People can often make instantaneous critical assumptions about their peers who willingly choose to lead a vastly different lifestyle than they do. But it isn’t until people truly spend time investigating their associates’ feelings and circumstances in their own environment that they usually begin to fully grasp and appreciate their motivations and decisions. That’s certainly the case with the new musical romantic comedy, ‘Tumbledown,’ which marks the feature film directorial debut of Sean Mewshaw. He collaborated on the film’s compelling story with his wife, Desi Van Til, who made her feature film writing debut with the script.
The intriguing ‘Tumbledown,’ which Starz Digital Media distributed into select theaters, On Demand and iTunes nationwide earlier this month, will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment on April 5. Van Til, who also produced the movie, based the characters and story in part on her experiences in growing up in the small town of Vienna, Maine. Incorporating her detailed and compelling knowledge of how people who live in rural areas approach life differently than those who live in bigger towns and cities made the film’s two protagonists’ contrasting opinions on life extremely emotional and relatable to all audiences.
‘Tumbledown’ follows a New York pop culture scholar and professor, Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), as he’s encouraged by his girlfriend, Finley (Dianna Agron), to travel to Maine to interview Hannah (Rebecca Hall), the protective widow of an acclaimed singer. When the unlikely pair strike a deal to co-write a biography on the late singer, Andrew finds himself clashing with a cast of locals, including Hannah’s suitor, Curtis (Joe Manganiello), and her loving but defensive parents (Blythe Danner and Richard Masur). When Hannah and Andrew’s stormy partnership blossoms into an unexpected connection, they face the possibility that the next chapter in their lives may involve each other.
Mewshaw and Van Til generously took the time recently to talk about directing and writing ‘Tumbledown’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed how they embraced being able to develop the emotional arcs of two such distinct characters as Hannah and Andrew together from when Van Til first conceived the idea for the romantic comedy-drama. With the script being influenced by the writer’s hometown in Maine, and making the film on location there independently, Mewshaw also noted that he was easily able to develop the characters’ arcs with the actors, particularly Hal and Sudeikis. The helmer and scribe also explained how they appreciated having the opportunity to have the movie’s world premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York, since the city played a role in how Andrew and Hannah connected with each other.
ShockYa (SY): You both collaborated on the story for the new romantic comedy, ‘Tumbledown,’ which follows Hannah, a protective widow of an acclaimed widow, as she contends with Andrew, a college professor who wants to write a biography on her late husband. What interested you both in telling this story? Desi, what was the experience of then making your feature film screening debut with the script?
Desi Van Til (DVT): The film started when Sean and I were living in Los Angles nearly 10 years ago. I came up with the idea after I saw ‘Before Sunset,’ the second film of (Richard) Linklater’s trilogy. I was so inspired by that film that we watched it twice in one day. We watched it the first time, then folded laundry and watched it again. I thought, I really have to make an independent film, because I had spent several years working on films.
So I started writing scenes between the Hannah and Andrew characters. I also wanted to tell a story that was set in my home state of Maine. I knew the Andrew character would be a New Yorker. Those scenes were pretty long and full of dialogue. They did a lot of exploration into quality of life, people’s values and the choices they make in their lives.
As time went on, I wrote a couple more scenes. We would be in our living room, and I’d say, “Sean, let me read this to you.” So I’d read it out loud, and he’d say, “That’s good, keep going.”
Sean Mewshaw (SM): That’s all any writer ever needs-the encouragement to write and believe in themselves. We had just started living together, and we were deeply in love. So it was an act of love to say, “Desi, keep going. Write more, because I want to read more.” So the real collaboration didn’t come until years down the line. I then said, “Let’s cut down your 300-page screenplay.”
DVT: I had finished a draft, and then Sean came in and started giving me structural notes. The story then developed over time, until we got to a place, right after we had gotten married, that we liked the script. We then had a few friends who did a read-through.
We then thought we could go to my hometown in Maine and make the film on a shoe-string budget. So I quit my development job, and we packed up our stuff. We filled up our Ford Focus station wagon and moved to Maine.
We then started the long multi-year process of getting the script to actors. As we worked on the script over the years, we waited for people to read it and financiers to commit to it. We then came back to the story with fresh eyes. I think that over time, anything that was unnecessary was addressed. One benefit of taking a long time to make this was that we had a fresh perspective on the screenplay.
SY: After collaborating on the story and script together, Sean, you made your feature film directorial debut on the comedy. Was it always your intention to helm the movie as you worked with Desi on the screenplay? How did contributing to the story influence the way you approached directing the film?
SM: Yes, I have known for many years that I wanted to make the transition into directing a feature film, as I directed theater for a long time. I’ve also directed many different commercials, music videos and webisodes. But this is totally Desi’s screenplay. I only collaborated as a director. I saw that me being a first-time feature director was one of the reasons why it took 10 years to make the film. It was hard to convince financiers to trust me.
Fortunately, Desi and I had made a sort film (‘Last Night’) back in 2004 that starred Frances McDormand. So we had that as a showpiece, but it was very different from ‘Tumbledown,’ as it was a short drama. The short was about a woman’s last night, as she was going to euthanized by her husband that night. Since the movie had Francis in it, it was a bit more human.
I was also working with the Upright Citizens Brigade, which features improv artists. I built up enough work that I was able to prove to the gatekeepers that I was able to make the project. I also proved that I wouldn’t destroy this wonderful screenplay. I was initially worried that I wouldn’t be able to deliver on the script.
The benefit of working for so many years on the screenplay with Desi is that by the time it came for us to shoot the film, the project really was a part of me. But since the script is about Desi’s hometown in Maine, which I have only visited, I was an outsider. So I felt like I understood and knew the feelings of Jason Sudeikis’ character, and ow he would react to the town.
DVT: Also, when we went to Portland to make the film, we were in driving distance of my hometown. So, when I would say, “Sean, do you want to go up to see my parents for the weekend,” he’d always jump at the chance. That’s not always the case with new husbands and their in-laws. But I eventually realized that every time I asked him if he wanted to go back to my childhood home, he was actually location scouting in his head. We’d always have a camera when we went out for drives, because we were looking for places we would hopefully shoot in. We weren’t able to shoot in my hometown, but we knew exactly what we were looking for, and what we were trying to evoke in the locations.
SY: ‘Tumbledown’ features a diverse and captivating cast, including Rebecca Hall as Hannah and Jason Sudeikis, who you mentioned, as Andrew. What was the casting process like, particularly for the roles of Hannah and Andrew?
SM: Well, it’s always the chicken and egg situation in independent films. You’re either chasing money or actors first. Or you’re working on both at the same time, and hope one draws the other. For awhile, we thought we’d get a wonderful musician on board first, and that their voice and music would appeal to people.
The great thing about Desi’s script is that when actresses read it, they fell in love with it. It was only a matter of time before we came across an actress who decided she had the time to commit to the film, and who I could convince that I wouldn’t screw up the project. We had the actress attached to the film for a couple of years. We got her through a friend of our who’s a costumer in the film industry. She was costuming this actress for many years on TV. Our friend was able to give the actress the script, and see if she liked it. In a serendipitous moment, the actress read it and loved it.
DVT: She was actually the first talent who came on board.
SM: With her being attached and her talent, over the years we were able to draw other actors to the film. Then by the time we had Sudeikis and everyone else attached, it became concrete when and where we were going to shoot. But then the actress wasn’t able to make the shoot, so we had to scramble to find someone else.
Through a stroke of luck, just at the moment when we were looking for someone else, the soulful and funny Rebecca Hall was just finishing a run in this dark and dramatic play called ‘Machinal’ on Broadway. After she finished the play, she was hungry to do something lighter and funnier, but still had soul to it. So it was a wonderful coincidence that she was available and looking for something just like this film as we were casting the role.
The other great thing is that Jason was attached when it was time for us to find another leading lady for him. We looked at the list of the people we could go after, and Rebecca was right at the top. She was the first person we wanted to go after.
DVT: We loved Rebecca, and have such deep respect for her. It has always been our dream to work with her. So it was wonderful that this character, who had been a part of our lives for so many years, was able to come to life through Rebecca.
Also, in terms of casting Jason, the talent agency, CAA, was helping us find the right actors, even though this is a small movie. But they treated us like our movie was important to them. The talent agents at CAA told us, “Jason Sudeikis is willing to take a look at the script.”
We obviously knew he was hilarious from ‘SNL.’ We also knew him from the first ‘Horrible Bosses,’ which we saw in the theater. Even though he’s talented in broad comedy, we were both struck by how there’s still something so unbelievably appealing and intelligent about him. So we were thrilled to send him the screenplay.
Sean and Jason had a wonderful meeting in New York before we had the good fortune of casting him. It was great to hear that Jason had a similar desire to show his incredible depth in something that’s dramatic and authentic, while still showing his comic chops.
SM: We talked about how as audiences, we love to see our comedians show their human side and emotions. We also discussed how this is a great context for him to make that move. The character is really well suited for this persona he has constructed-the snarky, quick-witted and hard guy who’s a little bit abrasive.
**SPOILER ALERT** The character has this incredible evolution. By the end of the movie, Andrew softens and becomes more emotionally connected. He’s become less cynical towards this person who he has been investigating and exploring. He sees the person behind the musician, who he has been idolizing as he emotionally connects with Hannah.
That was the same transition that Jason was making as an actor. He moved from that snarky persona to opening himself up. He was able to reveal the real person inside. **END SPOILER ALERT**
SY: The romantic musical comedy had its world premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York. What was the experience like to bring the comedy to the festival?
SM: I thought Tribeca was the perfect festival to go to, since New York lays a role in the movie. That setting in the movie helps pose the question of what kind of life do you lead when you identify as a New York, city person, or a Maine, rural person, who could live a simpler life. We felt that we could connect with New York audiences, who are always so sharp and critical. The experience of standing up at the end of showing the film…
DVT: …in front of a theater of 900 people, who were laughing and crying their way through it, was really extraordinary.
SM: There was really nothing more satisfying than showing the film to this crowd, who could have easily disagreed with our intentions to make a simple human film, instead really embrace it.
Written by: Karen Benardello