Interview: Tom Quinn on Carving Out a Place on the Map for “Colewell”

Tom Quinn wasn’t sure whether he wanted to drive any further. He had been looking for the right spot to film his second feature “Colewell,” preferably a mountainous area where the fog could roll in over the hills, and the search around the East Coast hadn’t yielded anything that quite fit the bill in the way he had hoped.

“I had already driven two hours to one town that didn’t work, so I’m like, “Do I want to drive to this other place?” recalls Quinn, after getting a tip about the small Pennsylvania town of Noxen. “And Noxen’s this place you can’t even find on Google Maps, so I took the drive randomly and once I got there and started talking to people, it quickly became pretty clear that was it.”

It was only fair that a place that had been left off the map turned out to be the perfect spot for “Colewell,” the tale of a rural community on the cusp of losing their post office, and by extension their identity as far as the outside world is concerned with no zip code to claim as its own, after federal government budget cuts consolidate service within certain regions. The impending loss is devastating to the community, but particularly to its postmaster Nora (Karen Allen), who in her sixties, can’t imagine what will replace her daily routine. Still, this concern takes a backseat to what Nora knows the loss will be to the town, which regularly assembles at the post office as their local hangout in a place that doesn’t have many other public gathering spots.

While it solemnly documents a way of life that may be coming to an end, “Colewell” plays out as a vital drama, drawing strength from a simmering lead performance from Allen and a bone-deep sense of place established by Quinn and his crew, recalling his sensational South Philly-set debut “The New Year’s Parade” in which a family’s circumstances were inextricably tied to the community they were a part of. Even as a sense of isolation threatens to overwhelm Nora in “Colewell” as she contemplates a future that doesn’t involve regular visitors to the post office, the film feels expansive in how it conveys her consciousness, creating the space for her mind to drift and drawing a parallel between her experience and that of a young woman named Ella (Hannah Gross) who is making her way to Colewell at a similar soul-searching juncture in her life.

Recently, the film was acknowledged as one of the year’s finest by the Spirit Awards, where “Colewell” is up for the John Cassavetes Award and Best Actress for Allen, and following a fine festival run that began this summer at the San Francisco Film Festival, it is now available on demand in time for anyone needing to playing catch up with 2019’s best films. Quinn was gracious enough to talk about how “Colewell” came about, adjusting to a larger production than his first, which was mostly just himself and one other person, and how the experience of small-town life during the production helped inform it.

How did this come about?

Initially, I was at a friend’s for New Year’s and he had an agricultural map on his wall, which is a weird thing to have of Western Pennsylvania. I asked him why and he told me it’s because his hometown isn’t on the map anymore – it got erased when the woman who ran the post office out of her home retired, so they retired the zip code and their town got removed, basically. I had been struggling for a while to get another film going, and I thought this was interesting and just a size that was manageable to dive into, so I submitted [a pitch] along with a friend to the Biennale College and it got in.

What drew me in is the idea that the woman’s identity and the town are so intermingled, but as I started to go around and visit places, [the woman] became more interesting because you would go into these communities and the community was so much of what was holding her up, but also putting pressure on her. A lot of the postmasters we talked to, they really cared and invested a lot of their time in the community and the community rallied around them, and I like those films like John Sayles or John Ford films or Capra that mix individuals and their communities and how they impact each other, so as it went forward, it became less about fight the post office than about this woman more and more.

I understand that the character of Colewell as a town came from a composite of different communities, but did you have a physical place in mind from the start?

Not from the start. We jumped around to about 20 towns and like for a while, we were looking at Aplaus, New York because they set up a town hall for us to hang out and talk to people. There’s a postmaster there named Kathy Boyle, who was really helpful. And a lot of the details of the movie came from that place, like the dog treats in the post office box and the microwave [being used as] the safe – those are all things they did in Aplaus. Then I spent the summer driving with a friend around Pennsylvania mostly, trying to find something that would stick.

Is it true during the first few days of production there was a fall festival that your crew actually participated in?

Yeah, the first day we got into town, Maggie Ambrose, a co-producer on the film, saw there was a fall festival and put on an apron and started serving cider to people at one of the stands, like “Hey, can I help?” And they just put her to work. All day, she just talked to people and by the end of that week, she and Jeff Spivack had a spreadsheet of a hundred people for me to talk to and like a one or two sentence bio of who they were and what they liked to do and what hobbies they have. That was an awesome starting point and then it just grew from there. When I first got to town, I first met a lady named Cathie Pauley, who was the town activist who fought the post office closure. She lives in a house her grandfather built in 1895 and she is really the one who took us all under her wing and helped us connect with who would be the best fit for certain things locally, [such as] who might have certain pieces of furniture, and she really organized the town hall scene later in the film too.

What was it like to involve the community in the production? I understand you were mixing locals in with the professional actors.

Yeah, it was one of the things I was most excited about trying because I had primarily worked with non-actors in the past, but I think I underestimated how different it was because in the past, I had gone into their environment and the couple of non-actors had trained as actors at that point [in order to film scenes], but this time we were building a community and bringing [the professional actors] in with us. So it took a little bit to find our footing, but Karen [Allen] has a certain warmth and generosity and really just trusted me, even though it wasn’t something she had done before. She just dove in and it would just be the kind of thing where I told her, “Okay, this guy [who’s approaching you in the scene] makes toys and sells them at Christmas fairs,” and she would just then talk to him about that, so then we’d get little interactions.

Then when we did the town hall, it was like that magnified [because] we had two actors playing the postal service workers and everybody else had showed up [to be the townspeople to be in the audience] and had [actually] gone through that fight, so we had something like 15 or 20 shots on our list that day and we weren’t sure we could get them and the first take went 35 minutes and we had knocked out eight of them immediately. We were all shocked that it went that well, but the town also sort of forgot that it was fiction, so it got to the point where they started demanding answers out of these [actors playing the post office representatives], like “Why are you doing this?” And they’re like, “Well, we don’t know.” [laughs] And there was a lot of real emotion coming out there because they never really got to do that.

Is it true the casting of Karen Allen came about because she now lives in a small town like this?

Yeah, when we were in Venice developing the film, and I knew I wanted to do something really quiet and have a different presence at the center, and at the same time, even though there were a lot of talented actors in the age range we wanted, I felt like had had either seen them do that role before or something similar, or it would be hard to believe them in that community once you started mixing non-actors in with them. So our associate producer Maryanne Fernsler was the one developing it with me at that point and one day she just texted me “Karen Allen.” I was immediately excited because there’s a part of my brain that’s like, “Oh, if Marion Ravenwood never left Nepal.” [laughs] So I looked her up to see what she had been doing and she had just had a film called “Bad Hurt” that was at Tribeca that year, and then I found this news story on Karen Allen Fiber Arts, which is her store in Great Barrington [Massachusetts]. In the news clip, it had her working on looms in the back studio and then being out with people where everybody knew her and I was like, “Oh wow, that’s the movie. That’s the dynamic.” That was really exciting, and when I met with her in Great Barrington and the vibe there was not dissimilar from what I was trying to create, it felt like the right fit. She was the only actor we talked to for the role.

One of wonderful narrative elements of the film is this parallel you draw between Nora and a younger woman named Ella, who comes to town, and you aren’t quite sure throughout what their connection is. Did Ella come with Nora when you were writing this?

It came in really early. When I submitted [the pitch] to Biennale College, you send a three or four-page treatment and a lookbook, but before I did any of it, I made a Word document with just images – a mix of screen grabs and photography and paintings, just to tell myself what I thought the story might be. And I did it with just Nora and I liked the shape of it, but then I started to mix in these screen grabs of a friend of mine who had acted in some of my films. All of a sudden, it felt like it threw Nora’s story into relief because it just made the time between them visible and that was exciting to me. I didn’t even know who she was [as a character] at first or what it meant at first, but just the idea visually of rhyming two characters was exciting to me, then that developed further as we got closer to production and Hannah [Gross] got involved.

It’s part of a very intricate structure for the film, and you’ve said you were able to shoot four days of pickups a year after principal photography, which is a real luxury for an independent production. How did you make such a schedule work?

It’s funny [because] for “The New Year Parade,” we shot for three years, so this time was completely different for me, though I think for everybody else, it was such a luxury to be able to go and do any pickups. Some of [the shots], we always had hoped to do because there are two or three scenes when [Nora] goes to take the soup to a neighbor that we always wanted, but we couldn’t get during production, just because of trying to get the locations all in in 18 days. But that’s really a testament to the producers to hang in there and be patient enough to watch the cut come together naturally and to really make sure what we needed. Then for Karen and Hannah to really dive back in later, I think they were eager to do it, but it’s a big ask when they’re working on different projects, so I felt lucky.

It was a different thing because you had a lot of time to sit with a cut, so you really know pretty close what film you’re making and you can go in with more focus to explore that [in the pickup days] and we had done the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab that summer [where] we had a really cool mentorship meeting with Gary Rydstrom just talking about story. We talked a lot about those scenes that we still needed to get and it was really instrumental in helping crystallize what those scenes really needed to do, so it was great and then to finally be able to drop [those scenes] in after a year where we had these slugs in for such a long time was really a good feeling.

Given how DIY “New Year’s Parade” was, was it an adjustment to work within a larger infrastructure and having a bigger crew?

For sure. I was nervous and a bit naive going in because it was a two-person crew on “The New Year Parade,” myself and Mark Doyle, who would do sound and I would shoot and we’d both light it together. At most, we had five people there and I remember being on one of the first calls with the producers during preproduction and I was like, “Oh, there are more people on this call than I had on this entire film.” [laughs] But they put together such a great team of good people and I was never able to have an art department who could really make the house what I hoped it could be and to build that post office in two weeks. I never would’ve been able to do that on a smaller film, so it was really fun to have collaborators in that way. It was the same with sound and color all the way through post-production, and having all those different voices in the mix let me focus more on performances and that piece of it and then you have all this great support around you elevating every other aspect of the movie, which is really exciting.

One little production design thing I had to ask about – how’d you figure out what the presence of the computer would be? It looms large as a presence obviously as a harbinger of doom for the post office, but you just let it sit in the back of the office largely untouched.

We would talk about that a lot, even as we would get e-mails from the town we were researching because it just seemed like a funny thing that that is the end of it. What we would find a lot of times – Alan Lampert, our production designer, and Kristina Porter, our art director, went around to the different rural post offices, just to get a sense of how they’re set up and what they kept finding is a lot of [the offices] are tracking everything on a computer in a very simple way, so then it was [asking] what computer is going to tell that story and fit into the design we were doing? We liked having that one anchor image of modernity in there to show what was also throwing all this into disarray. At the same time in talking to towns, business was up for some of them in the Internet age because people would order packages from Amazon or Ebay and they’d be doing big shipments that they could charge shipping rates for, so some of the small post offices were actually doing better because of the Internet, even though mail might be down because of e-mail, so it was an interesting thing to wrestle with.

Have you been able to show it in the region yet? What’s it been like traveling with it in general?

Yeah, we might actually do a screening at the old school house where we shot the town hall, so we’re trying to figure out all those details now. And it’s always fun [screening it]. It’s a very quiet film and it’s one of those interesting things where even when you’re making it, you’re like, “This isn’t for everybody,” but at some point, you’re got to commit to the audience that will respond to it, but when you go out, it really is interesting to see who is going to click with and it’s not always necessarily the people I would expect. Sometimes it’s a much younger demographic than we imagine the film having or someone who’s not really a cinephile. I remember one guy coming up and going, “It’s a lot like ‘Cast Away.’” And I wouldn’t have made that connection, but for an audience that doesn’t watch slow cinema, that’s actually a really on point comparison because I think wider audiences aren’t used to a movie that doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, So we’d underestimate what an audience will respond to and everything that I hoped and intended that something might not click for [some] people, but some audience members would just completely come up to me afterwards and go on and on and on about what they got out of it, so it’s the best part of the filmmaking process, just going out and seeing it with strangers in communities you might not otherwise get to be in.

“Colewell” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime, Google Play and Vudu.

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