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Five Nights in Maine: Director Maris Curran on Crowdfunding, Making a Film About Grief

"Five Nights in Maine" film
David Oyelowo and Hani Furstenberg in "Five Nights in Maine."

Tuesday, July 5, marked a first for the KCET Cinema Series. Following the screening of "Five Nights in Maine" at the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, director Maris Curran participated in the post-film Q&A session via Skype. Curran, who was in Italy, discussed her crowdfunded feature debut with KCET Cinema Series Host Pete Hammond and the audience. 

"Five Nights in Maine" stars David Oyelowo as a recent widower who heads to rural Maine to visit his wife's dying mother, played by Dianne Wiest. The film also features performances from Rosie Perez and Teyonah Parris. Curran funded the film through a successful crowdfunding campaign, as well as through several different indie film organizations. It hits theaters on August 5. 

The KCET Cinema Series is currently in the midst of its summer season at the Aero Theatre. From now through August 2, film buffs can catch advance screenings of anticipated summer films on Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. Screenings are followed by Q&A sessions led by Hammond. The KCET Cinema Series is sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation and the E. Hofert Dailey Trust. 

Below is an edited portion of Hammond's conversation with Curran.

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On the film's difficult subject matter

I started writing the film as my marriage was falling apart, so it's not an autobiographical film, but it is a film that is very based in my own emotional landscape. So, it started from a similar set of questions that the main character is going through. What happens when the floor falls out from under you, when you're hopes and dreams and ideas about yourself and your future family shift in an instant? From there, it's a piece of fiction, but that's really the way I work, both as a writer and a director, kind of finding a deep, emotional truth and a place that you want to share from. 

On the relationship between Sherwin (David Oyelowo) and Lucinda (Dianne Wiest)

It's tenuous. I think, for me, what's interesting about that moment is that these two people are grieving very differently. They really don't share very much and what they do share is in a sense gone. 

I'm interested in that in terms of the productive potential of empathy. What happens when you're experiencing the most pain you can imagine in a moment and instead of going inward and shutting down, you actually look out and have the capacity to see somebody else's pain? 

On crowdfunding "Five Nights in Maine"

Well, I think it was the way that we were able to make the film. I think the credits attest to a true indie spirit of the film and a hybrid financing model. The film, we Kickstarted in development, very early in the film. We also were supported by amazing film organizations: San Francisco Film Society; Cinereach; Film Independent; Tribeca and on and on. We also had equity financing, so it was really how you can imagine. I'm a first-time female director. We have a mostly cast of color. We have a woman over 65. We're dealing with themes of grief. It wasn't a film that Hollywood was jumping on board to finance. I think it was, 'how can you make it?' This was the means to do it. 

On casting David Oyelowo

[The role] was written as African-American. In terms of casting, specifically, I wanted an actor who could both be radiant and kind of a movie star, to have this incredible magnetism and also to be able to hold you in the quiet because the film has quite, a lot of quiet. To me, he seemed like the absolute choice. 

On "empathetic cinema"

I think that I'm interested as a film-goer, even as much as a film-maker, in what happens when we sit down and slow down and feel-in cinema. I call it empathetic cinema. I think we all need those moments. 

Director Maris Curran on Five Nights In Maine
"Five Nights in Maine" director Maris Curran appears at KCET Cinema Series via Skype. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

On Dianne Wiest

We went, actually, the traditional route, where we sent her agent the script and I think Dianne can do anything. I think she is one of the best actors working. She's tremendous. She's hilariously funny, comedic, but also is an unbelievable dramatic actor, but I think that we haven't seen her enough and it's crazy to think. When I sent her agent the script, we shot in late fall of 2014, and we sent her the script right before the holidays in the end of 2013 and her agent said that this is a Christmas present. I was meeting with Dianne and she said yes by early January. She is unbelievable to work with. She's amazing. 

On the use of humor in the film

Curran: I think it's important that there's levity. I don't know if people laughed at all... 

Hammond: They did laugh, actually. I think sometimes you have to laugh and you, as a filmmaker, know you have to put it in there at some point.

Curran: I spent quite a lot of time with family in hospitals, for example, and one thing they do know is that when you're in a place like that, humor is so important and it's what gets you through. It's what makes the experience that much more human. 

On her next film

I'm working on a few things right now. You might have heard at the end of the credits, there's the only lyrical piece of music and that, the man who made the music is named Lonnie Holley. He's an artist and musician. In the process of having him make the song for the film we became close and I just finished a short documentary about him that's going out into the world. 

Then, I'm working on my next feature right now. We're in the kind of early packaging stages. 

On shooting in Maine

Maine is a character in the film and it was very important for me that we actually shoot it there. I grew up in north Philly in a kinetic, diverse, artistic neighborhood, but both of my parents are from Boston and so we grew up spending two weeks every year in rural Maine. Even as a five-year-old, I could feel how different these Americans were and was fascinated by it. I think there's a lot of contrast in the film. Maine is the poorest, whitest, most conservative state in the Northeast, in New England, but it's ruggedly beautiful. It's a place you can imagine this character finding solace and feeling totally alien at the same time. 

On Curran's introduction to filmmaking

I mentioned that my mom's a painter, she's an artist, so I grew up both making things and in an artistic context and writing and reading like crazy. It was actually at Smith that I took my first film class and realized that it was everything that I loved together. I was making more experimental films and videos and I studied. I got an MFA at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and, while I was there, a University of Chicago professor saw my work and said Maris, your work is so narratively driven, you must take a screenwriting class and that sent me on that path. I worked commercially for a long time, kind of getting ready. 

On her interest in making a film about grief

I think I'm also interested in things we don't talk about, things that are, I wouldn't say taboo, but at least with my experiences within the U.S., grief is seen as an isolating and individual experience, something that you close the door and feel and re-emerge from. Yet, it's one of the most universal experiences. What's more human than to love somebody and lose them? So, I'm interested in what happens when you open the door in that experience as opposed to closing it. What happens when you begin to have these conversations?

It can be scary, but I think that's actually what's exciting. When David said yes to doing the role, he said, 'I'm saying yes because this terrifies me.' 

On David Oyelowo's role as a producer

He came on, so it was three and a half years from him saying yes to our premiere at Toronto. When he came on and said, 'I want to produce this film,' was basically him saying, Maris, not only do I want to inhabit this man, but I really want to help you get this film made. That really goes back to this conversation, to all those names in the scroll of the film, is that he knew that this was going to be a challenging film to make and really wanted to help to bring it to fruition. 

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