Interview: Tumbledown Writer Desiree Van Til & Director Sean Mewshaw
Despite plenty of production experience on movies, the new movie Tumbledown was a first for both writer and director. Fortunately, the real-life couple made up a great creative team and saw the movie through nearly a decade of writing, development, and production. After premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival (where we sat down to discuss the film), Tumbledown is in theaters and on-demand.
The romantic-dramedy stars Rebecca Hall as Hannah, the widow of a singer-songwriter Hunter Miles (a character only heard in music). His death fascinates a New York City writer, who comes to Hannah to write and research a book about Hunter but focuses a bit too much on the circumstances of his untimely death.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): I know that you have two kids and were filming on location, so did you bring them along with you to set?
Desireee Van Til: Definitely. Our oldest grew up around this movie, hearing us talk about it all the time.
Sean Mewshaw: Jason and Rebecca are her personal friends now.
Van Til: One of the nicest moments on set I can remember was when Rebecca was at the piano, because she really can play. And our daughter just went to sit with her on the bench, watching her play. Rebecca is great with kids so they got along immediately.
TMS: So Rebecca is actually playing in that scene?
Mewshaw: Yeah. In fact the idea for the scene was organic, because we knew Rebecca could play and happened to have a piano in the house, which was supposed to be Hunter’s piano. And we knew there would be that surprised reaction from Jason when she just sits down at the piano of someone he idolizes and plays that beautifully.
Van Til: Rebecca is an amazing musician, along with being a fantastic actress. She can play jazz and classical piano, guitar, she sings beautifully.
TMS: Good fortune then, considering she joined the cast relatively late in pre-production?
Mewshaw: Yes. Rose Byrne had been attached, for many years. She helped us get financing by being the first person to sign on. But when the rest of the film finally came together, we had the money in place, and a production date, Rose had committed to two other films and just couldn’t do another at that time. So it felt like everything fell apart for us. But then we had this great stroke of luck because Rebecca was finishing a Broadway run playing this really deep, dark character that gets electrocuted at the end. So she was eager to do something she thought would be fun and show another side of herself.
Van Til: But we thank Rose in the credits because she provided all these building blocks just to get the film made and stood by us for years.
Mewshaw: And it would have been great with her in the role too. Its kind of like Broadway in that sense. She would have been great, but different, in the role.
TMS: Did you adjust the role or change the script at all for Rebecca?
Van Til: Nothing major. When they came to New York to read through the script, it was the first time Jason and Rebecca had met. Which is amazing because we found their chemistry on set to be so great and they enjoyed each other’s company. But when we got on set, I think she said “this speech has four metaphors, let’s pick one.”
Mewshaw: She has such flawless instincts as a stage actress, and when you work on new plays the actors and writer work very closely to ultimately find the play. So she had great ideas. And I think that during the production, we were able to collectively mold the character to fit her really well.
Van Til: It came to the point that I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the role. It’s amazing that we’ve loved her since Starter for Ten and been big fans of hers, but our respect for her just grew and grew, watching what she’s able to do on set. And, she’s just the most warm, wonderful, funny woman. Which is why she ultimately fit the role of Hannah, because Hannah is a vivacious, open-hearted woman who is suffering under layers of grief. But you want to believe that core is authentic and real.
TMS: What was the original spark of an idea for the film?
Van Til: I had been working in development in Los Angeles, and inspired by the films of Richard Linklater, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. So I wanted to try to write a movie about two people who managed to talk their way into each other’s hearts. I wanted two characters who had two very different frames of reference to debate and disagree, but ultimately come together. And I was also very homesick for Maine, living in LA at the time. And I kept thinking of the city-country question. And then the love triangle, about two people in love with the same ghost came about, and I was interested in exploring the nature of grief. But what is grief like when you are an inherently optimistic person. And it happened that we were falling in love at the time, but I had experienced a loss in my own life a couple years earlier, so I was playing out some of Hannah’s anxiety.
TMS: When you were starting the story structure, the romantic plot comes relatively late. Did you consider moving that up or even removing the romantic elements entirely?
Mewshaw: We wanted to make a movie that ends the way we like movies to end. So it needed to end with the sense that there were chapters that continued after the movie came to an end. A sense that there is a whole life beyond this little part being told. And they don’t have to fall head over heels in love, or suggest there is no one else they could love. They have to get to a point where they’re ready to risk love again. It is a film about courage.
Van Til: They have kinship, which draws them together.
Mewshaw: But there is no version in the film which didn’t have a love story. We both have that kind of faith in love.
Van Til: And maybe they won’t end up together forever? Maybe they are together long enough?
TMS: What made you decide Hunter should have been a musician, rather than another kind of artist, like a writer or painter?
Van Til: It’s funny, because in the first draft, he was a poet.
Mewshaw: But I felt it should be a musician because music in film plays such an important part. So to take advantage of that, it was intriguing to create a character sonically, and still feel fleshed out. And then we realized it was a great way for someone to feel haunted, because music has that ability to haunt our emotions.
Van Til: And listening to music while writing the screenplay, you realize that musicians are poets, but because the audience can hear it too, you don’t need characters trying to explain why something is beautiful, or why something is so powerful.
TMS: Having some experience writing biography, it was a little uncomfortable to hear Jason angling for specific answers that he wanted to hear from the family. Did you look at any biographies or talk to any biographers to figure out how they differ from other types of journalists?
Mewshaw: We both have academic parents, and Jason’s character is a professor as well. And we come from academic backgrounds as well. So that kind of abstract, academic writing about a person made total sense to us.
Van Til: And I don’t think he initially wanted to write the definitive biography on Hunter Miles. He would have been writing essays about his music and turning them into an academic book. Writing a biography, he was a little out of his comfort zone and made some big mistakes. She was offering the keys to the kingdom and giving all access, so he just jumped at the opportunity. But I don’t think he knew what he was doing.
TMS: I loved the section when Rebecca interviews the older woman and Rebecca asks off the record why you would want to be reincarnated as her grandchild’s cat. It felt perfect for this sweet, grandmotherly type of woman to talk that way.
Van Til: That was completely out of my brain, I don’t know what made me come up with that. I had an across the street neighbor named Esther and dog named Zamboni. And when one would die, she would name the next dog the same thing. And she had this really thick Maine accent. So I just pictured her when I wrote that character. But the line about coming back as a cat…I thought, if I could wish for that, wouldn’t it be great to be with your grandchildren as their pet cat.
TMS: Maine was an important aspect of the story, because Hunter loved living there so much. How did you adjust to having to film in Massachusetts?
Mewshaw: It’s all about using the confines of the frame to your advantage. Finding the right environments that still suggested Maine and the write extras. We got to work with a production designer who committed herself to getting that essence of Maine so right, she flew herself to Maine to travel with us to Desiree’s hometown. And a lot of people who got involved were interested because they have an affection for Maine as well. A lot of people have gone to summer camp in Maine. So people understood what we were going for. And shooting close by allowed us to find a number of extras originally from Maine.
Van Til: And we shot some footage of where we live in Maine, before we were even making the movie. The opening sequence we shot on film eight years ago.
TMS: Can I ask who it is swimming in the lake?
Van Til: We just asked a friend of ours to do it. Actually two friends did it. It was a really cold day, and we were out on a boat, and filmed our friends swimming. So we had a chance to get a little Maine in the movie.
TMS: Big fan of Griffin Dunne, but he is an actor I so closely associate with New York. So seeing him in the movie, as the owner of a Maine bookstore and being an enthusiastic townie, was a pleasant surprising. What made you think of him for that part?
Mewshaw: We share your affection for him as an actor. And we have the feelings for Griffin that we thought Hannah should have for his character.
Van Til: He’s just like this wise owl. He’s the person that is soft spoken, but you’ll always lean in close so you don’t miss anything he says. He’s one of the characters I wanted to have in the film because he is the type of guy who could live anywhere and be successful. He could probably make it in any big city, but he chooses to live in this small town. He gives Hannah the key, gentle advice to hire Andrew, and I assumed when he gives Hannah advice, he’s always right.
Mewshaw: He is the bridge that allows Hannah to accept this city guy. So it makes sense that he would have that Griffin Dunne, urban quality.
TMS: Did you base the family on your own family?
Van Til: A little bit. There is a little bit of my mother in Blythe Danner’s character, but everything else came from other friends and family. We don’t have a Wall of Shame like they do in the movie. But the family scenes were incredibly fun to write and I kind of let loose writing those scenes. That scene changed the least over the years.
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