Propelling local film: A Rochester airstrip and the son who documented it

Aug 9, 2021

ROCHESTER — Sometimes, the story is right in front of you all along.

Rochester filmmaker Gary Lawrence’s documentary “Backyard Pilots” premiered in June and began broadcasting regularly on ORCTV in Late July.

The documentary follows Lawrence’s father and his friend Steve Sperry, who fly out of Meadow Muffin airstrip in Rochester.

Meadow Muffin is a small and thin grass airstrip in the backyard of Lawrence’s childhood home. Lawrence’s father and Sperry fly small planes out of the strip to Maine and other nearby destinations.

“I had the idea of doing the documentary even when I was in film school,” Lawrence said, adding he “didn’t really know which way to take it.”

See, Lawrence’s father and Sperry aren’t the only ones who’ve flown out of Meadow Muffin. The airstrip is a family tradition. Lawrence’s late grandfather and great uncle also flew out of the airstrip.

“So there were a whole bunch of different avenues I could go with it,” Lawrence said.

Rather than have his father dictate the history of the airstrip, Lawrence wanted “two main characters.” So he focused on his father and Sperry.

Lawrence began shooting the documentary in 2017 as a passion project. He would work on it after work and on weekends, sometimes taking vacation days from his job at Tabor Academy to film and edit.

“I usually take vacations to work on projects,” Lawrence said.

The result, finished late last year, was a 30-minute documentary highlighting the friendship between two pilots and the backyard airstrip that brought them together.

“It’s definitely unique,” Lawrence said, referring to the premise of his film, but he added, “It’s also universal,” because of the relatability of the two men’s passion.

Having grown up on the airstrip, the story was close to Lawrence, and he felt he needed to share it.

“It’s really interesting,” Lawrence said. “I thought I should capture it.”

Lawrence submitted the movie to a few film festivals, but never made it into any. Instead, he broadcast the documentary on his YouTube channel, and at an event at the air strip in July.

With a story so close to his childhood, Lawrence said production was difficult at times. For instance, he had to interview his father, asking some questions he already knew the answers to.

On top, Lawrence had to bring a filmmaker’s eye to a story he was intimately familiar with. He’s even named after a pilot and close friend of his father’s who flew out of the airstrip before a fatal helicopter crash.

“I kind of had to approach it as somebody who had no idea and a blank slate,” Lawrence said.

Filling in blanks from his interviews with his father and Sperry, Lawrence narrates the documentary, describing his and his family’s relationship to Meadow Muffin.

“I thought everyone learned how to ride their bike in a grass airstrip with planes tied down around them,” Lawrence says in the opening minutes of the film.

Now that the documentary is finished and released, Lawrence has already started work on new passion projects.

“I feel compelled to make things,” he said.

No longer working at Tabor, Lawrence finds the time to shoot and edit his projects between film freelancing gigs. He said he often does commercial work these days.

“You just have to find the time,” he said. “And honestly I don’t do as much as I should.”

Eventually, Lawrence said he wants to break into more narrative-driven storytelling.

“That’s ideally where I’d like to be at the end of the day,” he said.

But recently, Lawrence travelled to New York to shoot a short documentary on a Rochester-native dancer in Brooklyn.

“It’s kind of a story, again, that’s close to me [and] about making it in an industry,” he said. “I’m really excited to see how this one turns out.”

In the meantime, you can see Backyard Pilots on Lawrence’s YouTube Channel, Gary Lawrence, or on ORCTV Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays throughout this month.

“I just hope people enjoy watching it,” Lawrence said.