Desi Van Til and Sean Mewshaw approach the counter at Portland’s Tandem Coffee + Bakery dressed in plaids and wools, looking like a couple of Mainers straight out of central casting. The West End hangout is a magnet for tousled-looking cultural creatives, and the husband-and-wife filmmakers fit right in.
This month, the pair’s first filmmaking collaboration, Tumbledown, premieres on video-on-demand and on upwards of 50 screens nationwide. Tumbledown is Van Til’s first feature as a screenwriter and Mewshaw’s full-length directorial debut. It’s a romantic comedy of sorts, starring Jason Sudeikis (Saturday Night Live, Horrible Bosses) and Rebecca Hall (The Town, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and its setting — and, arguably, its third and unbilled main character — is the cozy Maine mountain town of Farmington, where Van Til grew up. The 37-year-old left Maine years ago to pursue her filmmaking career and moved back with Mewshaw, 40, in 2007.
Our dream wasn’t to move to Maine and make a film in Massachusetts.
“I was living in LA, working in a development job, and I just started writing these scenes about my hometown,” Van Til explains over coffee, “among these characters that showed up wholesale in my life. Through their conversations, I realized that I was missing Maine. I was homesick.”
Well received at its Tribeca Film Festival premiere last year, Tumbledown concerns a young woman in Farmington struggling to move on following the death of her husband, an acclaimed folksinger. Into town comes a charming, if somewhat arrogant New York journalist, reporting on the folksinger’s death and forcing his widow to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about its circumstances. The pastoral backdrop of western Maine serves to emphasize the characters’ isolation — they seem small and fragile alongside its green mountains, and the lonely, winding back roads echo the unexpected turns their lives have taken. Early audiences, says Mewshaw, picked up on “that feeling that Maine elicits.” Which is a feat, considering the movie was actually filmed in Concord, Massachusetts.
“Our dream wasn’t to quit our jobs, move to Maine, and make a film in Massachusetts,” says Mewshaw. “People say, ‘So why didn’t you film it here?’ And I say, ‘Well, we tried, and we failed, because we don’t have the tax incentives.’ ”
Like 35 other states, Maine does have a tax incentive program to encourage the film industry to base productions here. With such productions, proponents argue, come not only a PR and tourism boost (think what No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood did for west Texas in 2007), but also jobs for crew members and cash for hotels, caterers, and other local merchants. Right now, any film with a total budget of $75,000 or higher receives a tax rebate of 10-12 percent of its wage-based budget. An additional 5 percent of a film’s budget is recouped for money spent within state borders. Compared with some states, it’s not a bad program — its minimum in-state budget requirement is far less than Colorado’s, for instance, where filmmakers from out of state must spend at least $250,000 to reap incentives.
But filmmakers like Van Til and Mewshaw say what Maine’s offering isn’t enough. The problem is that Maine isn’t the Northeast’s only state offering rolling mountains, seaside idylls, and bucolic New England charm — and Massachusetts has one of the country’s most robust incentive programs. Any movie filmed in the Bay State with an in-state budget above $50,000 is eligible for a sales tax exemption and a credit of 25 percent of both its payroll and production budget. With Massachusetts’ generous program as competition, it’s little surprise that Maine hasn’t hosted a major production since HBO filmed its 2005 miniseries Empire Falls (and not a whole lot preceded that).
All the same, Van Til and Mewshaw left LA for Portland with the specific goal of filming Tumbledown in Maine, and they weren’t quick to give up. With help from then-state representative Janet Mills, the pair started advocating in 2008 for a change to Maine’s incentive law.
“We spent years trying to produce the film [in Maine],” Van Til recalls. “The first bill we campaigned for passed the House, and it was live for three hours. Then it was the final act of the Senate to turn and vote against it.”
Van Til recalls how she broke down and cried in front of the Republican caucus while arguing in support of the bill. It meant a lot to her not just to tell her story, but to tell it authentically in the place that gave birth to it. If money were no object, say the pair, they’d have gladly filmed in Farmington anyway. But as with most bigger-budget productions, the funding behind the movie wasn’t theirs to spend — it belonged to the production’s financiers.
“I think they made the right choice — or their financiers made the right choice — for what their priorities were,” says Brunswick-based filmmaker Derek Kimball. “They wanted name-brand actors and all that. But that movie still could have been made here.”
After a decade making short films in Boston and New York City, Kimball also moved back to his home state of Maine to shoot a feature film. Unlike Van Til and Mewshaw, however, he assembled a cast and crew made almost entirely of Mainers and produced it on a comparative shoestring. Kimball’s budget for Neptune — which premiered in January at Utah’s Slamdance Film Festival — was just shy of $40,000, well short of the threshold for receiving state rebates. Kimball hustled donations and investments, money that went completely into production and material costs — the actors and much of the crew have yet to be paid.
“If you’re raised in Maine and make films in Maine,” he says, “you approach the process from the vantage point that you’re going to have to scrap things together. You just have to never stop cobbling.”
Kimball would like to see a film tax incentive designed to help local, homegrown filmmakers with smaller budgets. The local film community, he says, is a niche that needs nurturing, and he’s skeptical of the notion that incentives should be designed to attract big-budget Hollywood productions.
“I think it’s naive to say that if you open up these incentives, people are going to be busting down our door,” he says.
Plenty of others agree. In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker wants to phase out the state’s film incentives, arguing that such expenditures should be redirected to the working poor. Louisiana offered a generous 30 percent credit on all in-state expenditures, credit that could be sold to other entities, without any limit on how much the state gave out. But opponents cited studies showing Lousiana didn’t recoup the value of those subsidies, and last year, the state capped them. Lawmakers in Michigan, Maryland, and Alaska have all recently pushed to rein in film-credit spending.
But Karen Warhola, director of the Maine Film Office in Augusta, says a properly incentivized film industry can be a positive economic force in the Pine Tree State.
“Approximately 80 percent of film crews are carpenters, electricians, painters, seamstresses, hairdressers, set decorators, production managers, and other professions that utilize transferable skill sets that Maine residents already have,” says Warhola. “For those looking for work, people can be retrained to use the skills they already possess to find good-paying jobs in this industry.”
Warhola and the Maine Film Office stand behind LD 1004, a bill currently before the state legislature with the unwieldy title of An Act To Provide Incentives To Foster Economic Growth And Build Infrastructure In The State By Encouraging Visual Media Production. Sponsored by Fairfield Republican representative John Picchiotti (and eight other cosponsors from both parties), LD 1004 would lure filmmakers with a 25 percent rebate on wages paid to Maine residents. Picchiotti has said the bill could create 1,000–2,000 film industry jobs. The bill passed the House last year, but was held over for the Senate to take up during the current legislative session.
As far as Tumbledown’s director is concerned, however, a bill that only incentivizes in-state hiring misses the point — according to Mewshaw, Maine doesn’t have the workforce that big-budget productions need, since most bigger-budget productions work exclusively with union crews.
“If those union employees don’t have residence in the state of Maine,” he says, “then you’re paying much more. Suddenly it becomes a huge portion of your budget just for their food and housing.”
What few seem to disagree on is the state’s potential appeal to filmmakers and location scouts. Warhola argues that Maine is a great place for filmmakers who don’t want to be “just another production in town.”
“Man, is there enthusiasm,” Mewshaw agrees. “Man, is there natural beauty. Those are the incentives that Maine does have.”
People in Farmington, says Van Til, were willing to offer up their homes, businesses, and time to help Tumbledown get made. She and Mewshaw hope the exposure from the film affords them more chances to bring name-brand talent to Maine.
“People want to work here,” insists Van Til, sounding a bit wistful. “People in Massachusetts were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we would kill to work in Maine. How can we make that possible?’ We hear that all the time.”
Tumbledown opens in general release (including screens in Portland, Waterville, and Farmington) and is available on VOD and iTunes on February 12.