PORTLAND, Maine — Growing up in rural Farmington, Desiree Van Til had a “dreamy childhood.”
She worked in the town bookstore, hiked Tumbledown Mountain and swam in Webb Lake. After attending Princeton University, she struck out for Hollywood and launched a successful career in film. It was there in the thicket of a development job, where she was reading 30 to 40 scripts per week, that her mind started to drift eastward.
“I was homesick for the people I grew up with,” recalled the 38-year-old over a chai latte in a Portland cafe recently.
To ease the pain, Van Til wrote about the townsfolk so dear to her heart. Soon a comedic love story with a serious soul was born: “Tumbledown.”
“I was wanting to honor the hometown that I love. It was so fun. Those characters were so rich and present to me. And I was homesick for them,” said Van Til, who lives in Portland with her husband, Sean Mewshaw, a film director. “Writing about Farmington was a way to reach back home.”
The result of her love letter to Maine is a story based on a small-town widow and a New York City biographer who comes to interview her about her deceased folk-singer husband. It screens next week at the Tribeca Film Festival and stars Rebecca Hall, Jason Sudeikis, Dianna Agron, Joe Manganiello and Blythe Danner.
“It’s about two characters from different backgrounds trying to talk their way into each other’s hearts,” she said. And it’s all set in the romantic mud season in Maine.
But it almost didn’t get here from there.
It took years, countless trips to the State House and tearful pleas.
Eight years ago, the couple moved to Maine and envisioned filming on the quaint streets where Van Til grew up. No sooner did they sell their house in L.A. and move to Portland than their dream started to unravel.
At issue was tax incentives.
‘We didn’t know that every decision made by the financiers was based on the financial incentives,” said Van Til. “Their first thought was we’ll shoot in Michigan. That’s when Sean and I tried to change legislation.”
In 2008 Rep. Janet Mills, now the state’s attorney general, took on their plight. She created a film tax credit bill as a pilot project to get “Tumbledown” produced in western Maine. For a few hours things looked good.
“It passed the House and the Senate but failed to be enacted on the final vote in the Senate for some reason,” said Mills in an email.
“For three hours the film was a go,” said Mewshaw, who directed the film. Then “they changed their minds.”
The couple had backers willing to spend between $3 million to $5 million on the film, wanted to shoot exclusively in Farmington and stood to gain $800,000 in rebates.
“I made a tearful speech to the Republican caucus,” said Van Til, but the die was cast. “Maine was never on the table after the incentives fell away.”
Though they are pleased with the results and are determined to continue to live and work in Maine, the road has been long.
“The film is very much about Maine, and we were dreaming of bringing the circus to town,” said Mewshaw, who has worked on films such as “Gangs of New York,” “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Remember the Titans.” “Going up to Farmington and working with local actors and people from the community.”
Welcome to Massachusetts
A majority of “Tumbledown” was shot in Massachusetts, where incentives are significantly better than Maine’s.
Downtown Concord stood in for Farmington. Lost Lake in Groton was a decent facsimile for Webb Lake. Overnight, a women’s boutique became bookstore Devaney Doak & Garrett, where Van Til worked in the 1990s. The art department did such a great job, adding a similar sign out front, that people called the independent Maine bookseller to ask if they were expanding.
The couple hired more than 200 people for the film, “likely half would’ve been Maine hires,” if the film was shot in the Pine Tree State, said Van Til. They also were one of the first films to use new production facilities such as New England Studios in Devens, Massachusetts.
Though there is no telling what kind of effect the film will have until it screens at Tribeca, was this a lost opportunity for the Pine Tree State?
“I wish more than anything that we could have shot this story in the place that inspired it,” said Van Til, who spent so much time and energy trying to find its equivalent in another state.
“We tried so hard [and] had one piece of legislation written just for this film. And we supported two subsequent bills,” she said. “On an emotional level, everyone in Maine will say, ‘Yes, we want to have films shot here.’ But it is unfortunately a case of having to put your money where your mouth is.”
The future of filming in Maine
If Maine wants to have movies shot in the state, it has to compete more effectively with other states, film industry figures say. And momentum is building.
Two new initiatives are on the horizon to change the current landscape and spur filming statewide. On Monday, a public hearing was held at the State House on an act to change the reimbursements from 12 to 25 percent when productions hire Maine residents.
Rep. John Picchiotti, who sponsored the act, says if passed, “the bill will bring us on par with the other states that get the bigger films. It could mean between 1,000 to 2,000 jobs working on these films, and other businesses that come with it.”
There will also be a hearing later this month for South Portland Rep. Scott Hamann’s proposed bill to allow films with a minimum budget of $1,000,000 to receive a 25 percent tax credit, which would be in line with Massachusetts.
“However, unlike Massachusetts, my bill would limit qualified expenses to purchases made within the state of Maine,” said Hamann.
Right now, only small productions seem to be landing in the state. Producer Allen Baldwin, whose movie “Neptune” was shot in southern Maine and test screens at the Emerge Film Festival in Lewiston this weekend, says smaller films should be courted.
“We could appeal to niche markets where budgets are lower and provide benefits above and beyond tax incentives. Everyone is hunting the big money productions, but no one is really going after the smaller budgets,” he said.
Or until recently, looking to create an economic ecology to nurture films.
“We have facilities in this state that could be adapted to become film studios, bringing good paying jobs to Maine, if we only had the right kind of tax incentives,” said Mills.
To directors such as Mewshaw, this rings true.
“If Maine wants movies made here, they have to have incentives” he said. “Unless every other state collapses.”
Though the “Tumbledown” twosome were disheartened that they had to make their film mostly in Massachusetts, they have not given up on the Pine Tree State.
Not by a long shot.
They just had a son and are working together on new projects.
“The crazy thing is we still want to film in Maine,” said Mewshaw, who is directing an adaptation of “Water Dogs,” a novel by Lewis Robinson set in coastal Maine.
Once distribution deals are in place for “Tumbledown,” it should pave the way for more work to flow. And clear the path for Maine’s movie future.
“We want to get it in front of audiences and connect with them,” said Van Til. “It would be great to see it on the big screen.”
“Tumbledown” premieres 6 p.m. April 18 at the Tribeca Film Festival.