Small-town roots, big-time dreams
Camden — Caitlin FitzGerald's acting career has come a long way, from playing Bessie the Talking Cow in Camden Civic Theatre's "Jack in the Beanstalk" to playing Meryl Streep's daughter in Universal Studios' "It's Complicated." Now she is taking on yet another uphill-climb career by co-writing and starring in an independent film she and her colleagues will lens in her hometown this summer.
"Sometimes you just have to put it out there and do something possibly foolish and, hopefully, brave," she said over Zoot coffee on a sodden May day.
The weather is just one of the variables she and her team will begin juggling in a month when they arrive in Camden to do pre-production work on their as yet un-named project, which is set to be filmed between July 12 and Aug. 7. Six months ago, the project had yet to be conceived but its inspirations have been percolating in the souls of co-writers FitzGerald and Caroline von Kuhn for several years.
FitzGerald fell in love with theater at Riley School in Glen Cove, where she did Shakespeare in the barn. She attended Camden-Rockport High School for a couple years, then went to a boarding school near Boston. She graduated with honors from New York University's Tisch School, where she studied drama at the Stella Adler Studio. She also studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London but has made Manhattan her home.
"I always thought my life would be in the theater, but I've worked almost exclusively in film and TV," she said, adding that she has written some plays and participates in a lot of play readings in New York, thus playing a part in the theater community.
FitzGerald said she lucked into an agent while still in college, which led to television work including an appearance on "Law and Order SVU" and a recurring role on "Gossip Girl." The agency balked, however, when California's Shakespeare Santa Cruz offered her the dream role of Juliet.
"I'm almost six feet tall, who is going to offer me Juliet again? They [the agency] dropped me but I did it," said FitzGerald.
While on the West Coast, FitzGerald ended up being cast in Ang Lee's film "Taking Woodstock" and when she returned to New York, she auditioned for and got the role in "It's Complicated," the 2009 major studio release that starred Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. She also got another agent.
"It was a real lesson to me about following your heart, and that's what this project feels like too," she said.
FitzGerald had a busy summer and fall. She starred in actor/director Ed Burns' independent film "Newlyweds," which was commissioned by the Tribeca Film Festival and shot in 12 days for $9,000 (before post-production); it premiered on the festival's final night, April 30. And she played the title role in a site-specific "Hedda Gabler," directed by John Gould Rubin and staged in the living room of an East Village townhouse. After the play ended, she and five other women gathered to discuss their hopes and dreams; one of FitzGerald's latter was to make a movie in Midcoast Maine.
"It's so extraordinarily beautiful here … and I had just done this move with Ed. I said, we should make a movie and everyone said, great!" said FitzGerald.
One of the things that had impressed FitzGerald about Burns' bare-bones project was that it was filmed using the video component of a still camera, the Canon 5D. The shooting had a crew of two, the cameraman and someone with a boom microphone.
"It was so small, you could take it right into a bar and shoot a scene and no one knew you were filming, they just thought we were taking pictures," she said.
Cameras comprise a huge part of any film's expense; one reason Burns' budget was so low is that he owned the camera. FitzGerald and her coming-together production team do not own a camera, so renting one will be necessary. Still, the emergence of digital video makes independent filmmaking a possibility for many more people, especially the female artists who heretofore have not been part of the Hollywood "boys club."
FitzGerald said she really wanted to rent her equipment in Maine and investigated the options at a Portland firm, but the cost was just too high. Without affordable in-state equipment and the kind of tax incentives that Massachusetts and New York offer, she said she thinks filmmaking will never become an industry in Maine … and that's too bad, because film projects employ a range of people.
"There was a fish tank in 'It's Complicated' and every few days, this guy had to come in and clean it. That's how many jobs there are on a film — they had a fish wrangler," she said.
"It's Complicated" also had a $110 million budget. It was mostly shot on a sound stage in Brooklyn.
"With that kind of money, you can build an entire world — it's like Disneyland," said FitzGerald.
Between that experience and "Newlyweds" there is a range of movie budgets. FitzGerald also has worked on a $10 million film, and said that TV production seems to have endless dollars. The Camden-made film is budgeted for $200,000, which makes it a microbudget project in industry terms. The project is in the process of trying to find funds, both via large investors and innovative ideas like a registry similar to those set up for wedding gifts, where backers and supporters can fund specific needs.
"Bug spray is going to be a big line-item," said FitzGerald.
Equipment rental will fill a lot of the bill; the director of photography, California-based Eve M. Cohen, will be using a Sony PMW F3, one of the newest high definition digital cinema cameras. Because FitzGerald and von Kuhn, who will direct, are new to filmmaking, they have pulled together a team with a lot more experience. Sometimes that experience means excising things from the script.
"We wanted to do a scene on the water, but our producer said there was no way she could insure a boat," FitzGerald said.
Shooting at family and friends' homes will help reign in costs, as will the cast: both FitzGerald's father and stepmother and von Kuhn's parents will be in the movies, as will several acting friends (and FitzGerald's two dogs). The team will be calling for extras via local media, primarily for the memorial service and subsequent party scenes.
"There will be free beer in that one," promised FitzGerald.
The reality is, someone investing in an independent film is essentially making a donation, said FitzGerald. There is always a chance a film will be picked up by a distributor — the team will be editing as they go in order to make the upcoming season's film festival entry deadlines — and will make back its costs, but it is rare. So it is fair for a prospective investor to ask the filmmaker what he or she is investing. In her case, she said, it is everything.
"My career as an actor, my debut as a writer, my hometown — on every level it feels exposed and dangerous, and that's what it should be about," she said.
Exposing truths about growing up in a small town is integral to the script. Both FitzGerald and von Kuhn lost childhood friends in adulthood and that is what their film is about, a young journalist who returns to her small, New England hometown to write and deliver her friend's eulogy at the memorial service the whole community attends. In FitzGerald's case, the lost friend was someone she had bonded with over theater at Riley School, so filming the memorial service there has a lot of resonance.
"[Riley founder] Glenna [Plaisted] has been wonderful and is giving us free use of the space; there feels like a beautiful synergy," said FitzGerald.
Making this film on the Midcoast also brings things a bit full circle because of its subject matter. FitzGerald may live in the Big Apple, but she grew up in a small town and is keenly aware of the dynamics such a community possesses.
"This is a true story for me, and it feels like an important story for the community; we've lost so many young people. We under-appreciate what it means to come from a small town, to have that level of support and feeling of safety that was available to me that summer. I hope this film can be a thank-you in some way for that," she said.
FitzGerald and von Kuhn also have written a story that counteracts the current Hollywood formula that portrays women only in how they relate to men, an approach that FitzGerald deems reductive. It is rare for female characters to be allowed to be fully human and autonomous on screen, she said.
"We're really interested in female relationships, how they can be complicated and sustaining. That feels really exciting to me," she said.
For more information about FitzGerald's film project and how to offer support in any way, including providing housing for cast and crew, visit camdenmainefilm.com.
VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.