“We really wanted to screw up the people at iTunes and Netflix as to where to put it,”smirked Jason Sudeikis at the premiere of “Tumbledown” at the Tribeca Film Festival when asked whether the film should be considered a drama or a comedy. If the good folks at the tech companies have any sense, they’ll ignore that debate entirely and put the film written by Desi Van Til and directed by her husband Sean Mewshaw directly in the Staff Picks section.
The kind of romantic delight that people are fond of saying “they just don’t make ’em like that anymore,” “Tumbledown” stars Rebecca Hall as Hannah, the widow of Hunter, a beloved cult musician who left behind just a single album, but also a whole lot of pain for his family and for Andrew McCabe (Sudeikis), a professor of pop culture at Hofstra, a whole lot of questions. After some time has passed, Andrew travels up to see Hannah in Maine, where she maintains a quiet life, except for the occasional conjugal visit from a local fireman (Joe Manganiello) and the occasional venture out of house to file a story for the community newspaper. Though Hannah’s reluctant to speak to him, to put it lightly, Andrew appeals to her desire to be a writer with his considerable gift of gab and an offer to let her guide his work on a book about Hunter he’s already got a deal for.
Naturally, Andrew gets more than he bargained for when Hannah makes a counteroffer that he accepts. Then again, so does the audience as the opposites attract premise of the city slicker and the frontierwoman working together to tell the story of her late husband gives way to something both sensitive and startlingly funny in its contemplation of loss on a personal and communal level and Hannah’s steps towards a new beginning. Van Til and Mewshaw may stack the deck against themselves in making the Maine setting so charming that it’s understandable Hannah would have no desire to change her ways. But with a delicate touch that’s particularly impressive from these first-time feature filmmakers, “Tumbledown” is at once weighty and remarkably light on its feet, with Hall and Sudeikis, as well as a supporting cast that includes Blythe Danner and Richard Mazur as Hannah’s parents and Dianna Agron as Andrew’s girlfriend, all at the top of their game no matter what’s thrown their way.
Although its filmmakers surely would’ve preferred a quicker turnaround, it’s no surprise that something as thoughtful and well-crafted as “Tumbledown” took nearly a decade to make, and a day after the film’s premiere, Van Til and Mewshaw reflected on its long journey to the screen, how to balance grief and humor and finding the voice of Hannah’s late husband.
What’s stayed with me the most since seeing the film is how there’s a way with words where the characters can hide a lot in what they’re saying, even if they’re not trying to. Was that difficult to figure out?
Desi Van Til: A lot of the way that Hannah was conceived as a character was as a person who is dealing with this great personal grief – the way she handles it, the way that she keeps outside her very close community, the way that she protects herself through her sense of humor – her wit is her defensive shield. When I started to write Hannah, I was always interested in the notion that if you are a funny, optimistic and vivacious person and you are grieving, it doesn’t mean that you completely change your personality. You’re still who you are, but then you’re dealing with this very emotional loss. That combination of things hopefully comes out in the film when you’re seeing somebody who still has her sense of humor, but as she says in the dinner [scene], it’s not just something that happened to her, it’s who she is now. This event is part of who she is, but who she was before is also still part of who she is and [this] is the exploration of that coexistence.
How did the story emerge? You dedicated the premiere to your friend Nina, who passed away at an early age, so was writing this in any way therapeutic?
Desi Van Til: It literally came from these two characters – Hannah and Andrew. The initial scenes were a lot about quality of life issues where she was this woman from Maine, he was this fast-talker from New York and they were at odds. Those beginning scenes really were about two different lifestyles and two different life choices caught combating, but I hadn’t quite figured out what the conflict was. Then all of a sudden, we were together coming up with what was that problem that the film was solving. My feelings about grieving and healing just sort of poured themselves into the scenes. It certainly wasn’t like I set out to process this thing that happened to me.
Sean Mewshaw: If I remember correctly, it was like you discovered it. It’s like the characters started to speak to you and started to speak to Andrew about her loss.
Desi Van Til: I knew she had lost her husband.
Sean Mewshaw: Yeah, it opened the floodgates into discovering what the movie was going to be about.
Desi Van Til: As I started writing, [Sean and I] were very young and freshly in love, and there was that nightmare thought of ,”Oh my gosh, I’ve found this person who I’m in love with and I’d like to spend my life with.” And how unimaginable would it be, at this point, to lose him. Having lost somebody [with Nina] and feeling that vulnerability and how easily one can lose someone who’s beloved, there was fear of loving somebody so much, and then thinking, “What if that disappeared like that?” I put that nightmare scenario, in a way, emotionally, into what Hannah was going through.
Since you’ve been working on this for eight years, would your perspective on it change over time?
Desi Van Til: No.
Sean Mewshaw: The essence of the emotional thing that we were investigating never really changed like that. The heart and soul of the picture stayed the same. It was a lot of the surface details, like the dialogue or the setting that evolved over the years. But the emotional core of where Hannah’s coming from, that just got deeper and deeper and more layered as Desi worked on it over the years, and we thought about it more.
Desi Van Til: Those scenes about grieving and who she is and how she’s processing it were in the earliest drafts.
I found it fascinating that Desi comes from a background in creative development and Sean comes from the physical production side of filmmaking. Those seem like complementary traits for making an indie film of your own like this, but do help in getting something done over a long haul like this?
Desi Van Til: Did it? I remember my mother once saying to me, “Didn’t all those years in Los Angeles teach you anything?” And I said, “Yes.” I worked on “13 Going on 30” as an associate producer, for example. I was there on set everyday working with the director Gary Winick, one of my beloved mentors to whom the film is also dedicated. Working on a set on a movie [with a budget in] the tens of millions of dollars was great because I got to learn what everybody does and get to be a part of it at that level. But it is a completely different beast trying to make a movie on this scale at this pace and with the kind of long term endurance that is necessary to put together an independent film.
Sean Mewshaw: I don’t know that you can learn how to make an independent film, how to get it off the ground, without actually trying to push that rock up the hill. But that’s the boldness that sent us off 8 years ago thinking we were going to make this movie ourselves. I had enough production experience – I was running a production company where I was shooting, editing, directing everything myself, like a lot of people do. We felt like, “Great, let’s make it for no money up there because we can do everything we need to do. Desi will produce it. We’ll make it near our hometown where everybody will open their hearts and their homes to us, and give us all these resources.”
But we got this sense that we could make it on a larger scale because the role that Desi has written for the central character of Hannah was going to be really attractive to a lot of [potential financial] backers from the feedback we were getting, so that process about trying to make the film bigger -because it wasn’t just ours anymore – we just learned it by doing it. The greatest thing is that Desi, besides being an amazing screenwriter, is really one of the most most driven and focused human beings, and she has faith…
Desi Van Til: In the movie.
Sean Mewshaw: Oh, you have faith in great outcomes in life. She’s a beacon. That’s the thing that carries through that. It’s a miracle to me that it actually came to pass that this was my first feature film [as a director]. It’s a pretty rare thing to get to work with actors of this level, to work with a screenplay of this level and it’s my fault probably that it took eight years to make because I’m not the most attractive element of it. As the first time feature filmmaker, it’s never easy.
Desi Van Til: Next time will be different.
Since you knew the area well, did you put all the outsiders through New England boot camp?
Desi Van Til: We did. A lot of that came from working with our production designer Jane Ann Stewart and our costume designer [Amela Baksic]. Our production designer had really small budget and designed Hannah’s house, which was an empty house for sale that Sean found while location scouting. [Jane Ann] and set decorator Amy Morrison had to completely create that world, so they came up to Maine to my hometown and looked around. Jane came to the actual camp on the lake where it was set in my imagination, to make sure that everything was authentic. Amela, our costume designer, would have me come in and look at all the extras and make sure that they were dressed down enough and “Does this person look like they live in Maine?”
Sean Mewshaw: A lot of the people who galvanized the film and connected to it had a feeling from Maine already. A lot of them had either gone to camp there or grown up visiting there. We started to gather people who had this wistfulness with this New England milieu that we were constructing. Then it’s funny casting Rebecca Hall, this wonderful British actress, as a New Englander, but she’s such an incredible mimic. She just entered the world entirely, and you believe that Rebecca Hall is hearty and out there [because that’s the] kind of person she is in life. She’s so strong she owns this city. She owns London. There’s nothing that she can’t do. You completely believe that she’s fearlessly living on the edge of the wilderness and could survive that.
Desi Van Til: And split that wood.
Sean Mewshaw: Split that wood, survive the winters …
Desi Van Til: We also had a good time on set working on the Maine accent. Not that [Rebecca] did a Maine accent, she wasn’t supposed to, but we had a lot of fun times.
Sean Mewshaw: Yeah, Joe Manganiello was just great bringing in the Maine accent. I think actually he had a Maine connection, so he loved it. He was just like, “I’m going to do the Maine accent. I’m going to get it right.” And he loved bringing that to life.
How did Damien Jurado become the voice of Hunter?
Sean Mewshaw: Damien came on a little bit later in the process. We were already pre-production when we found the guy who could commit. We had this wonderful music supervisor in Gary Calamar, who’s a DJ in Los Angeles. For our whole careers in LA, we spent listening to him and his great show. We had ideas for people over the years, but finally we went to Gary just saying, “Can you find us somebody who has this wonderful timeless essence and a really manly voice but great emotionality in it?” We had this very specific idea of the voice, and he went straight to Damien. He said, “This is the guy.” The second we listened to him, we believed it as well.
I feel like Damien is so interesting because he has 11 albums and he’s changed his sound over the years. You hear that voice and you feel like it’s familiar because it’s been around. His music has a simplicity and timelessness that was so right for us. The neat thing is, we thought we were going to have somebody create the album before we shot the film, and that we’d all sit around the fire and listen to music and get into the character. That didn’t end up happening. We were listening to other music.
Desi Van Til: Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake …
Sean Mewshaw: …the guys who really evoked that story of the artist who we lost too soon. Then Damien got to watch our cuts of the film, and create his music in resonance with the picture we made, which actually ended up being a great way to go about it, because he just immersed himself in the world that we created and really take it in his own direction.
He worked like an actor would. It wasn’t that we were dictating note for note and word for word what he would do. We wanted him to be inspired by it, and he did. He just went off and wrote. It’s a rare thing that you get an artist who’s willing to write you a whole album, and give it to you wholesale. That’s an amazing gift and he did such beautiful work.
After holding onto this for eight years, what was it like to release it into the world?
Sean Mewshaw: It’s something I feel proud of. We do feel like we achieved what we set out to do to get this very careful balance of emotion and humor.
Desi Van Til: It sounds so unbelievably corny, but when you have really high expectations for something, there’s always a little trepidation going into it because you think there’s no way that it’s going to be that good. The chances of letdown seem so high. Last night felt so unbelievably fulfilling because we had a full house there at the BMCC Theater, and an audience that was responding and laughing and stuck around for the Q & A. There was such a great energy in that room. It felt so much like a wedding in a way, that it was this culmination of all this time, and then as we hope, also the beginning of something …
It was also this wonderful reunion, getting to see our actors. We were shooting a year ago today with Rebecca and Jason and it was so nice to reassemble everybody and feel like this thing that we did a year ago that we were working on for years and years isn’t just a baby, but it’s got legs.
“Tumbledown” does not yet have US distribution. It plays once more at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23rd at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park at 3:30 pm.