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Inside Beneath The Harvest Sky

April 15, 2014
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Why a movie made in Maine turned Hollywood's head                  

'Beneath The Harvest Sky' - a long-awaited coming-of-age drama written, directed and produced by Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly - will premiere in theaters throughout Maine on Friday, April 25, one week before it opens nationally.  

Filmed and set in Van Buren, the movie tells the story of two best friends, Dominic (Callan McAuliffe of 'The Great Gatsby') and Casper (Emory Cohen of NBC's 'Smash') as they approach the end of their high school years and attempt to realize their dream of leaving northern Maine for a life in Boston.  

While Dominic spends the fall break working his final potato harvest, Casper takes a darker path smuggling prescription drugs across the Canadian border with his father, Clayton (Aidan Gillen of HBO's 'Game of Thrones').

Along the way, Dominic falls for the sweet and beautiful Emma (Sarah Sutherland (HBO's 'Veep' and the upcoming 'Innocence'), a harvest co-worker looking ahead to college.  Casper's girlfriend is the equally beautiful but devious Tasha (Zoe Levin of 'The Way, Way Back') who schemes to keep her man close at hand.

Before filming took place in the summer and fall of 2012, a script was crafted by Gaudet and Pullapilly. With both having a background in documentary filmmaking, they set out to make their film as realistic and accurate as possible. The finest of details were noted and several trips to Aroostook County were undertaken for location scouting and interviews.

harvest moon

Photo courtesy: Steven Capitano Calitri 

'We were driving all over the County looking for possible places to shoot,' Gaudet said. 'We stumbled upon Van Buren and really liked it.'  

Gaudet said that it seemed as if everywhere the duo went in Van Buren, one name kept coming up. 'Everybody said, You need to talk with the LaJoies [pronounced 'Luzh-Wah']. They had recently been named Farm Family of the Year.' 

Pullapilly said she and Gaudet saw uncanny parallels between themselves and the LaJoies. 'They're a small farm beating the odds and working around a system that is almost designed to hold a farmer back,' she said.  

The duo's 2009 documentary 'The Way We Get By' put them on the map. The film won 18 prestigious film festival awards and screened nationally twice on PBS. The unorthodox method in which they released the movie turned industry heads.  

'We self-distributed that movie,' Gaudet said. 'The big thing we did to actually make it profitable was to cut out every 'middle man' and do everything ourselves. As we talked to the LaJoies, we learned that they are also making these calculated gambles.'

Instead of growing white potatoes, the LaJoies grow blue potatoes. 'They had grown them one year without knowing what to do with them,' Gaudet said. 'They found a connection to Terra Chips and are now Terra's leading supplier. They saved their farm and built up their business with this calculated risk. Terra calls it independent farming.' We see all of these parallels between indie farming and indie film-making.'  

In a partnership so unique it was trumpeted in the Wall Street Journal, Terra Chips, provider of chips for JetBlue Airways, is dedicating 5 percent of its marketing budget to spread the word about 'Beneath The Harvest Sky.' JetBlue has been promoting the film on its flights via a special trailer crafted by the filmmakers.  

The next vital component for helping realize Gaudet and Pullapilly's vision was casting director Allison Jones. They say that her belief in their script got it places it would otherwise never have been seen.  

Jones is known for assembling realistic ensemble casts, including those of 'Arrested Development,' 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' 'The Office,' 'Freaks and Geeks,' 'Undeclared' and films 'The 40-Year Old Virgin' and 'Knocked Up.'

'Allison had access to every top talent agency,' Pullapilly told me. 'This script was her passion project, and because she took so much care with it, it elevated this film to a whole different level.'

Thanks to Jones's belief in the project, 15 SAG (Screen Actors Guild) actors were soon assembled, and Jones personally joined Gaudet and Pullapilly in Maine for three local casting calls.  

'We found gems in every casting call,' Gaudet said. 'All of the kids in the movie, outside of our leads, are kids from Van Buren high school or the surrounding area.' You see Erik Moody (Jesse) from Portland playing in scenes against Aidan Gillen (Clayton) from HBO's 'Game of Thrones.' 

Location production for 'Beneath The Harvest Sky' began in Van Buren in early July 2012 and continued through early October. The cast and crew lived together dormitory style at a retreat called the Christian Life Center. Gaudet and Pullapilly recall that creature comforts were few.  

'It was off the grid,' Gaudet said. 'Cell service was spotty. The cast all had to share bathrooms, but nobody complained about the living situation. Everyone was there for the right reasons.'

Actor Callan McAuliffe says that part of the cast's chemistry can be attributed to their unique living situation. 'We all became a family in a short time,' he told me. 'To be in that place with all of those wonderful people made it much more fun on the set every day. And it also made it much more difficult to say goodbye at the end.'

McAuliffe says that the cast also came to know Gaudet and Pullapilly quite well. 'That isn't usually the case on most movie sets,' he said. 'A lot of the films I'd done previously were larger scale productions where I was just the actor. In this movie, it was a team effort, which is what Aron and Gita strived for. For them to be so invested creatively and emotionally was a breath of fresh air.'        

For Sarah Sutherland, landing the part of Emma in 'Beneath The Harvest Sky' was a significant life moment. 'I remember jumping up and down with the excitement when I found out that I'd gotten the part,' she told me in a phone interview. 'It was such a beautiful script - I wept when I first read it.'  

'We were in Maine two weeks before shooting started and were given time and space to meet local kids,' Sutherland said. 'Aron and Gita created this environment that allowed us to immerse ourselves. Creatively and personally, I got so much out of it. Beneath The Harvest Sky' is the most fulfilling work experience I've had as an actor to date.'  

harvest moon

Photo courtesy: Shane Leonard 

Sutherland says that she really did work on a potato harvester during filming, just like her character. 'I wanted to know what it was like. What's really gratifying about working in the potato harvest is that you can see the fruits of your labor at the end of the day. Acting is so ephemeral, so intangible and subjective. It was exciting to bring things home that we would cook for dinner at the end of the day.'         

During research for the movie, the filmmakers were intrigued by stories of an unusual extra-curricular nighttime activity.       

'We asked Josh LaJoie what they did in that area for fun,' Gaudet said. 'He said, We go on 'moose safaris' driving down these logging roads looking for moose and herding them down the road.' We asked ourselves, How could we capture that on film?''  

For Sarah Sutherland, it was a scene she will always remember. 'It was freezing cold the first night,' she told me. 'I had just arrived and met Emory and Callan for all of five minutes. The next thing I know, I'm in the back of a pickup truck for six hours in search of moose (laughing). There were bugs flying in our eyes it was completely surreal.'       

According to Gaudet, the cast and crew attempted four moose safaris over four nights. 'We successfully managed to find them on two occasions,' he said. 'No moose were harmed in the making of our movie,' Pullapilly added, laughing.   

Callan McAuliffe laughed as he recalled those cold nights on the back of a pickup.  'We were careful not to overstep our mark and injure the moose. We let it run off into the distance. That moose is now a movie star!'          

Timm Sharp plays 'Badger' in 'Beneath The Harvest Sky.' In the film, Badger's loyalty to his drug-smuggling brother is put to the test. Sharp, known for roles in 'Fun With Dick and Jane,' 'Enlightened,' 'Six Feet Under' and 'Undeclared,' fondly recalls his time in Aroostook County.

'I'm originally from Fargo, North Dakota,' he told me. 'Being in Aroostook County felt like being home for me. The people were so nice and polite.'  

Sharp arrived on the set with his best friend, Salad - a sweet dog seen in the film. 'Salad became super sick during the filming,' Sharp said. 'The nearest vet who could help her was in Portland, so I drove six hours on my days off to take her there.' Thankfully, Salad made a full recovery.

Sharp's traveling companion on those anxious trips to the vet was musician and songwriter Dustin Hamann composer and performer of the soundtrack for 'Beneath The Harvest Sky.'           

Hamann's score for the movie offers hauntingly beautiful and earthy musical accompaniment to the images on the screen. The soundtrack is sparse and ethereal at times, with a mix of acoustic and electric instruments, including a three-string cigar-box guitar, dusty church pianos and beer can percussion contrasted with raw county punk blasts of distorted emotion that sound like the musical equivalent of total mental and physical anguish. The music is hard and soft, dirty and clean, like the lives of the characters on the screen and the farmers who have dedicated their lives to nurturing and harvesting the potatoes from the ground.           

During filming, Hamann lived across the street from the cast and crew in an abandoned church rectory. 'It was a huge house that hadn't been used for more than a decade,' Gaudet said. 'He stayed there by himself and would write and record music after being inspired by what he saw and heard on the set.'  

harvest moon

Hamann appears in the film as a harvest worker and performer at a rollicking gravel pit party. He will perform in-person for moviegoers at the April 25 premiere of the film at Bangor Mall Cinemas. 

'The closing song on the soundtrack is called The County,'' Gaudet said. 'It was written about his time with us.' With its refrain 'I just want to be - someone better than me,' the song is a lament for the dreams and troubles of the characters in the film.  

Some of those troubles are connected to an issue that isn't unique to Aroostook County, though it's certainly a major problem there: prescription drug abuse.  

Gaudet and Pullapilly learned how significant the problem is during early research for the script. 'We discovered that Maine is number one in the nation in terms of people being treated for prescription drug abuse. We couldn't make an honest movie about life on the border of Canada and not have that.'   

The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Aroostook County Sheriff's Dept. provided crucial information and even on-set assistance for the production of 'Beneath The Harvest Sky.' 'A lot of the stuff that happens with those characters on that side of the fence is based on information that (former MDEA commander and current chief deputy of the Sheriff's Dept.) Darrell Crandall shared with us,' Gaudet said.   

'The Aroostook County Sheriff's Department, Customs and Borders and Homeland Security were all incredibly helpful,' Pullapilly said. 'Their people are actually in the film, and they even brought in a helicopter for us.' Pullapilly estimates that 85 to 90 percent of what you see in the film is based on actual incidents.  

When editing and post-production on 'Beneath The Harvest Sky' was finished last year, Gaudet and Pullapilly knew they had something special. When the film received its world premiere last September at the Toronto Film Festival, they were 'blown away' by the reaction.  

'We had some screenings in Toronto with a lot of teenagers in the audience who really connected with the movie,' Gaudet said. 'The movie is about two 17-year old boys facing real-world problems. The audience reaction was incredible. There was such an energy and vibe there. The kids were like, This is our movie.''  

Pullapilly says they were reminded of the reaction they had as teens watching movies like 'Stand By Me,' 'Rumble Fish' or 'The Outsiders.' 'We wanted to make a film that teens could call their own like the movies we had when we were growing up,' she said.          

Peter Debruge, chief film critic for Variety, called 'Beneath The Harvest Sky'  'heartbreakingly authentic' and a 'vividly realized account of adolescent frustration and yearning.' He concluded with, 'This exceptional debut surely marks the beginning of a very fruitful journey for both of them.'          

harvest moon

Photo courtesy: Ryan Alexander Kahm 

Variety soon placed Gaudet and Pullapilly on its coveted '10 Directors to Watch' list, and the U.S. rights for the film were acquired by Tribeca Films. The U.S. festival premiere for 'Beneath The Harvest Sky' will take place at the Tribeca Film Festival, April 16 - 27 in New York City. The movie's April 18 festival premiere sold out in 29 minutes.  

Maine audiences will finally have a chance to see 'Beneath The Harvest Sky' beginning Friday, April 25at Bangor Mall Cinemas (a gala premiere which will include a Q&A with the filmmakers), Reel Pizza Cinerama in Bar Harbor, Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, Alamo Theater in Bucksport, Colonial Theater in Belfast, Frontier Cinema & Caf in Brunswick, Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland, Caribou Theaters and the Temple Theater in Houlton.     

Tribeca Films has selected the movie to be made available as of April 15 on all 'video on-demand' platforms as a launch for the national release. The film will be available through Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, Time-Warner, Comcast, Direct TV and other digital outlets.  

Aron Gaudet smiles as he thinks back to mid-2012 when production began on 'Beneath The Harvest Sky.' 'As we were making this movie, nobody in the industry cared. We weren't on anybody's radar. Now they're excited about what we're doing next and want to find a way to work with us.'  

In next week's The Maine Edge, actors Timm Sharp, Sarah Sutherland, Callan McAuliffe and Brandon Wardwell share stories from the set of 'Beneath The Harvest Sky.'

'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast), 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) and 107.7 (Bar Harbor)

      

  

Last modified on Tuesday, 22 April 2014 22:07

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