I knew it was a love story that would have a ghost at the center of it, with Hannah and Andrew's vectors of love and longing pointed towards the same man. Over time, their vectors point towards each other.
In directing-writing duo Sean Mewshaw and Desiree Van Til’s debut feature, Tumbledown, Rebecca Hall plays Hannah who’s struggling to get past the untimely death of her acclaimed folk singer husband, the subject of a biography she’s struggling to write. Set against the backdrop of small-town life in Maine—she struggles with this, too—Hannah is roused into action upon a chance encounter with Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), a brash academic intent on penning his own biography about her late husband. As they dig deeper into the life of Hunter Miles, whose cut-short legacy left behind one album, the unlikely pair arrive at their own revelations about what it really means to love and to live on. Dianna Agron, Blythe Danner and Joe Manganiello also star.
Tumbledown is now playing in select theaters. It’s also available to purchase on iTunes.
How did this story come to you and what did it look like in those early stages of writing?
Desiree Van Til: I had a development job at the time, so sometimes I’d write scenes and six months would go by where I didn’t have time to do anything else. Some of those earliest scenes were from 2005 and we worked on it doggedly for years and years, over the course of trying to put the film together, having actors come on board and drop out, and dealing with the agencies of production. The script obviously evolved. I remember writing the first collection of scenes after being really inspired by Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Those Richard Linklater films—and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy films—were really inspirational. I was interested in the simplicity and the beauty of two characters trying to connect. It’s about coming from two different places, both literally and metaphorically. It’s about reaching common ground, falling in love on the page and on the screen, and talking their way into each other’s hearts. I started writing Hannah and Andrew even before Sean and I knew what the whole story was. I knew it was a love story that would have a ghost at the center of it, with Hannah and Andrew’s vectors of love and longing pointed towards the same man. Over time, their vectors point towards each other.
Sean Mewshaw: At a certain point, a few years down the line when Desi had a draft that we thought was good, we had made a short film together that went over really well. We hadn’t killed one another and we were still in love. We got Frances McDormand to act in that. We gathered a crew of professionals I’d been working in production with who did us favors and shot that in five days. It was like, “Man. If we’d only spent a couple more days, we could’ve made a feature film for all the effort we put into this.” After that, we knew we should just go make this feature. So when Desi had the screenplay, I said, “Let’s move to Maine. Let’s go to your hometown.”
Desi: “Quit your job.” We sold all of our stuff.
Sean: We wanted to make it small, for $150 grand or something like that. We were going to cast friends from L.A. and New York, and bring the show to town. Desi’s community is so supportive and loves that she wrote a story about it. We thought we’d go shoot it there and everyone would open their homes to us. Then as we set out and moved to do it, it very fortuitously got into the hands of someone who said we could get an amazing actress for this wonderful, central role. They said, “Before you go crazy and make it for no money, give it some time.” That turned into years and years of people going, “I know. It hasn’t happened, yet.” But it kept getting attention and got read by these actresses.
Desi: That’s how the snowballing began.
Sean: The first actress we personally gave it to was Sarah Polley.
Sean: We first tried to give it to her years and years ago.
Desi: And we got the best “pass” letter that anyone’s ever gotten.
Sean: She wrote us a personal email: “I love this. This is incredibly special. You guys keep going!”
Desi: And Mike Nichols read it. Mike said really wonderful things about the screenplay and handed it off to a couple people.
Wow. This really got passed around town.
Sean: That’s the hard thing because the script was always beloved with this great central role, but then you have me as a first-time feature director attached to it. That’s a scary thing for actors.
Desi: And financiers at that point.
Sean: [Laughs] Especially financiers.
Desi: It’s hard to get people to read a screenplay that doesn’t have any money attached to it, and when it’s by a first-time filmmaker. If you look at the actors that we were going after, they have stacks of actual ticking clock offers for studio films. I remember thinking, “This actress is on her way to Cannes right now, so maybe she’ll have time to read it on the plane!” Nope. Six months later, you still haven’t gotten a response back and it’s like, “We should probably just move on.”
Is it true Rose Byrne was once attached to play Hannah?
Desi: She was attached for three years.
If you’re not crazy, making movies will surely drive you insane.
Desi: [Laughs] She was the first talent that got involved. We got the script to her through a mutual friend. Before we had anything else, Rose read it and got attached. With Rose, we got Jason [Sudeikis], the rest of the cast, and financing. But due to scheduling she had to pull out.
Sean: She was having a really busy year. That was a painful breakup, but she had back-to-back films. It was tough. Here’s the thing, though: everything came together anyway. The money was there. All these great actors were there. And this miracle happened—
Desi: The heavens opened up with Rebecca Hall. We had loved her since Starter for 10. We had loved her for so long.
Sean: She’s so this character. She’s such a brilliant, well-spoken and intelligent human being with this incredibly cultured background.
Desi: Robust and sardonic.
Sean: You could really imagine Rebecca living on the edge of the wilderness, surviving and chopping that wood. She’s that strong. I’m in complete awe of her. She lit this great fire.
What do you remember from meeting Rebecca for the first time?
Desi: Rebecca was just starting rehearsals on Machinal, a play she did on Broadway. It was this really, really intense play where she gets executed at the end of it. So she’s biking down towards us in the middle of traffic, coming from one of these rehearsals, sits right in front of Sean’s face and leans forward like this. And Sean goes, “That is so Hannah!” [Laughs]
Sean: She’s fearless. She was like, “The script is interesting. Who the fuck are you?” I mean, she didn’t say that exactly, but it was like she was saying, “If you want me to participate, let’s really mind meld.” There was no withdrawn, ego shell whatsoever. She was reaching out to say, “Is there a real person there?” which is really what the film is about, too. I think Hannah has an assumption about Andrew at first, but they come to discover the real core and soul they have in each other. It was so great to cast Rebecca and Jason because they have beautiful souls themselves. Jason was a revelation, just getting to know him personally. He’s so sincere and sweet and intelligent.
Desi: Are you meeting up with Jason?
Sean: Just sit on his lap.
Desi: [Laughs] Tell him Sean told you to do it.
I loved that Hannah and Andrew are their equals. They are both equally brash, quick, smart, and carrying emotional baggage. Their dynamic was believable to me, and relatable.
Desi: That’s the best compliment. That was always our aim.
Sean: We love the romantic comedies of the 40s. I love that era because you have two leads coming together that are both brilliant to make a spark. They had wit that they were jousting with and that’s what made the armor crack. They had a heart of gold inside and melted into each other’s arms. There’s a little echo of that in Hannah and Andrew, but I don’t think this movie feels like one of those classic romantic comedies. In fact, we didn’t want to push the schmaltz factor or be maudlin. We were very, very careful to keep it real. I hope we succeeded.
Desi: In this business, people always ask you for the pitch or what this “thing” is. We didn’t want to use the word “dramedy” because everyone rolls their eyes at that. For years, we described it as “a comedic love story with a serious soul.” It has this tragedy in the background, but there were other things that I was always interested in writing about. When a person who’s inherently optimistic, warmhearted and vivacious starts grieving, that doesn’t necessarily mean that person completely changes who they are. It doesn’t change their personality.
Sean: Hannah was never intended to be a broken person. She breaks down, but it’s to show that it’s there. You can be inspiring and strong even if you’re going about something the wrong way. She tries to solve her emotional problems with her intellect: “I’m going to seal him inside a book”
Desi: “But I’m not actually sealing him because I never intend on finishing the book. I’m going to perpetually work on this book so I can always keep him very present and have a very legitimate rationale for constantly wanting to think about him.”
That’s excruciatingly sad, but believable. We don’t find this out in the film, but do you think Hannah will ultimately finish the biography? Is it still important? Can she have it all?
Desi: That’s a really interesting question.
Sean: My favorite films tend to end in a way where you feel like there are great chapters that go on that we don’t get to witness. There’s something important about not wanting to objectify Andrew, too. I don’t want to put my finger on it too much.
I guess she doesn’t need that book anymore.
Desi: That’s exactly right.
When did Damien Jurado get involved with providing the soundtrack? The music adds so much texture to the film, especially with Hunter’s “lost” song. The lyrics play a pivotal role.
Sean: That song was written into the screenplay. Desi wrote the lyrics and Damien created a beautiful song around it. That’s actually the song that we worked the most on, trying to set the right mood to create that spark in the scene. But Damien came into it fairly late in the process because we were already in pre-production. We had always imagined having the music first so we could sit down with the cast and get into the mindset of Hunter. On set, we ended up playing Jeff Buckley or music evocative of the kind of longing we wanted like, “If they had survived, what would they have created?” The cool thing was that Damien got to watch the rough cuts as we were making the film. He fell in love with Hannah as Rebecca was shaping her. He was able to step into the world that Hunter once lived in. It was a much more grounded way of approaching the music.
If you go to your production company website for Rusticator Pictures, the background image is somehow the perfect summation of the aesthetic and tone you created with Tumbledown.
Sean: That’s where we would’ve shot the film had we made it for very little money!
Desi: From that room, if you just step out from the screen door and look to the right, you’ll see Webb Lake, which is the opening shot in the film that we got on our own eight years ago.
Sean: It took so many years to make the film that we’d eventually come up to the season the film is actually set in. On a couple occasions, we were able to get film equipment together and shoot these beautiful exteriors. There’s incredible fall and beautiful winter stuff in there that we shot over the years leading up to making the film. We didn’t want another season to just pass us by. That gave us the time to actually go out to these places and shoot establishing shots that ground the film.
Desi: You can see Tumbledown mountain from that room. Tumbledown is a mountain that we’ve hiked a gazillion times. And there’s a lake at the top of it.
Sean: It’s one of the best hikes, man.
Desi: It gets so hot up there in the summer. There’s a little caldera where you can take off all of your whatever and jump right in. You leave your stuff to dry on the rocks and then hike back down.
So is the plan moving forward to have Sean continue directing with Desi writing?
Sean: We’re excited to keep working together, and separately.
Desi: It’s hard. We yanked our daughter out of school to come with us to shoot in Massachusetts. She was in preschool then and she’s in kindergarten now. The older she gets, the more I feel like we need to take turns doing this. It was definitely a tricky thing to negotiate, having both of us be so unavailable when we were shooting the film. Maybe it will mean that I’ll live a more hermetic life with the writing and send Sean off to direct. We’ll have to wait and see.
Sean: It’s not like we’ll ever stop collaborating, even if Desi’s not officially the director. It’s always going to be something we do together. We’re lucky in that way because we have immense respect for each other and each other’s work. We also love each other a little bit.