IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging creator from the world of cinema. This month, we feature filmmaker Tom Quinn who saw his sophomore feature Colewell receive its world premiere screening at the 2019 edition of the SFFILM Festival. Starring Karen Allen, Kevin J. O’Connor and Hannah Gross, the drama received two nominations for the Indie Spirit Awards in the Best Female Lead (Karen Allen) and John Cassavetes Award categories. Gravitas Ventures are launching Colewell theatrically in limited release on December 13th. Make sure to check out Part 2 of our profile – with Tom Quinn’s Top Ten Films of All Time list.
Eric Lavallée: During your childhood, what films were important to you?
Tom Quinn: This isn’t a particularly original answer, but Star Wars got me hooked on filmmaking in second grade. Some friends invited us over to watch A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back when the films first hit cable. I’ve never looked this up before, but your prompt made me curious: it looks like both films premiered on HBO in the winter of 1983, and so it’s possible I saw them after Return of the Jedi. I wonder if that’s true. Regardless, PBS aired a making-of documentary, From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga, that winter, which was my first introduction to filmmaking. Soon after, we started writing our own adventure film called Artichokes, as well as our version of Episode VII. Beyond Star Wars, I was very much a child of the 80s: Back to the Future; E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, Close Encounters, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It wasn’t until college that a film professor introduced me to John Sayles’ films and my taste began to broaden.
Lavallée: Being a filmmaker and cinephile parent, how do you engage with cinema with your offspring?
Quinn: I passed the Star Wars bug on a bit too early. Our youngest would wake up at eighteen-months-old and say, “Rancor,” because he wanted to watch Return of the Jedi before daycare. If something in the film scared them, we would watch a behind-the-scenes video so they could understand it was all play. Now the boys are six and eight and spend most of their time writing stories, acting out scenes, filming, and drawing comic books. Last year, they dressed up for Halloween as characters from the TV series they made up. It’s been pretty wild to watch the storytelling of Star Wars influence them in a similar way at similar ages. At the same time, when our son was four, my wife texted me at work saying, “They are asking me put on the horse film.” I had been watching Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse the day before and they were mesmerized.
Quinn: Ella was difficult to figure out because she started conceptually. I made a document that told the story in images, before writing the script, and mixed in photos of a friend as an attempt to rhyme moments across characters. As the script came together, Ella remained this ephemeral idea more than a three-dimensional character. There were feelings I wanted to communicate, but I was having a hard time putting them into words.
We auditioned many talented actors, but when Hannah Gross came in, Ella immediately became a living, breathing human being. When you’ve spent so much time writing and re-writing a character, it is exciting to suddenly feel they have a secret you don’t have access to. That’s what I felt with Hannah’s audition. I wanted to know more about the character I had created.
Hannah showed up to set very open and we decided to find Ella together – moment by moment; scene by scene. That kind of trust from an actor is a gift, but at the same time, she had a real sense of how Ella should be played. She made Ella an old soul who somehow feels confident and lost, independent and alone.
I was often surprised by how Hannah would lean away from a key piece of dialog – downplaying it, while increasing its impact. She also added a corporal element to Ella – there’s a physicality to how she touches her face, pulls her hands into her sleeves, feels a warm cup, or hoists her backpack. That desire to be present in her body is often echoed by Nora’s character, particularly the moment when she adds face crème in the mirror. That was a nice surprise in the editing room.
Lavallée: Here, Paul Yee’s photography reminds of 70’s cinema. What were some non film-references that meant the most to you during the writing phase and how were you thinking about the film in terms of the look once you found your location.
Quinn: The idea of towns disappearing through fog came from trips to a cabin in the Poconos where I would write. That was the first visual idea for the film and soon became paired with an image I’d been carrying with me for years — the fogged mirror masking a person’s reflection after their shower. Those motifs, of people and places disappearing, led me to the photography of Saul Leiter and Todd Hido. Both have a realist approach to creating dream-like imagery, shooting through windshields and shop windows to reveal something about time and memory.
As we prepped the film, I shared these images with Paul as well as with our art and wardrobe teams. We would leave books of photography around the set as it was dressed and we blocked scenes. Paul is an extremely sensitive collaborator – he absorbs textures and details intuitively and I was often surprised by how they resurfaced. At one point, we were filming Ella through mesh curtains and he adjusted them to create an area of focus within the composition. That night, I was assembling dailies at the house we were sharing when I realized that image he created combined elements from two Todd Hido photos we’d discussed weeks prior.
Lavallée: Really appreciated how zip codes, small town ennui, nomadism participate in talking about time, place and leaving an imprint. Could you discuss why routine, repetition and nest-building were important facets to explore in Nora.
Quinn: A friend told me that his childhood town was no longer on the map because the woman who ran their post office from her home retired. I was initially fascinated by the fact that her identity and that of the town were so intertwined. It seemed like a fully-formed story and I began writing.
Of course, the deeper you get into it, the more you realize that the character you are writing is yourself. I’ve always been afraid of change – whether that it my parents moving my furniture as a kid, going to college, or changing jobs. I’ve always tied change to time passing and to eventually losing the people and places I care about. So, I constantly dig my heels in, which tends to hurt more than help. That all became part of Nora’s struggle.
Before writing Colewell, I had been working on two scripts – one was about a priest facing the closure of his parish and the second was a Mr. Rogers biopic (clearly, I should have moved more quickly on that one). It took me a while to realize that the key themes and motifs of those films (the schools and parishes closing as well as the repetition of his on-camera routine) made their way into this film.
Lavallée: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with production designer Alan Lampert?
Quinn: It can be cliché to say that your location is a character, but Nora’s home and post office certainly are. From the first conversation I had with Alan, he just understood the film – both its practical needs and less obvious thematic ones. He made a spreadsheet of thoughts and questions, broken down by each character, location, and thematic motif. He sent it and said, “I know you’re busy and I have plenty to work on, but chip away as you can.” That was so helpful because it gave me a scaffolding to get ideas out of my head while understanding the varying needs of pre-production. That document became instructive for me and was the foundation for so many conversations I had across departments.
Three weeks before production, the cliché crisis hit: we lost our hero house. It was also Alan’s first day in town after driving several hours to pick up the antique post office wall we’d found on ebay. Once he arrived, we could only tell him there was a delay, but without skipping a beat he went to get his space set up while we sorted out new plan. Three days later, we were walking through our new location. In the following two weeks, Alan and our art department (including art director Kristina Porter and Kyra Boselli on props) emptied the house, re-dressed it from scratch, and built a fully-stocked post office in a spare bedroom. It was a remarkable transformation and was full of thoughtful details that helped make time visible – we could see Nora’s past, her marriage, her younger years, and ancestry in their work.
With so little time to shoot, it’s incredibly helpful for the whole team – particularly for actors – to have these anchor details. At one point, Karen was preparing for a scene when she noticed a photo of her with her parents on the wall. Alan and our art department were also particularly plugged into the surrounding community – borrowing furniture from people’s houses, photos, knick-knacks. That only happens with trust and a real mutual investment in people. So many members of our crew earned that and it was a particularly special shoot because of those efforts.
Lavallée: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with sound designer, Richard Gould?
Quinn: We were initially paired with Richard through the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Ranch. During the Lab, we chose ten minutes of the film to work on and I was so impressed by how Richard’s sound design choices were rooted in Nora’s internal life. There is a moment when Nora is stamping envelopes while watching a neighbor walk home. Richard replaced the heavy stamp sounds so they arced with Karen Allen’s performance – becoming more fragile and hesitant with her – protecting, but framing what Karen was already giving. At that point, it didn’t seem like we would ever get back to Skywalker and I was afraid that this would become an impossible bar to hit going forward.
Fortunately, we received a grant from SFFILM and the team at Skywalker helped us work out a plan for what could be accomplished within our means. Because of the Lab, Richard and I had a pool of motifs developed: clocks, wind, the creaks of the house, and outdoor world of Nora’s home. From there, we stepped back to look at the arc of the story and how those sounds would help externalize Nora’s internal life.
While I’ve often thought about sound design as an additive process, so much of the work is in removing production sounds that might otherwise distract or flatten impact. It’s been really interesting to see how many audience members have brought up the dripping of a faucet or the creaks of Nora’s floorboards during Q and A’s. That’s a real testament to the care that was put into those choices — the sound is really a performance in and of itself.
Along with Richard, our sound team included dialogue editor Christopher Barnett; our foley artist, Shelley Roden; Scott Curtis on foley mixing; and Pete Horner, re-recording mixer. I should also give a shout-out to Dylan Grossman, who did our production sound. Lower-budget films often struggle to have quality production audio and he did a fantastic job that allowed Richard to focus on the creative work. It was a dream team and their combined work made a significant difference in how our “quiet” film played.
Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with composer Dara Taylor?
Quinn: Dara and I also met through the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab. I don’t know what alchemy they use to pair collaborators, but it was a fantastic match. The first day at the Lab, Richard, Dara, and I watched the sequence with no sound and just talked – about aging, losing people, the things Nora is afraid of, the things that we relate to in the material. Dara was central in that conversation, openly sharing with true vulnerability – those emotions became our compass going forward and made the three of us fast-friends.
I still struggle when communicating score, but the Lab and collaboration with Dara helped immensely. Most of the time, we would talk about how to carry an audience’s emotions from one moment to another or how to accent or play against what was on screen. We were particularly drawn to the distinction and parallels between Nora and Ella, contrasting their instrumentation while also tying them together.
One challenge was that the film is largely observation with occasional “movie moments” where the plot steps forward. At first, we were dropping score in on those moments, but found it heightened the disparity between the plot and the observation. What we landed on was scoring the quieter moments, often when Nora is alone, to draw the audience toward her interior, and then letting score drop out during more traditional plot points. That took some trial and error to find and Dara was always exploring the spotting as well as the instrumentation. She was very flexible as I often second-guessed myself, but also had a united sense of how the arc of the score should play out.
Gravitas Ventures releases Colewell in threatre December 13th.