Filmmakers Sean Mewshaw and Desi Van Til relocated from California to her home state of Maine to work on their first colaboration – the film ‘Tumbledown’ – which debuts later this month at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.
Sean Mewshaw remembers well the first time he went to Farmington, the hometown of his then girlfriend, Desi Van Til.
He knew he would have to experience the time-honored tradition of meeting the folks. But he wasn’t completely prepared for what that meant, exactly, in Farmington.
“I didn’t just meet her family, I had to meet everyone in town, high school friends, people at the book store,” said Mewshaw, 40, now Van Til’s husband. “It was like the whole town was her family.”
Van Til has long felt that her hometown had a spirit, a character, all its own. When she wrote the script for the film “Tumbledown,” she essentially made Farmington a character. The film, starring Jason Sudeikis and Rebecca Hall, focuses on the young widow of a singer-songwriter, living among friends and family in Farmington, and dealing with loss and the beginning of the rest of her life.
Written by Van Til and directed by Mewshaw, “Tumbledown” will have its world premiere April 18 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. No screenings beyond Tribeca are yet scheduled, though it is likely to be in theaters at some point. The film is the couple’s first collaboration on a feature film, and a joint love letter to the state they’ve chosen to call home.
The couple met in Hollywood, where both worked for other filmmakers on large-budget projects, but moved to Portland about seven years ago to focus more fully on making “Tumbledown.” They also came looking for a good place to raise their children, Arden, 6, and Emerson, born in December.
They moved to Maine intent on filming “Tumbledown” here. But to secure financing for the small-budget film (under $5 million) they had to agree to film in Massachusetts because tax incentives for filmmakers are larger than in Maine. So downtown Concord, Massachusetts, had to fill in for downtown Farmington.
Still, Van Til and Mewshaw feel the spirit of Maine, and of Farmington in particular, shows up on screen in the finished film.
“In movies I like seeing a reflection of small-town life that is familiar to me, as opposed to a caricature, with a lot of dolts who are not quite with it,” said Van Til, 37. “I wanted to show the friendly, learned book store owner, and all the people I knew growing up. Part of what I love about Farmington is that it fulfills the ‘It takes a village’ idea. I was raised not just by my parents, but by so many people in town.”
Van Til moved to Farmington when she was about 8 years old because her father got a job teaching economics at the University of Maine at Farmington. She remembers a neighbor fostering her love of nature in the rural town. He would bring her birds with broken wings to be fixed, or frogs, or salamanders. And she loved it. Van Til loosely based one of the characters in her screenplay on him.
Besides a curiosity for nature, she took to writing at an early age. As a grammar school student she wrote poems, which her grandfather, the writer William Van Til (“The Danube Flows Through Fascism” 1938), collected and had printed in a booklet called “Desi’s First Poems.”
As a teen, she worked at Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers. In the film, veteran character actor Griffin Dunne plays a character based on the Farmington store’s manager, Kenny Brechner. Van Til also got involved in acting early on, winning the role of Helen Keller in a community theater production of “The Miracle Worker” when she was 11 or 12.
“She was this little blond dynamo, so smart and willing to work really hard at a young age,” said Jayne Decker, who teaches theater at UMF and directed that version of “The Miracle Worker.”
Mewshaw spent several years growing up in Rome, Italy. His father, novelist Michael Mewshaw, had gone there to research a book and stayed. One of his father’s books, “Year of the Gun” was made into a film in 1991 with director John Frankenheimer. Seeing that process helped foster his interest in films.
Van Til and Mewshaw both went to Princeton, but never met there. Van Til does remember the first play she ever saw on campus was directed by Mewshaw. They met and started dating in Los Angeles, where they both worked on some major films. Van Til was an associate producer on the comedies “13 Going On 30” starring Jennifer Garner and “Drillbit Taylor” starring Owen Wilson. Mewshaw had been a production assistant on Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” and on “Something’s Gotta Give” with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton.
DRAWN BACK TO MAINE
After several years in California, the couple began thinking about moving to Maine for the quality of life, and making a film together about Maine, in Maine. Van Til wrote the story for “Tumbledown” (the name of a mountain near Farmington) using real people she knew in Farmington as the basis for characters. She blended those characters with her own experiences of loss. In the story Hannah, a Farmington native, is dealing with the death of her husband, a noted folk singer. Hannah is played by Rebecca Hall, probably best-known as Vicky in the Woody Allen film “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
Jason Sudeikis, a “Saturday Night Live” alum known for comedies like “Horrible Bosses” and “We’re the Millers,” plays an academic who is researching Hannah’s late husband and how he died. The film features comedy, romance and loss.
When the two filmmakers moved to Maine in 2007, they began efforts to film in the Farmington area. In 2008 they went to Augusta to lobby lawmakers about the possibility of providing more tax incentives to filmmakers. Currently, Maine offers a tax rebate program with 12 percent of wages paid to Maine residents on a production, and 10 percent of non-resident wages. Then there is a non-transferable tax credit worth 5 percent of everything spent that is not in the form of wages.
In Massachusetts, companies are offered a more straight-forward rebate program. Filmmakers receive a 25 percent tax credit on wages and a 25 percent tax credit on all other costs. Or as Mewshaw translates, it is “25 cents back on every dollar you spend.” The amount of tax credits was important to the film’s Canadian financiers, and helped convince them to film in Massachusetts. The film was shot mostly last March and April in Concord and other Massachusetts locations. Van Til and Mewshaw said that during the long journey to make the film, they were helped by several people who had faith in them. Those included a Hollywood agent who helped connect them with talented actors, and Sudeikis, who committed to the film early and stayed committed to it.
The film also stars Dianna Agron, Blythe Danner, Joe Manganiello and Richard Masur.
While working on getting “Tumbledown” made over the past few years, Mewshaw has also been directing plays and Van Til has been writing.
The couple will continue to live in Maine. Their hope is that as they continue their creative careers, they get another chance to bring Maine places and stories to life on-screen. And they hope to be able to film here as well.
Even though they didn’t film “Tumbledown” in Maine, the fact that Van Til and Mewshaw were able to keep the film in New England was important for the overall look of the movie, said Jane Ann Stewart, the film’s production designer.
Stewart has worked on other films where the setting and physical look of a place is a key force in the film, including “The Descendants” (set in Hawaii) with George Clooney, and “Sideways” (set in California wine country) with Paul Giamatti.
Stewart said she was so impressed with Mewshaw and Van Til, and wanted to work with them so much, that she drove with them to Farmington to look the place over even before she had formally been hired.
“They are wonderful people, and Hollywood is not a haven for fabulous, good people,” said Stewart. “They drove me up there and I could see their enthusiasm for the place.”
In decorating storefronts in Concord, Stewart tried to use the shops she had seen in Farmington as models. A Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers sign was hung over a storefront.
Sandra Adair, editor on the film, has worked on a wide range of projects, including the epic film “Boyhood.” Adair was also impressed with how the look of the recreated Farmington captured the mood of the place depicted in the film’s story.
“As an editor, you work on helping to refine the characters and the story. ‘Tumbledown’ was different than anything I’ve worked on,” said Adair. “There is a tremendous amount of comedy, which Jason brings, but Rebecca’s character is very complex, dealing with grief, falling in love, a lot of complex human emotions.”
And Hannah, like other characters in the film, was inspired by people Van Til knew during her formative years in Farmington.
“I would say that Hannah was inspired by my closest girlfriends … self-reliant and confident, fearlessly funny, authentically themselves,” said Van Til. “There is a singular sort of strength that comes from embracing the challenges of living in western Maine.”