One of the most impressive independent American films of recent years is Beneath the Harvest Sky, the debut fiction feature of husband/wife team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly. This touching naturalistic drama tells the story of the friendship between two high-school students, Casper (Emory Cohen) and Dominic (Callan McAuliffe), who work the potato harvest and smuggle drugs, respectively, while dreaming of a better life beyond the world of Van Buren, Maine, the dead-end small town where they live. The film is equally impressive as an authentic, documentary-like slice of Americana and as a showcase for the powerhouse performances of a cast of terrific up-and-coming actors. While watching the electrifying Cohen, in particular, I felt I understood what it must have been like to first see Marlon Brando on screen in the early 1950s. Beneath the Harvest Sky debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and is currently playing in limited release around the country, courtesy of distributor Tribeca Films. You can also see it on demand and via various digital platforms — check out the official website for more info: http://beneaththeharvestsky.com/
After having the good fortune to catch Beneath the Harvest Sky on the big screen at Facets in Chicago, I conducted the following interview with Gaudet and Pullapilly via e-mail.
MGS: Gita and Aron, I know you have a background in documentary film production. How did that experience prepare you for making your first fiction feature?
Gita Pullapilly: Aron and I met working in local television news. We joke that our immense dislike for local news brought us together. But in hindsight, working in television news and then working for five years on our first feature documentary, The Way We Get By, really played a major role in developing us as storytellers and filmmakers. I think coming from the documentary world, we knew what those real and authentic moments looked and felt like, so on set, we would say, does this feel real, would this happen like this? And if we felt there was a false note, we’d work and work at it until we both felt it was right.
Aron Gaudet: Even in our process of writing the script for Beneath The Harvest Sky, we used a documentary approach. We basically moved from New York City to Maine and spent a year and a half interviewing as many people as we could from farmers, high school students, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (MDEA), US Customs & Borders. We even went to the jail and talked with inmates that were charged with prescription drug related crimes. We wanted our characters to represent a collage of people surviving in this small town, without judging them.
MGS: One thing that I loved about the film was how well you captured the regional flavor of that small town. It’s so rare to see small-town American life accurately portrayed in a movie. How did you decide on depicting this particular milieu and how familiar were you with these kinds of characters before you began writing the script?
Aron Gaudet: I am originally from Maine but had only travelled up to Aroostook County (where the film takes place) once in my 26 years living there. In 2010, when we were living in New York City, my brother shared some photos on Facebook by a photographer who captured a northern Maine potato harvest. I thought it was such an amazing place that I wanted to discover more about this area. I thought we could set a coming of age story in this location and use it as a backdrop. When we got up there, we were taken by the beauty of the landscape but also kept asking ourselves the same question, “How do people survive up here?”… We spent a long time trying to really understand from their perspective what it was like to live up there.
Gita Pullapilly: The farmers in “The County” are the real super heroes up there. To see how they manage to sustain the farm and agricultural commodities in that area is impressive. It’s honest hard work and even then it’s not enough to survive. We liked playing around with the idea of harvest and how in different aspects of life, people are harvesting different things—from potatoes to illegal prescription drugs.
MGS: The idea of free will versus destiny runs through the film. This is made explicit when the high-school teacher talks about the “Jim twins” at the beginning, which suggests that maybe humans exercise less free will than we think we do. What did you mean this to suggest in relation to the characters of Casper and Dom and their situation?
Aron Gaudet: It is one layer in the story that we ask the audience to explore and decide for themselves how much of their life and their plan is free will and how much of it might be destiny. Or is it a little of both? This is something that Gita and I talk about quite a bit as we make life decisions or when things impact us in a way that we never predicted. In relation to Casper and Dominic, their choices and decisions have an impact on one another. They hang out in an abandoned house, which is the foundation for their hopes and dreams. Their ticket out—the money they are saving—is sort of buried and growing in that house. But it will be their choices of how they treat that house or how much care they put in following their dreams, which will ultimately affect their fate. There is an equally important question in there about how your environment shapes who you are and your future. We explore that even visually through the harvesting scenes… Are you a rock?—that gets plucked from the field and put into a pile that never leaves town… Or are you a potato?—Something of value that gets shipped out of town.
Gita Pullapilly: Yeah, is it Casper’s family circumstances that determine his fate? Can he escape the socio-economic circumstances that he is in? One of my favorite scenes in the movie is Casper talking to Dominic in the abandoned warehouse about his school that’s K-12. So for his entire childhood, he’s in that school, being judged. And he says, “You know, by third grade they’ve fuckin’ decided, who’s staying, who’s going. They’re either going to care about you, or they’re not going to give a fuck about you.” And that to me is also something that I felt was important to address in the story. In life, you are judged as to whether you will succeed or not and in cases like Casper, even if he tried to turn his life around at school, he would still be labeled as a trouble maker and not given a chance. We know this because we talked to a number of students like Casper, not just in Van Buren, but in a number of high schools, and its all the same.
MGS: It’s unusual for a married couple to co-direct a movie. It seems like all the instances of co-directing that I’m aware of involve either siblings or friends (and usually they’re of the same sex). How exactly did the directing chores break down between you? Was one of you more responsible for the technical side of production and the other more responsible for working with the actors?
Aron Gaudet: We tend to share skillsets and tasks. We’ve been together for 10 years now so we know what we each can do best. We are both involved in all aspects of directing. For us, we realized early on in production that we are certainly actor-focused directors. Performance is everything to us. I think that comes from that documentary background where we want people watching our films to be brought into this world and in this case, feel like they are watching a documentary about these teens’ lives. We really do strive to make sure that as filmmakers we remain authentic to the story.
Gita Pullapilly: On set, we would have two monitors and Aron and I would look for different aspects of the performance. And when an actor completed a scene, we’d ask that they take a pause while Aron and I spoke and discussed the scene. We’d go back to the actor/actors with one unified note. I think that was helpful for us in building their trust and confidence in us and equally important to the scene. They would have two people saying, “We got it.” There is a tremendous benefit to knowing that two people were looking at the monitors for anything and everything in that performance. We didn’t have any re-shoots. And I think so much of that was knowing that on the ground in production, even with all the improvisation, that we captured the key elements in the performances for each of the scenes.
MGS: The film is mainly about a male friendship but the two female leads were also very strong. Is it correct to assume that Gita was responsible for fleshing out the female characters? I’m thinking specifically of details such as the vodka-soaked tampons. As a married man who is generally not naive, I had no clue this was something that was even done.
Aron Gaudet: I first found out about vodka tampons when I read about it in the local newspaper up there and starting asking the police officers if that was actually a serious issue. What we discovered was pretty shocking. Girls and boys were both doing this and thinking they wouldn’t get caught drinking. They believed that could pass a Breathalyzer test. But what they didn’t get is that just because you can’t smell alcohol on your breath doesn’t mean it isn’t in your bloodstream.
Gita Pullapilly: As for female/male character development, it definitely wasn’t one or the other, me or Aron thing, because we work so closely together fleshing out our characters from what we learn in real life. I think the details of scenes like the vodka tampon scene come more from us asking the right questions when we’re doing our research and trying to understand not just how things are done but also the motivations and the reasoning behind certain actions. It is pretty funny though. When people meet us after seeing our movie, I think they are surprised that Aron and I made this film since we don’t live in that world or have any connections to the place, except that Aron is from Maine. But I take it as a big compliment to us that we did our research and homework well enough to capture that place.
MGS: The cinematography is very striking. There were a lot of shots where the camera was at a distance from the actors and there would be something in the foreground that was out-of-focus. Were you trying to create a feeling of voyeurism with the visual style?
Aron Gaudet: Exactly, we did want that voyeuristic sense like you were thrown into this world, eavesdropping on these conversations, and we talked a lot about creating sort of these dirty compositions that the audience would be looking through. I think it’s funny when people say we come from a documentary background, and so that’s why the film looks like that. Because in our documentary, The Way We Get By, we shot almost entirely on tripods, whereas this is shot exclusively handheld.
Gita Pullapilly: I do think the choice of handheld is perfect for this story because we also wanted audiences to feel the suffocation that our teens were feeling, so that’s seen with some of those tight shots in the film or when we hold on a shot maybe a second longer, it’s all about bringing the audience into that closed, trapped world that so many people feel they are in. It’s not just teens that feel trapped in their lives, but think a lot of adults feel the same way and the question is, what will it take to break those chains and free you to live the life you truly want for yourself.
MGS: What can you tell me about your next project?
Aron Gaudet: We have a few projects that we’re exploring. We’re talking to some producers about a few scripts. But we really see ourselves as content creators—so we prefer to write and direct our own movies. If there is a script that really captures something that we feel is real and authentic though, we’re always open to considering it.
Gita Pullapilly: Yeah, for us, it’s about finding the right story and also looking at a way to really push the boundaries for our actors. One of the stories we’re researching now, has a great strong lead role that we’re really excited about. It also means finding the right actor that we can work with, that can commit to an intense and dynamic part like this. Going back to one of your original questions, who knows what that next project will end up being, and if it will be our free will or our destiny that will allow it to come to fruition. When something feels right, we usually sense it and we try to listen to those intuitions to guide us. But one thing we know for sure is it will be another exciting journey.
You can check out the trailer for Beneath the Harvest Sky via YouTube below: