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Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet are the married helmers of Tribeca Film Festival’s Beneath the Harvest Sky, a gritty glimpse at deep friendship and small town ennui in the backdrop of small-town Maine. The film is a searingly authentic tribute to an area long overlooked by Hollywood’s all-too narrow focus on big stories in big places, and one that shows the directors’ commitment to truly capturing a subject down its smallest minutiae. We got a chance to talk to the two directors about how married life influences art, why comparisons to Superbad are always welcome, and why the kids of today are in deep need of a good, old-fashioned coming of age film.
I can’t remember the last movie I saw that took place in Maine, but the location is a vivid part of this story. Can you explain the choice of setting?
Aron Gaudet: I’m from Maine. We moved to Maine to make the movie. I grew up about four hours south of where the movie took place. And in the 26 years that I grew up and lived there, never went to that area in Maine. Because there’s just potato farms and there’s not a lot to do there. You never had reason. Four hours south and you’re in Boston so you’d always choose south.
What is it about this place that you felt deserved a story?
Aron: We were definitely wanting to make a coming of age movie like we grew up with, like Stand By Me, or The Outsiders or something, and what I knew about northern Maine and the kids in northern Maine is that they turn 18 and they just want to get the hell out of northern Maine because there’s no opportunities there for them unless they’re a farmer or from a farming family. So we just stumbled across these photos of a potato harvest in northern Maine and were like, “Oh, it’s really beautiful up there. Maybe that could be a setting for that kind of story we want to tell.” So we just went up there to see what was up there and kind of fell in love with the area and the people and then felt like, okay there’s definitely a great setting for a story.
Gita Pullapilly: And we have a documentary background, so the year and a half we wrote the script, we were researching through the entire period as well, and that really helped us because we could really get a sense of what each of these groups of people were going through and what their backstories were. The illegal prescription drug trade between Canada and Maine, we never would have thought if we just stayed in New York and started writing the story, but by spending so much time and doing the research, we were kind of surprised and taken aback at just how prevalent the illegal prescription drug trade at the time was. It started to weave into the story in a profound way for us.
Aron: Even in pre-production, our location manager who was from there, he had a location for Aidan Gillen’s character’s sort of garage that he was smuggling drugs through. He was like “oh I got this great place” Before we could use it, the actual guy that lived there got arrested for smuggling cocaine through it. So then we were like, “Okay the location is out, but the authenticity is there.”
It clearly would have been a good idea.
Gita: Great location manager.
Aron: Things like that would happen where we’re just like “Okay, this is happening up here.” It’ s very much based in reality.
Gita: And we were curious what people in northern Maine would think of the movie and we’re blown away by the response because they’re like “You guys nailed what our life is like up there.” It’s almost like the biggest compliment for us because it’s just like yeah we represented that community and there voice as well as we could.
In making a movie that deals with something as serious as illegal drug trafficking, were you hoping to call attention to it, or were you more interested in simply telling a good story?
Aron: The documentarians in us always think, if there are any social issues in a movie, it can at least open discussions about stuff like that. I think, for us, we went up there thinking, okay we’re gonna do a coming of age movie set during a potato harvest, and then there was so much of this stuff happening that I was like “Oh this is part of the story.” And also, the documentarians in us were like, “Okay, this is where the story goes.” This is what’s happening here, this is what life is like, so it just naturally became part of the story.
Gia: I don’t know if you saw our first film, A Way to Get By, it’s a documentary. In that film, obviously there are social issues, but even as a documentary filmmakers, we never like to hit you over the head with a social issue. We’ve always felt that the best stories are the ones where you discover things through the story and the audience can make their own assumptions and judgments through what they feel in the movie. that I think in any form of movie that we make will always be with us, just the subtlety. I think subtlety is so much more powerful sometimes than trying to force it down your throat.
Is there anything that you were hoping, specifically in regards to how this sort of lifestyle is affecting the youth, that people take away from this film?
Aron: What we really liked was that it was a unique setting. The story could only happen there, but for the kids, it felt like it was universal for a lot of kids growing up in rural towns anywhere across the country, and the stuff they’re dealing with. You hear about the same sort of stuff in small towns in Vermont or small towns in the Midwest. It’s interesting to me what kids go through as they’re becoming adults, and a lot of times they find themselves in very adult situations, but they’re 17 and they’re still not sure how to best handle them. I think that makes for good drama.
Gia: I love the idea of loyalty and trust, and I think it’s almost in its purest form in those teenage years where you would do anything for your best friend. I think that’s why we resonate with Stand By Me and The Outsiders. It’s that bond that you have with your buddies that you’d do anything for. And we just felt like those movies didn’t really exist right now, of the Twilight movies that exist out there.
Aron: The bond will always be broken when your friend turns into a vampire.
Gita: And we were just like, isn’t it a shame that teens our age, the films that we resonated with, don’t have a film in this time period that can resonate with them as well. That to us was almost like a fond memory of what we had, and we kind of wondered, “Does that exist here, and can it exist in the present?”
Saying that, and I mean this in an entirely complimentary way…
Aron: [Laughs] The way you set up that question…
Gita: Yeah, like, is this going to sound that bad?
I’m going to compare it to a movie, and I just wanted to let you know that I love this other movie. The one movie I thought about after watching Beneath the Harvest Sky was Superbad.
Gita: Oh, yeah! We love Superbad.
Aron: Same casting director. Allison Jones cast Superbad and also cast our movie. Because of their friendship, and the love between two guys.
Both movies feature a romance on the margins, that takes a backseat to the central friendship. And the boys don’t know what’s going to happen after high school. They want to stay together but they’re drawn to different things.
Aron: In many ways, both of them end up really being a love story between friends.
Gita: There’s something about Judd Apatow’s style where he can get comedy across, but the difference between his comedies and other comedies is that they actually have a lot of heart to it, and that’s what we love. More than anything, Beneath the Harvest Sky is about the heart and genuine love of two people together. It doesn’t have to be sexual, it can be a different way… This might be your most crazy interview.
A lot of the romantic relationships in this movie go sour, and that occurred to me as was funny when I found out the two of you are married.
Aron: It makes us feel better about our relationship. We tear down everyone else. Look at all these jerks. We’re still together.
Gita: I think it’s so funny, and maybe because we are married, we know the difficulties of what it takes to be married, and how you have to work tremendously at it. Especially with us, we’re around each other 24/7 and we love being around each other 24/7 but marriage is incredibly hard and I think most people, it’s like you put on a façade of what these relationships can be like to the outside world, but in the real world, when you open the door and you walk inside the house, this is what real complex issues are like, these marriages. I think it can really be seen through these teenage perspectives. Aidan Gillen, what was the relationship with father and son? You know there’s this repairing of a relationship happening, but we kind of hint that there was something else more, and you see what Emory’s mom is like, and we have one scene and that’s all you need to know about what this woman would be like.
Aron: I think a lot of times too, people up there are just trying to survive, and their relationships get sacrificed for survival, and it makes Dominic and Casper’s relationship that much stronger where for them, they put their relationship before everything else. A lot of other characters will sacrifice a relationship trying to survive or trying to get ahead.
Gita: When we started researching and we got up there, the first thing we literally, verbally said when we drove up to Aroostook County was, “How do people actually survive in towns like this?”
Aron: So much industry, like mills, close. There were 200 farm families all farming the land up there and now it’s all consolidated and there’s six farm families. At the high school, there used to be 200 kids that graduated each year, and now there’s like 12. So the population has just nosedived as people just left. So it’s like, yeah how are people surviving? You have to drive an hour to work at Wal-Mart or you’re working on a farm, or you’re not working and you’re dealing drugs. You’re figuring out a way to survive.
Gita, are you from a small town as well?
Gita: I’m from South Bend, Indiana. Home of Notre Dame. But South Bend outside of Notre Dame is actually a small town. There are just these small communities. And like, Breaking Away was another movie that we watched.
Aron: That was definitely a reference film for us, and set in Indiana.
Going back to people commenting on the authenticity of the film, did you have any specific guidelines or formulas for representing the town?
Aron: We definitely scoured northern Maine for places that we felt like felt like northern Maine. Even talking with our cinematographer, when we were location scouting, I said something to the effect of “If we don’t need hand sanitizer when we come out of one of these locations, it’s not real enough.” So a lot of these places we’d come out of, you’re in these dusty potato houses, or you’re out in a field. We wanted that earthy, dirty feel, but from a distance you look at it and it’s beautiful because it’s just rolling hills but you get in there and it’s dirty.
Gita: I think that represents the larger look of the film. From the outside, everything is breathtakingly beautiful, but once you get a better look inside, you realize it’s dusty and dirty, and there’s a lot of breaks and cracks in it.
And then you go to Boston, which is so interesting because usually in films like this, kids are trying to escape to New York or LA. It’s cool that Boston is treated like nirvana. I’ve never seen Boston treated that way before.
Aron: That probably comes from my growing up in Maine because I definitely viewed Boston as, “Oh, if I could get to Boston.” I think in northern Maine, they almost don’t see that far. It’s like if we can even get to southern Maine, or if we can get to Boston, it’s like a whole nother world to them. Boston is an eight hour drive from northern Maine, so even that just seems like a world away, and growing up, it was always like, Boston is my town.
Gita: And if you asked anyone from Indiana, it would be Chicago so we definitely felt that. I remember even when we were dating, because we actually worked in television news before we actually started doing film, and we were living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we were trying to figure out where we wanted to make our next move and live, and Aron was like, “Boston has always been my dream,” so we moved to Boston.
Beyond bringing the genre to the present, was there anything about the teen genre or the coming of age story that you thought had been lacking, even in the films you love, something you wanted to get in touch with in Beneath the Harvest Sky?
Aron: Well even some of the better coming of age movies that have been coming out recently, it seemed like it was always a throwback to a John Hughes movie, which we loved growing up too, but that’s different than Stand By Me or The Outsiders or Breaking Away or At Close Range. Some of those ones that are a little darker. So for us, that was something that we felt like was lacking. Can we go a little darker with it? Through the research, this is darker. What they do up there and everything, it’s not a John Hughes movie, it’s different than that, so that was something that appealed to us. The darker teen movie.
Do you think these movies are relatable to all kids, even if they didn’t have these elements of crime influencing their lives growing up?
Aron: I do, but any small town kid, they’re going to a party in a gravel pit or doing that sort of stuff there. That sort of harvest farming with friends. I’m sure in towns all across the Midwest, on their breaks from school, they’re doing some sort of farm labor so some can relate to that.
Gita: Even in present day, something like the vodka tampon scene for example. That we discovered in Maine and then we read it in the script and were like “This is really crazy,” and we talked to law enforcement to find out if it actually happened. Then we found out in the Midwest that there’s people doing the same thing. Word of mouth spreads with teens very quickly apparently.
What did you see in your two leads, Emory Cohen and Callan McAuliffe?
Gita: They’re brilliant actors and they have very different talents of how they get their performances out there.
Aron: Their processes couldn’t be further apart from each other, which was interesting to see them work off of each other. Emory was Casper 24/7. We never met Emory until we wrapped production. He was always Casper. Callan was very much “I’ll give you what’s in your script.” They were at opposite ends of the spectrum, but together they were so great. If you talked to them together, they were like a comedy duo. We just loved them hanging out together. They would genuinely make each other laugh and stuff on set and really did form this friendship that played well in the movie.
Gita: They’re both very talented and people consider this to be their breakout roles in a lot of ways so we’re really excited to see what they do next and we also hope that they just continue working with us.
Beneath the Harvest Sky is available on VOD, Amazon and iTunes.