“There’s a Vulnerability That Can Isolate Us, Whether We’re in an Era of Analog Connectivity or Virtual…”: Five Questions for Colewell Writer/Director Tom Quinn
Receiving its world premiere tomorrow in the Launch section of the 2019 SFFILM Festival, Tom Quinn’s sophomore feature Colewell stars Karen Allen, whose filmography runs from intimate dramas to some of contemporary cinema’s biggest blockbusters, as a clerk in a small town post office whose way of life — and, actually, her life itself — are imperiled when her branch is scheduled for closure. Inspired, as Quinn relates below, from learning of an instance in which a town was literally erased from a map, Colewell is a gentle, melancholic film, one inflected by bursts of real anger and sorrow, that is both character study as well as meditation on loneliness and community in a time of both technological and political change. Below, I ask Quinn about the film’s development at the Venice Biennale College Cinema, which supports microbudget cinema; working with Allen; and the long gap between Colewell and his 2008 debut, The New Year Parade.
Filmmaker: In an age of texting and email, tell us about your decision to center your new film around a post office and older postal worker. There’s obviously a statement here about generational change, and people who might be left behind, but what else was in play for you with this character and setting?
Quinn: I was visiting a friend who had a vintage agricultural map framed on his wall. I asked about it and learned his childhood town was no longer on the map because the woman who ran their post office retired. The office was in her home and once it closed their zip code and town name were retired as well. I was fascinated by the idea that her identity could be so tied to that of the town and began to outline a story so I could apply to the Venice Biennale College, Cinema.
In Venice, Michel Reilhac was one of our mentors and asked during an exercise if the film was about loneliness. I began to deflect, but got choked up. It was hard to pinpoint why as I don’t think of myself as particularly lonely — I have a wonderful family, close friends — and yet every time her loneliness came up after that, I had a similar response. I started to realize I had some emotions I wasn’t addressing — a willingness to isolate myself out of shyness or insecurity that can easily be masked. For me, it’s often hidden because I’m addicted to my phone and feel like I’m texting or checking in with people. For Nora, it’s because she has a very clear role that means people must come to her house every day to get their mail and make small talk. We generally think of in-person communication as having more value than most virtual communication, but in Nora’s case I think it’s just as fleeting. Once the framework of her job breaks down, she doesn’t know how to call a friend or knock on their door. I think Hannah Gross’s character, Ella, is in a similar situation in that she felt surrounded by people while hitchhiking, but she isn’t making deep connections with people. There’s a vulnerability that can isolate us, whether we’re in an era of analog connectivity or virtual, and whether that is a constant in one’s life or triggered during certain chapters.
Filmmaker: How did you attract and work with Karen Allen to the film? And was there any kind of adjustment either of you had to make in terms of working with the other given your very different film backgrounds and experiences?
Quinn: Producer Marianne Fernsler was developing the film with me in Venice, and we spent much of our time discussing who the right actor might be. I initially considered a non-actor, but knew I wanted the film to be observational as Nora sorts mail and works through her routines. It felt important that we find someone with gravity and a quiet charisma. After Venice, Marianne could not stay on the project, but at one point texted, “How about Karen Allen?”
It immediately felt like the right choice because I had always loved Karen’s work, but had not seen her in a project like this. I watched some clips from Mark Kemble’s Bad Hurt and found a news piece on her shop in Great Barrington, Karen Allen Fiber Arts. During the clip, Karen is working on a loom in her studio and then out with community members where she lives. The dynamic felt strikingly similar to that of our film.
A few months later, I met up with producer Craig Shilowich to vent about some meetings I had that day. I finally said, “I just want to make this really quiet film with Karen Allen,” and he responded, “I’d help you make that.” I tracked down one of Karen’s creative partners, sent an introductory letter and the script, and asked if he’d pass them on. A week later, I was walking into a classroom to teach and Karen called me to say she loved the script and The New Year Parade and would like to get coffee. I drove up to Great Barrington and immediately connected to her combination of strength and vulnerability. We are both living in small towns, and I felt like we had a common vocabulary and understanding of what that community life is like. Craig brought on two additional producers, Alexandra Byer and Matt Thurm; Matt introduced us to Joshua Blum at Washington Square Films. Ten months later we were all on set together, making the film.
Karen was very open to working in ways she had not before. For the community scenes in the post office, we mostly cast non-actors from Noxen and Tunkhannock, PA, and had them make small talk with Karen while she worked. It was chaotic and not the most traditional approach, but she put her trust in me and we were able to get beautiful material out of that combination. After a decade of growing self-doubt, I was incredibly moved by her openness to trying my process — it meant a great deal. Kevin J. O’Connor and Hannah jumped in with similar enthusiasm.
At the same time, working with professionals was new to me, and I sometimes struggled to articulate what I wanted or to be helpful in the ways they needed. Honestly, it’s hard to project confidence when you are also thinking, “Karen Allen was directed by Steven Spielberg, and Kevin J. O’Connor was directed by Francis Ford Coppola — how can I possibly compare?” When Hannah arrived, I had a brief moment of relief because she had similarly come up through the micro-budget world. Then, I learned she had just wrapped ten months of working with David Fincher and all of those voices crept back in.
Of course, my anxieties were unfounded and quickly dissipated once we all began working together. They were a joy to collaborate with — each with their own process, but also a generosity. I learned a great deal through those collaborations and feel indebted.
Filmmaker: What evolutions did this film go on with regards to its scale and production plan? You and I talked about this film several years ago at the Venice Biennale College, which is, we should say, a program for microbudget films. How did the film land at the production level that it did, and what sorts of things did you do in terms of conceiving of the production in order to accomplish it for the resources that you had?
Quinn: In the past, I often wrote whatever story I wanted to tell and tried to make it for whatever I had left in my bank account, which was never much. During The New Year Parade, I got lucky and managed to pull off the large cast, hundreds of extras, and costumes. However, my resistance toward writing for a realistic budget probably slowed my momentum after that film.
One of the nice things about developing Colewell for the Biennale College was that I had to not only write for a restricted budget, but also a quick turnaround time. While I can be optimistic about budget constraints, I’m less so about time constraints and so we had fewer locations and speaking roles. Even when we brought Karen on, she was open to having me shoot it and working in a way more similar to The New Year Parade, though I ultimately decided against it.
It was really the look book that changed the direction of our budget and production model. It was a mash-up of imagery from Todd Hido, Saul Leiter, Mike Leigh, Jem Cohen, and Andrew Wyeth. I’m grateful to my producers because they essentially protected me from myself. I’ve often thrown out more ambitious visual ideas because they did not seem pragmatic for my budgets. In this case, our producing team could recognize that the film and look book were closely tied — if the visual style fell apart, the minimalist story and its themes would not play the same way. I had constructed the first draft of the story with images, before writing the script, and so it was particularly important to carry those cinematic ideas to the screen.
We brought on cinematographer Paul Yee because I had loved his work on The Fits — he clearly understands the power of faces and there is a real empathy in his camerawork. Our art department included production designer Alan Lampert, art director Kristina Porter, and Kyra Boselli on props. Over the course of two weeks, they emptied our hero house and traveled all over the state to collect the right details for Nora while also building our post office in a spare bedroom. Our costume designer, Annie Simon, did beautiful work by finding hero pieces for each character that could be mixed-and-matched. Meanwhile, we built strong ties with the communities and their support really made this happen. Our UPM and co-producer, Maggie Ambrose, went to the Noxen fall festival our first week in town, strapped on an apron, and served cider to residents all day while Jeff Spivack interviewed locals and took their photos. Noxen had unsuccessfully fought the closure of their post office for two years and it’s like they’d been waiting for us to show up.
In post, we were lucky enough to bring on Darrin Navarro to edit for several months. He is such an intuitive collaborator and was instrumental in shaping the story and performances — particularly the intertwining of Nora and Ella. Marcy Robinson at Goldcrest Post was our colorist and she truly works from her heart with a photographic eye. We were accepted into the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab and so did a week-long workshop at Skywalker Ranch last summer. (You had asked me to write an article a few years ago on why I was writing Colewell while watching The Force Awakens six times — during that week it all made sense). Fortunately, The San Francisco Film Society and Kenneth Rainin Foundation gave us a post-production grant to continue our audio post at Skywalker Sound, which was unreal. Finally, we hired our composer from the Sundance Lab, Dara Taylor, and the delicate score she put together helps guide the audience along this subtle story.
In the end it was a perfect balance: we had producers who ensured the resources were there to tell this story well, support from key organizations, and a crew who made the absolute most of those resources!
Filmmaker: This is your second film set in and based, in part, on life in Pennsylvania, where you remain based. How has living and working in Pennsylvania shaped your filmmaking and your career.
Quinn: I guess the most obvious influence is that certain stories catch my eye because I’m still rooted where I grew up. The agricultural map that sparked this story is one example. I was then driving up the Poconos to work on a different screenplay and those fogged landscapes and the deer in the woods all helped Colewell take shape.
I also have a great deal of support in Pennsylvania that allows me to keep working toward filmmaking, even when it doesn’t pay our bills. My wife and I can raise the kids near their grandparents, aunts, and uncles. In addition to all of the joys that already come with that, it’s a real team system when I need to be away during production or post. There are filmmakers in town that I really trust and so feel fortunate all around.
On the flipside, I’m more removed from a larger filmmaking community. When I’m actively making something like Colewell, it does not feel like an issue — it’s easy to get to New York, and I’ve been traveling for post. However, during the dry spells it can sometimes feel like you’ve slid behind the couch cushions, never to be heard from again. Jim McKay was kind enough to invite me to his NY Filmmaker get-togethers after The New Year Parade. I used to travel up once a month for those, but it became more difficult over the years. I did love that sense of community and checking-in and still tell myself I’ll go each month.
Filmmaker: Speaking of your career, and finally, you made Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces list in 2008 after your first feature, New Year’s Parade. How have you spent these intervening years, and how has this time affected the way you have thought of Colewell?
Quinn: Not long after I made the 25 New Faces list, you did an anniversary edition where you interviewed alums from over the years. I remember being struck by how many had a ten-year gap before their next films and hoping that I could avoid that sophomore slump since The New Year Parade had been made for relatively little. Yet, here I am 11 years later and probably for many of the same reasons.
There were several times during that gap when I got down on myself, thinking, “X years have gone by and I haven’t done anything.” That was far from the truth, but of course so much of our self-image can rest on the film work. I would often recite this list to myself as a reminder to be grateful: I got married, we bought a house and had two kids. I worked as a VFX and DI producer on projects like Safety Not Guaranteed and Myth of the American Sleepover. I finished grad school (which was put on hold when the last film was doing festivals) and started teaching at Drexel University, where I’m on a tenure track and the program director for Film & Television — they even gave grant support to get this film on its legs. Not a bad decade!
At the same time, I began to worry I missed my window as a filmmaker. That may sound melodramatic, but I just couldn’t seem to get momentum. Being accepted into the Biennale College was a turning point because it challenged me to develop a new idea, with mentorship, on a fixed timeline. After Venice, I did the IFP No Borders program and those deadlines helped me to strengthen the script and clarify what I wanted to do with it. It felt risky writing about a 65-year old who runs a post office in her rural town, but it was also freeing because I was writing it for myself. Maybe because of this, the project seemed to resonate and ultimately came together more smoothly than anything I’ve ever done — I say this knowing it only seems “smooth” for me because our producers haven’t slept in three years!