From Finance to Filmmaking

Malvern filmmaker’s documentary spotlights Nebraska of all places.

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Photo by Jared Castaldi.

If it weren’t for a middle school teacher who was willing to embrace his book report, Dave Jannetta might’ve never ended up in Chadron, Neb. And anyone who’s encountered  that area’s unforgiving landscape may well think Jannetta nuts. 

But for a young filmmaker hoping to marry a blunt look at the human condition with some of nature’s starkest reality, Chadron was a perfect spot. And Poe Ballantine was the perfect subject.

This spring, Jannetta delivers Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, a full-length documentary based on Ballantine’s book of the same name. The Malvern resident hopes to land spots in film festivals around the country, with an eye on wider distribution down the road. Mostly, though, he just wants to deliver a compelling story. 

In its purest form, Love & Terror is a mystery. In December 2006, Steve Haataja, a mathematics professor at Chadron State College, went missing. Three months later, his body was discovered, tied to a tree and burned beyond recognition. After an investigation, police ruled his death a suicide. Ballantine didn’t buy that, and he began his own inquiry. 

The book deals with the life of Haataja, while delving into Ballantine’s marriage and his role as the father of an autistic son. As for the documentary, it addresses a variety of themes. “Part of this is how we need to create stories that are not objective or based completely in reality,” Jannetta says. “We tend to create more subjective versions.”

Though he earned a finance degree from Penn State University in 2005, he ended up minoring in film study. “When I was in college, I asked myself, ‘Why am I majoring in finance?’” says Jannetta, who’s now 30. 

Apprenticeships with directors Tim Chambers (The Mighty Macs) and Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) gave Jannetta his post-graduate introduction to the film world. Since then, he’s stepped out on his own, forming 32-20 Productions, named for an old Robert Johnson blues ditty. For Love & Terror, his second feature, Jannetta brings us Haataja’s story, right alongside the people of Chadron. 

“He was well prepared for this, and he’s a quick study,” says Ballantine, an award-winning writer whose creative output includes novels, short stories and nonfiction. “Once I met him and saw what he was about, I noticed the level of passion he had for the project and went to great lengths to give him as much information as I could.”

Sit across from a person with a pen and an open notebook, and it’s not easy to pry personal details from them. They’re typically guarded and somewhat wary of having their thoughts put down on paper. 

Turn on a camera, though, and it’s often quite different. “Even people from small towns want to tell their stories,” Jannetta says. “The camera opens them up. [They] end up saying things [they] probably wouldn’t otherwise.”

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