Shooting an indie film on location away from the traditional filmmaking hubs of New York or Los Angeles may sound like a daunting prospect. But Maine-based directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly found that making Beneath the Harvest Sky with a close-knit, supportive community in small town was a blessing.
In the last 72 hours, we’ve been pounding the pavement in Maine. We did a full day of press in Portland, conference calls preparing for the Maine premiere of Beneath The Harvest Sky in Bangor, and spoke at a public hearing at the state capitol in Augusta about improving the state’s film tax incentives. Things weren’t always this hectic. Ten years ago, we were working in local television news dreaming of a career making movies. In 2004, we discovered the Maine Troop Greeters of Bangor, Maine and five years later, released our first feature documentary profiling three of the troop greeters called The Way We Get By. It was literally the sheer power of the community support in Maine that helped us garner a successful national theatrical release for The Way We Get By and a campaign that led us all the way to the White House.
It’s hard to explain just how instrumental the state of Maine has been in our lives, but the fact that wedding vendors throughout the state gifted us a free high-end wedding in 2009 might give you an idea of why Maine is so special to us. Coming off the success of our feature documentary, we knew we wanted to tackle a narrative feature film. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. Filmmaking never is. We knew it would need to be a micro-budget indie, but we also knew we had an ace up our sleeve: Maine.
DISCOVERING THE SETTING
In late 2010, we started thinking about film ideas that could be set in Maine. When we ran across some photos of a potato harvest in northern Maine, we were drawn to the idea of telling a coming-of-age story up in Aroostook County—or as Mainers had simply dubbed it, “The County”—particularly the small rural towns that run along the Canadian border. It was this area in Maine that seemed like the perfect setting and backdrop for Beneath The Harvest Sky.
Few people make it a mission to travel up to The County, since there’s not a lot to do that far up north. If you’re French Acadian, you’re likely visiting family members, and if you’re into winter, it has some great snowmobiling trails. But more importantly, we knew this was undiscovered territory in the world of film. So, in January 2011, during one of the worst blizzards in the past few years, we moved to Maine from New York City and began researching everything we could about life in The County.
Our plan for writing Beneath The Harvest Sky was different than most screenplays. We wouldn’t just write a story we wanted to tell, and then retrofit it to a location within a state with the best tax incentives. Instead, we would reverse engineer the entire thing. Finding the location first—Van Buren, Maine—and then using our skills as documentarians we would tell the true story of life growing up in that specific northern Maine town. Our hope was to create a story in a very unique world—that could only take place in Van Buren—but with themes that were universal to anyone growing up in a small rural town.
We interviewed anyone who would speak to us: teenagers, teachers, farmers, drug dealers, the head of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and officials at the U.S. Customs and Borders. We discovered that most families had relatives on both sides of the U.S. and Canadian border. You needed a passport to visit your nearby family. And since the 1800s, families in these small towns had been finding ways to survive by smuggling valuable commodities over the border like butter and milk in years past and now illegal prescription drugs. To them, it was all the same: supply and demand. This wasn’t Justified or Breaking Bad with clearly drawn black and white heroes and villains; this was a community filled by shades of gray, with people just trying to survive.
The landscape in Van Buren, like most farm communities, is simply breathtaking. We knew nothing about the process of harvesting potatoes, so we spent a significant amount of time just talking to the farmers. We figured all of the sprawling fields had to be a farmers’ paradise but we quickly realized that there were very few family farms left standing. Just six farm families, now harvesting land that was once farmed by over 200 families. Many people didn’t even sell their farms – they just left. The situation in the Van Buren School was even worse. Graduating classes had shrunk significantly over the past 30 years, from over 200 students back in the ’80s to just over a dozen kids this past year. With fewer and fewer kids in attendance, the number one goal for the majority of teens that grow up in The County is to get out of northern Maine as soon as possible upon graduating. If you aren’t part of a farm family, the opportunities are pretty slim so you make your escape plan early: college out-of-state, a job in southern Maine, the military, something, anything that might offer a better opportunity.
As we started developing the ideas behind Beneath The Harvest Sky, this research formed the heart of our story: two teens, one with farming opportunities and one with none, the latter falling into smuggling drugs across the border with his outlaw father and uncle. Both hoping their ambitions might carry them out of town.
FINDING TIES TO MAINE
Once we finished writing the script, we started researching our favorite films and television shows: anything with young leads. We were searching for a casting director who could discover the right talent for our two teenage leads. We started to find a pattern; Superbad, Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development all were cast by the same keen eye. Allison Jones had discovered Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Michael Cera to name just a few. Our only problem was that Allison casts these big budget Hollywood comedies and we were narrative filmmakers with no track record making a tiny independent drama.
We called her office and her team said they’d share the script with Allison. A few weeks later, our phone rang. It was Allison. She asked if we knew she had family in Maine: a sister in Portland. We did not. She asked if we knew that she had ties to northern Maine: her sister’s husband still had family in Aroostook County. We did not. She said she was excited to help. She wanted to come on board, ready to do even local casting across Maine.
With strong character actors like Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire), Timm Sharp (Enlightened, Undeclared) and Carrie Preston (True Blood, The Good Wife) among the cast, and more importantly, with four strong teen actors in Emory Cohen, Callan McCauliffe, Zoe Levin, and Sarah Sutherland as our leads, we knew we could make something special. An unexpected tie to Maine had reaped big rewards yet again.
FARMERS AS CREWMEMBERS
We had never stepped foot on another film set. So, on our first feature production, we figured common sense and plain old-fashioned business planning was the best way to go. As first time narrative filmmakers, there were only so many film contacts we could pull from. We realized the key to building our crew would be to identify the right skill sets that were needed and to build a crew from there. Our lead producer, Kavita Pullapilly, worked in finance for Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. government; our 1st AD, Leo Doyle, was a former sports anchor that had a booming voice, knew how to call out the right plays, and could bring a large group together and motivate them.
What we didn’t count on was discovering just how great a crewmember a northern Maine farmer could make. After seeing them in action, it made perfect sense. Farmers are natural born problem-solvers. And for a 36-day shoot on a micro budget, it’s incredibly helpful to have a group of people who work similarly long days as a film production. More importantly, in order to survive natural disasters, economic uncertainty, and everything else that sprouts up on a daily basis, farmers have to be innovative and creative to stay afloat.
When we couldn’t afford a typical car mount rigging to shoot all of our driving scenes, we turned to farmer Gil LaJoie for help. He repurposed old bleachers from the school, added some scrap metal and welded together a platform rigging that could mount to any truck in town. Our department heads from NYC and L.A. said it was better than you could rent; it was interchangeable and quicker to attach.
WORTH A MILLION BUCKS
Most people within the film industry who have seen Beneath The Harvest Sky think the film was made for a few million dollars. In the end, all the in-kind support and donated services from communities all across Maine made up more than four times the actual budget. And it all made it up on the screen.
It’s rare that filmmakers can garner the support of an entire state. We joke that we’ve got one of the 50 states in our back pocket and that we’ll conquer the U.S. one state at a time. Could this happen in any other state? Not for us. And that’s why we hope to continue making movies right here in The Pine Tree State. Next time, hopefully with a much bigger budget and better tax incentives.
Watch the trailer for Beneath The Harvest Sky:
Tribeca Films will release Beneath The Harvest Sky in select theaters starting on May 2, 2014 in NYC. You can find out more about the film and the filmmakers at beneaththeharvestsky.com or at their Facebook and Twitter pages. MM To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.