Caretaker of this story: Karen Allen's new film is labor of love for piece by Carson McCullers
GREAT BARRINGTON — For nearly 40 years, Karen Allen has been haunted by a conversation about love.
The conversation — shared over a mug of beer and a coffee by an old man and a 12-year-old boy — has resonated with her since she first read Carson McCullers' short story, "A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud."
"Sometimes those things are hard to completely fathom. I was a student of Buddhism at the time, which may explain why I became fascinated with it," Allen said during a recent interview with The Eagle at Rubi's Cafe in Great Barrington. "I already knew Carson McCullers' work. This short story is different from her others. It's so profoundly spiritual. I was very affected by the characters and the possibilities this story opens up."
Set in the 1940s, McCullers' short story begins with a paperboy taking a break from his route at a cafe on a rainy morning. It is here that he encounters the old man, who tells him the story of how he lost his love — his ex-wife — and how he is teaching himself to love again.
The man tells the boy that by treating love like "a science" — starting with simple things such as a tree, a rock, or a cloud — he has allowed love back into his life.
"He says, 'Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?' It's about each of us learning to love; to take responsibility for our own capacity to love the world we're living in," she said.
Her reasons for making the short film now, as opposed to two decades ago or five years, are many.
"This story captivated me in an unusual way. I read a lot in my twenties. Still, this story had a special place in my heart," Allen said thoughtfully, after a few moments of contemplation and several sips from her decaf latte. "In some strange way, I felt I was the caretaker of this story ... It cast a spell over me. This story wanted me to tell it. At one point, I had the idea to make it a stage play — paired with another of her works."
She added, "I'm so disappointed in the world. We live in such a different world than the one I came up with in the 1960s, We were so sure that we're moving in a direction that would ensure a huge forward motion in our capacity to live together as a single race of people. It's something we really struggle with and this story asks a very important question about our ability to love."
It wasn't until earlier this year that the stars seemed to align in her favor, as a fortuitous series of events came together, transforming a dream into the short film, "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud," shot over a seven day period, from June 13 to 20, at the SilverBrook Cafe in Sandisfield.
"It's been a labor of love," Allen, who served as both director and screenwriter, said of the process, which began with a quiet online fundraising campaign 2 1/2 years ago. It was then, with the encouragement of Brian Long, a producer at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater — a theater group she works with in New York City, that Allen decided to pursue making the film. Long offered to help with the project, as did producer Diane Pearlman.
"We crowd-funded it in a way. We raised the money, little by little, from people who are really wanting to see this film happen. We made it on a shoestring [budget]," she said, referring to the $125,000 raised through donations. "I really truly believe that this story made people want to be part of this — to join in my obsession."
But it wasn't just the funding that needed to fall into place. Allen needed the right location, the commitment of actors she envisioned in the roles of the "man" and Leo, the cafe owner, and to find just the right child to play the paperboy.
For the role of the "man," she called upon actor Jeffery DeMunn ("The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile," "The Walking Dead"), whom she has known for four decades. She cast James McMenamin, who appeared in the current season of "Orange Is The New Black," in the role of Leo.
"I found directing this film much less stressful because I was working with two of my favorite actors. I have known and admired Jeffery DeMunn for 40 years. It's always been in my mind that Jeff would play the man," she said. "It was in my mind when he was 20 years too young to play the part. I met James three years ago and worked with him twice in the theater. I spent the last two years completely terrified neither one of them would be available when I had a place we could film. We were able to get both of them the week before they both had to go back to work on their television shows."
Finding the perfect location to film also came easily. Sandisfield's SilverBrook Cafe is about a 15- to 20-minute drive from Allen's home.
"The location sort of chose me," she said. "How we ended up there defies explanation. I've been driving by it for years. It's been calling my name, but I was almost too afraid to stop and go inside. I always had an excuse not to — I was on my way to the airport or in a hurry on my way home from the airport. At one point it was closed."
But with the funding coming together, Allen decided she needed to visit the location.
"One day, I just pulled over and went inside. I was trepidacious," she said. "I was afraid it was not going to be what I imagined it looked like inside. I had this image in my mind of what it would look like and that it would match the physical design of what I needed. I was astonished to find that it did."
With her location secured and two actors in place, Allen and her team cast a wide net to find a local child capable of playing the role of the "boy." A casting call resulted in about 250 responses. The team called in 50 of the boys who applied for an interview and to read for the part. Eleven were asked back to do a screen test with DeMunn.
"I wasn't particularly feeling the need for a child actor, as much as I needed a child that was able to listen and respond to what was happening," she said.
While there were several possibilities within the group, Allen couldn't stop thinking about another child, Jackson Smith, was out of the area at the time of the auditions.
"I couldn't get him out of my mind," Allen said. "Jeff was able to come back and do a screen test with him. He said he knew instantly this was the child. He knew in the first 10 seconds. Sometimes, its just about the chemistry."
Now in post-production, Allen says the film should be completed in time to submit it to the major film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlinale [Berlin International Film Festival] as well as several others that celebrate the short film.
The film will also be screened in February as part of "Carson at 100: The McCullers Centennial," a celebration marking what would have been the author's 100th birthday, by the Carson McCullers Center at Columbus State University. The film will also be shown this spring at the Nyack Center, in Nyack, N.Y., and at John Cabot University in Rome, during an academic conference dedicated the author's life and work in July.
"I'm so lucky in so many ways to be able to do this," Allen said. "The universe brought things together to help me. I was meant to do this."
For more information, visit http://www.atreearockacloudthefilm.com/
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