M ow Crew will screen tomorrow at the Capawock, following its trium phant premiere at the Boston Independent Film Festival in late April. This semi-autobiographical romantic comedy about life on the Vineyard was written and directed by a Vineyard native ... and you can tell. In all the best ways.
Last spring, the Gazette wrote about Oak Bluffs native Taylor Toole, 30, and his crew as they were about to hold auditions for Island actors, who comprise all but the four lead roles. Since then, the Mow Crew project has sprouted.
As with all creative endeavors, there was some necessary pruning along the way. The two lead characters, Eric and Sage — Island-born musicians who are offered an LA recording contract —had been cast five months before shooting was scheduled to begin. Mr. Toole wanted them committed early on so that they would have time to co-create and rehearse the songs they would sing in the movie. Just one month before the cameras rolled, however, the original actress playing Sage was removed from the project. Although the director liked her a lot for the part, “I wasn’t comfortable with the level of commitment she was giving to the project,” he explains, “and after a couple of conversations, we agreed that she wouldn’t be able to put enough time and energy into the project that I thought was needed by the lead actress.”
Saara Untracht-Oakner had been in contention for the role of Sage from the start, but she (like Aaron Barr, who plays Eric) was more of a singer-songwriter than actor. She also lived in Boston, so the New York-based director had never met her; he’d only seen her audition tape. When the search began to re-cast Sage, Mr. Toole held some more auditions, but he also gave Saara a call. She came down to New York and “she totally clicked with Aaron right away. I loved working with Saara, she was a lot of fun,” says Mr. Toole. With a single month to prepare, she and Mr. Barr wrote about half the songs in the film together. (The talented Mr. Barr had already written the other half).
And then, early last summer, filming began.
Shooting any film is a high-pressure scenario, and lower-budget indie films, while spared from certain stressors of the Hollywood blockbuster experience, have their own challenges (for example, three weeks to shoot, as was the case with Mow Crew). Add to that the challenges of doing nearly anything at all affordably and efficiently, during “the season” on Martha’s Vineyard, and you have potential disaster.
And certainly it was a hectic experience, but everyone and everything came together incredibly well. “The filming of the movie was pretty intense, because whenever we were filming it was always against the clock or against the sun. A lot of Island actors would show up and either sit around for six hours or else get thrown into something with no prep. I was really impressed by how well everyone adapted to our crazy hectic schedule,” said Mr. Toole. Because he had personal ties to so many of the people he was working with, the director felt responsible about the quality of their experience doing the movie, in a way he might not have with a blind casting call. But the sense of accountability worked both ways, and ultimately in his favor: among other happy opportunities, for example, Mr. Toole’s former boss at Tea Lane Nursery let him borrow trucks and equipment (during the high season!) and even played a fictional version of himself.
And he was far from the only person in Mr. Toole’s life to become involved in the project.
“What was fun for me was that when I was in third grade I got cast in a play at the Vineyard Playhouse. And so I sort of got the acting bug, and so I’ve known the Munafos and a lot of Island actors, like Taffy McCarthy, since I was really, really young. To be able to cast Paul [Munafo, playing Sage’s father] and Taffy [McCarthy, who plays Eric’s mother] in the movie and to actually hold the Island casting sessions at the playhouse, it was great, it was like coming home. There are between 35 and 45 Island actors in speaking parts. Some of those people are people I’ve known for a long, long time and some are people I just met for the first time,” like Rob Myers, who plays the leader of Island Wide, the rival landscaping company, he said.
With the film in the can, the production team headed back to New York for post-production, editing and mixing — all the technical elements that transform raw footage into an actual film for public consumption.
And a couple of weeks ago, at 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 19, in AMC-Loews Boston Common, the public certainly seemed to eat it up. Heralded as arguably the best pick in the Boston Independent Film Festival (it won the Indie Spirit Special Recognition Award), Mow Crew enjoyed a rockin’ pre-screening party with lead actor Aaron Barr’s real-life band The Vanguard playing, before several hundred partygoers enjoyed the main event of the night.
How did it go? “I couldn’t ask for a better first screening experience,” Mr. Toole said. “It was fantastic. It looked good, it sounded good. I hadn’t shown it publicly before and I was terrified. There was a great vocal response from the crowd — it was really encouraging, really positive.”
A question and answer period afterwards solicited “tons of questions,” he said, and it was clear that the movie spoke to many people — even those not from Martha’s Vineyard. (There will be a Q& A after both Capawock screenings tomorrow; initially it will just be the director and his two leads, but given the presence of all the local actors, a number of them will probably get “pulled out of the crowd” to answer questions as well.)
Having had the opportunity for an early viewing of the film, I was moved by its authenticity as much as I was entertained by its storyline and characters.
Speaking as someone who still gets distracted during the first hour of Jaws due to the maddeningly fictionalized rearrangement of Island geography, I loved watching a story set on Martha’s Vineyard that used the real Martha’s Vineyard as a setting. While it’s a stretch, once or twice, to believe how much of our Island gets driven around during the course of a single day, it is definitely our Island — and more specifically, our Island as experienced by locals. There is only one brief (and hilariously non-idyllic) scene on a beach, and the single scene shot in picturesque Menemsha absolutely refuses to be picturesque, never venturing beyond the parking-lot side of the gas station. Otherwise, the insularity of the Island is implied by plot, character, and attitude . . . which is so true-to-life for real Islanders, most of whom spend far more time working inland than hanging out on the water.
The cinematography is virtually a love-letter to rural up-Island roads, with water views used only as fleeting, incidental backdrops. There are also scenes set in Oak Bluffs, but nary a gingerbread cottage or Flying Horse to be seen — just Smokin’ Bones, lower Circuit avenue and especially the Lamppost. This is not the tourism board’s depiction of Martha’s Vineyard, and yet it captures so beautifully what year-rounders wait all winter and spring for: the humble, simple, unmanicured and unsurpassable beauty of Martha’s Vineyard in early summer.
Mr. Toole’s actors do a lovely job, even though his two leads have no experience. (The two featured leads, both trained actors from New York, are superb.) It’s hard not to be biased, as I know many of the cast members very well, but I was equally impressed by the local actors, whose deliveries almost universally felt organically part of the world of the film. I cannot name them all, or this article would never end, but I will say Jill Macy’s single spoken line of dialogue in the Chilmark Store was, for me, the best laugh line of the evening — and not just because I know Jill. Paul Munafo was also wonderfully understated and touching as Sage’s troubled father.
Which brings up another point. Mr. Toole gets credit for unabashedly depicting the darker side of Island life. Dysfunctional families, dysfunctional relationships, substance abuse, “Island psychology,” and other less-than-idyllic elements of Vineyard society have intrinsic influence on the characters’ lives and choices. These grittier elements are treated with an understated everyday-ness that reflects, again, what it’s really like to live here for a lot of people, both natives and wash-ashores. The movie (being a comedy) is not about these darker elements; it just acknowledges that you can’t really show life on the Vineyard without showing the parts the tourism board really doesn’t want anyone to see.
That may be the most satisfying reason to see it: finally, a Vineyard movie for Vineyarders.
Mow Crew has its Island premiere with director, cast and crew in attendance, on Saturday, May 9, at 4 and 7 p.m. at the Capawock Theatre on Main street in Vineyard Haven. Admission is $8, or $5 for film society members. The film is rated R (brief nudity and adult language) and runs 111 minutes. There will be a Q& A with the director and cast after both screenings.