A day before her debut feature “Five Nights in Maine” hits theaters, Maris Curran is ebullient. The writer/director has carried the story of Sherwin, a sudden widower who heads to see his late wife’s mother Lucinda to satisfy her dying wish to make peace with her for the better part of a decade, corralling a cast that includes David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest and Rosie Perez and fighting to film in Maine where she spent summers as a child to get the mood just right, and while the moment might be bittersweet in letting go, it is clear this is not the end of something for Curran, it is the beginning.
“I’m happy. I’m in love. I live in L.A.,” says Curran, reflecting on how much her life has changed since first putting pen to paper for “Five Nights in Maine,” living in Oakland when I first spoke to her five years ago as she was crowdsourcing a part of the film’s budget.
While the drama was born out of a sense of personal loss for the filmmaker after having experienced a divorce, the end result is ecstatic, conveyed by someone seeing the world anew. Deeply rooted in its Northeastern firmament, it is telling that Curran brought in Tunisian cinematographer Sofian El Fani (“Blue is the Warmest Color”) to lens the film, just one of many choices to the left of the dial that make “Five Nights in Maine” such a richly rewarding experience as Oyelowo’s Sherwin and Wiest’s Lucinda come to understand themselves better through letting the world around them in. Curran shows great sensitivity at recognizing the great cultural chasms that separate her characters from truly being themselves in each other’s company, matched by that of her strong cast who ably demonstrate how their gradual strides to get past those social constructs to reconnect with their humanity allows them to find a common ground.
For as intimate as “Five Nights in Maine” is, it is also quite ambitious, likely a sign of things to come from Curran, who is already at work on a follow-up feature as well as a documentary short about the multidisciplinary artist Lonnie Holley. That’s one of the reasons why it was such a privilege to catch up with the busy filmmaker on the eve of “Five Nights in Maine”’s release to talk about her evolution as a filmmaker, the importance of filming in Maine, the sense of community she’s felt on the festival circuit, and the emotional reactions she’s received while traveling with it.
What have these last few months been like?
I made the film to start conversations, so it’s been incredibly moving to bring it across the country and have conversation after conversation. My hope was that people would want to sit in the dark, then really want to talk about the themes in the film with each other and occasionally me. It’s been overwhelming in a good sense how much they really have. I’ve had people stand up and tell their stories in Q&As and ask tough questions and email me afterwards. When I was in Dallas, a pastor stood up and said, “We need your film in our community — a non-faith-based tool to be able to have some difficult conversations that are confronting the people whom I work with.” That was something that was very unexpected to me. In that same day, I had widow come up to me and tell me that while the film did not directly tell her story, it created this sensation in her that made her feel a lot less alone. She said that she was going to bring a group of widow friends to the release and sent me a really long e-mail after the film.
It also seems like it’s a rare opportunity to be around a lot of female filmmakers lately, whether it’s the Traverse City Film Festival, where all the competition films were made by women, or your interview with Mira Nair. Has that been empowering?
It has, and I was just working on a blog post talking about community and how making films takes so long. You constantly read about the highlights, but there are so many no’s and so many lows that without this companionship and camaraderie of other filmmakers, it would impossible. I definitely have a tremendous community and there was something so amazing about being in Traverse City. I have amazing male and female filmmaker friends, but being amongst this group of unbelievably talented women who I adore, and [getting to] sit down and just laugh and get to celebrate each other was really special.
This isn’t to make you sound immodest, but since I believe it, was there a moment when you realized your voice was unique as a filmmaker?
Yeah, I have had a sense of what my voice is [since] I was 18 when I first took a film class and I made my first short film, and what I was going after, though articulating it differently then, is still the same now. I’m interested in everyday stories that are about the joys and traumas of daily life and I think I have an evocative and empathetic way to express it.
You actually started out in experimental film. How did you gravitate towards narrative?
I always loved film, but in some ways, I didn’t understand that being a narrative director was a career choice that was open to me. My mom’s an artist so I understood that life and I was a cinephile without knowing that word. I was getting my Masters at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and then a University of Chicago professor had seen my work and said to me, “Maris, your work is so narratively driven. You must take a proper screenwriting class. Trust me.” I rolled my eyes and I said, “Okay.” I took an advanced screenwriting class with him and he was right. I had a true epiphany in that moment and I really spent a full year after grad school interrogating the form — what it would mean — and the type of stories I wanted to tell and learning how to express myself in that form.
Was “Five Nights in Maine” always going to be the first feature?
I’ve written [a few], but this film is the one I could imagine living with for as long as it takes to make a film. It felt like something worthy of sharing with the world in the sense that what’s more universal than loving somebody and losing them? There aren’t enough conversations being had about grief and that made it right for exploring. Also, the film was contained enough that I could completely imagine making it achievable.
The story of David Oyelowo coming onto the film as both an actor and producer three years ago is well-documented, but how did you think of Dianne Wiest and Rosie Perez?
For Lucinda, I was looking for someone who had this combination of ferocity and fragility and Dianne became a very clear choice and we went the traditional route, sending a script to her agent. I met with Dianne two weeks later and we had an amazing connection and talked about the work. It happens that same day, I also met with Rosie for the first time and if you can imagine, that was a real turning point for me to hear these women talk about their connection to it and both say that they wanted to work on this film. [For Ann, Rosie’s character], I think it shows the limits of my imagination because I didn’t immediately think of her [for the part], but her management company had read the script and said, “What about Rosie?” That was this amazing “ah ha” moment that I didn’t think of, but [I realized] what an amazing idea and how much she would bring as an actor and as a human.
What was clear during the Q & A at the Toronto premiere was how much you wanted the actors involved in creating these characters and yet this was a personal story for you. What was it like striking the balance between what you wanted to keep of yours and give over to them?
That is how you get good performances is really by inviting actors in and truly collaborating. The script was written, and then it was us taking this script and talking about the roles and scenes, and collaborating very deeply there. The project evolved a great deal. The script got better — and then it also got better in the edit after — and ideally, everybody who joins the project, and I don’t just mean the actors, but the crew — your production designer, your [cinematographer], your producers — everybody’s imprint is on the film. Really, it’s my job as the director to welcome that and to pick those people so that those imprints are elevating the film.
Was there anything during filming that surprised you during filming that you were happy made it into the final film?
All along I had this sense that the film had to be shot in Maine. Maine doesn’t have as good incentive as New York does and upstate New York looks a little bit like Maine, but there was this real sense of the film needed to be shot there [because] while we were actually shooting, it’s like what you see on screen was in some ways the world we were living in. For all of the actors, for myself, for the crew, it was part of the reason that the film has a naturalism is because we were so imbued in that world.
Originally, Bradford Young was scheduled to shoot this, and then you went out and hired another very distinctive cinematographer in “Blue is the Warmest Color”’s Sofian El Fani, and they both show sensitivity, but have very different styles. Visually, was that a shift in approaching this?
I agree with you that they both have a sensitivity and they’re both emotional filmmakers. Sofian is very interested in a very direct, intimate cinema, and Brad is really interested in a soulful, intimate cinema, which is why in some ways these are two people that I was thinking about simultaneously. Brad had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t shoot, but that’s what draws me to their work and makes me want to watch anything that either of them lens because they really leave their mark on the films they make.
There’s a great story in the film about a lighthouse that it sounds like it came from reality…
It’s a true story.
Were there details like that that you were able to bring in that helped you push the story forward, but could also enliven it?
Yeah, Sofian flew from Tunis to Portland, Maine and I brought him to the location when he first arrived. We were in the bedroom where [David Oyelowo’s character] Sherwin is looking around and we looked out at the lighthouse and I told Sofian that story as he was looking out the window. We looked at each other and said, “That has to be in the movie.” Then I wrote it in.
This seems like it must’ve been an isolated location – did it feel like a cocoon on the set with your cast and crew?
Completely. We were shooting on a 600-acre property with intermittent cell service and no WiFi and there were some other difficult aspects of being in Maine, particularly for our cast of color were present there. I would see David in the morning and he would say, “I went on a run and I didn’t get a double take — I got a quadruple take.” That sense of alienation that Sherwin feels in the film was also something I think a lot of our cast and crew were feeling being there, and also this push-pull that happens where it’s like “Oh my God, I feel so out of place, yet, God, is it beautiful.” That sensation that the main character of the film has was [something] people were feeling while we were making the movie.
Something that’s been funny to see in the coverage of this film is how eager so many cities have been eager to claim you as their own. I remember initially tagging you to your birthplace in Georgia, then I see the Philadelphia Inquirer saying “Philly’s Own…” in the headline, and of course, people must think you’re from Maine…
They can all have me, Stephen. [laughs]
Having been all over, has it contributed to a sense of how an environment can shape one as a person?
I think places and geography are very important in a film and I’m really interested in how many Americas exist within our country, and in a small way, I think this film explores that. I have communities in multiple places that are true and rich and artistic and familial. I did grow up in Philly. I lived in the Bay Area for a long time. L.A. is now my home, and those are all places that are huge parts of my formation. Maine actually isn’t, but it’s huge part of me now, particularly having made a film there.
How did the song come to be at the end of the film? You’ve actually gone on to make a short documentary about the singer Lonnie Holley, so there must be some significance.
I knew Lonnie Holley’s work as an artist for awhile — his work [as a painter and sculptor] has been in the Smithsonian and the Whitney, but I hadn’t heard his music. When I heard his voice, I knew that I wanted that to be the last sound that you heard in the film. It has this callback to the South and his voice is unbelievably soulful. At a dinner party, I was telling a friend that I had listened to his [music] and she said, “Oh, that’s so funny, I know his manager.” So I called him and he said, “Oh, Lonnie grew up near a drive-in, listening to the sounds of the theater, so this would be really important to him.” We began to collaborate on this song and he made this very meditative, fluid song for the end credits.
Then I would see him whenever we were in the same place — I’d see him in New York and LA and San Francisco and we developed this kinship. While watching this show of his, I just had this wave that I had to do something collaborative with Lonnie, so the next day when we had lunch, I said, “This idea [for a short film] is not fully formed, but this is the idea as it is right now” and he said, “Yes, we have to do it and you’re the one that has to do it.” We took that as a jumping off place and made this short doc. He has an incredible life story and this [short] film is really about remarkable ability to turn trauma he’s dealt with into inspiration for others and [how he] compulsively makes art and music.
Since you’ve said “Five Nights in Maine” was inspired by your own loss, was the process of making this actually healing?
I think that you don’t make a film for personal catharsis. The one thing that’s so interesting for me right now in reflecting on the process, is that it is a new chapter. I’m in a completely different place than when I had started the film in so many ways, even just personally in terms of this space where I am in my life, which I think is a really beautiful thing. [“Five Nights in Maine”] was more about this emotional place that I was in as I began to have the idea for the film more than it was like, “Oh, I’m having a crisis and I’m making something about that.” I was interested in this emotional moment that feels very isolating where there’s lots of questions, and using that as a point of connection as opposed to a point of escalation.
In the process of making this film, the amazing thing is in opening that dialogue, I have found that most people really want to also share their stories. People really want to reach out and say, “I had this experience and I have faced loss in this way.” They rarely have a chance to talk about it, but because I’m taking on this project, I think it’s safe to talk about it because I’m engaged in this dialogue. The film is not about my specific loss. It’s about a very different loss and every person involved in the film probably talked to me [at some point] about what loss means to them — who they have lost and how they deal with it. This makes it sound very, very bleak — and there’s levity in the film, which is important because talking about grief is not always about going to dark places. It’s about sharing our inner lives. Ultimately, if I’m being vulnerable and sharing with you [through this film], that’s going to bring us closer.