and are attracting decent returns at the box office.
So the time could be right for programs like “The Fairfield Boys,” a continuing tale of two outlaw brothers. As he worked on the show, he said he noticed Christian themes working their way into the show: “It’s becoming more clear the kind of direction that was always there as an underlying theme in the series.”
That was important. But it wasn’t his only reason to write the show.
“I mainly just started it because I’ve always wanted to be in a Western,” he said. “And I don’t think anybody’s going to approach me and let me be in one. So I’m just going to have to create it.
“I also wanted to get back to making the good old Western,” he added. “It’s the John Wayne-type Western, the Roy Rogers, the Gene Autry, going all the way back — but then making it do some stuff that they didn’t do, which was really trying to make it historically accurate and a little bit more gritty” — without going all the way to the sort of excesses that shows like HBO’s “Deadwood,” with its legendary outbursts of profanity, have indulged in.
None of that made “The Fairfield Boys” easy to produce, though.
“There are a lot of logistics to get in there: Where are you going to get the weapons? Are you going to get the horses? Then you have to think about location — you can’t have anything in the background that will remotely reflect anything modern. And then where are you going to get the period costumes?”
“I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be — I was just kind of like, ‘Hey, let’s just do it.’ But God has provided a way.”
Wickliffe was born in California, but his family moved to the Pacific Northwest when he was a preteen. He attended Jewell School in Clatsop County, where he appeared in theatrical productions and a short film. During his high school days, he took a field trip to Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and was hooked. After graduation, he headed to southern Oregon to work odd jobs and appear in more than three dozen stage productions. He also worked creating promotional videos for businesses.
After a decade or so of bouncing from production to production, though, the glamour of the stage started to wear thin. He moved into the mid-valley, eventually settling near Summit, and started working on other creative projects, such as his films, the self-published books and the podcast, “God Bless This Mess,” which is on hiatus after three seasons. “Creatively, I always have to be doing something,” he said.
His surroundings in Summit provide constant inspiration: “It is so beautiful out there, just surrounded by mountains and trees. Yeah, it’s great. And that’s what I wanted.
“Especially now that I’ve done some acting, I like the meatier things, the things that I want to do, the stories that I want to tell. That’s where I’m at right now with the projects that I’m doing. Now I’m making Westerns, now I’m riding horses. Now I’m out in the woods, doing the sort of thing that I want to do. And I’m able to do that, which is amazing.”
His religious beliefs help to inspire his leaps of faith.
“You have to be a little crazy,” he said. “I mean, look at it again, look at the people in the Bible. If Moses hadn’t gone back to Egypt and led the people out, they would have still been stuck there. So you have to be a little crazy. And I think that’s where there’s this beautiful message between us and God — we’re a unique creature because we can be a little crazy. And we should be a little crazy and embrace it, because then look at the extraordinary things that can be accomplished.”