Matthew Brown's 'Maine,' starring Laia Costa and Thomas Mann, is a rugged two-hander set on the Appalachian Trail.
Hiking is a meditative experience, and Matthew Brown has captured it cinematically in his sophomore feature, Maine. For the first 10 minutes of the film, no words are exchanged; the only dialogue is between the body and nature. Two Appalachian Trail hikers, Bluebird (Laia Costa) and Lake (Thomas Mann), perform their hiking and camping rituals in comfortable silence. There is something profoundly shared between them.
But that silence soon grows restive. As soon as they begin to speak, the meditative quality of their journey gives way to a volatile cocktail of unattainable desire. Despite an undeniable romantic connection—so obvious that they are often mistaken for a couple by other trail-goers—Bluebird and Lake are just friends.
That's because Bluebird is married—though that's about all she'll let on. She is maddeningly discursive, preferring to express her ever-changing and conflicting tide of emotions through body language. Lake, meanwhile, continues to prod at Bluebird's unknowability. Every interaction they have with the quirky strangers they encounter seems to tear at the fabric of the pair's tenuous attraction.
Brown has a keen ear and eye for human behavior. In nearly every scene, tensions brew beneath the surface, eventually escalating into inane arguments that are kind of proxy wars for the pair's latent desires. Brown initially displayed this penchant for words spoken between the lines in his microbudget feature, In the Treetops, which follows a band of high schoolers as they come of age. With Maine, he gets a chance to focus on just two characters, and his actors serve him well.
No Film School caught up with Brown, Costa, Mann, producer Summer Shelton, and DP Donald R. Monroe at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss how they created intimacy between the two characters, the challenges of filming in the wilderness, and more.
No Film School: Matt, how do you feel that your micro-budget feature debut prepared you for this filmmaking experience?
Matthew Brown: I remember Summer [Shelton, the producer] kept telling me, like, "It's not going to be that different." And it really wasn't. I mean, there were so many things that I didn't have to worry about that, previously, making In The Treetops, I had to worry about. In this process, I felt a lot more protected. It was just like, "You don't have to do everything anymore! We got you!"
Once I started to realize that I could really lean on these people, and they won't let me fall over, that helped a lot. It let me focus on working with Donald [Monroe, the DP] and working with Thomas [Mann] and Laia [Costa]. I got to focus so much more on telling the story. That was nice.
NFS: How did you all come to work together?
Summer Shelton: Matthew and I met first. I was adjunct guest lecturing at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Matthew was a senior, about to graduate, and he was nearly finished with the picture lock on Treetops. He came into my office one day and asked if I'd watch it and give some feedback, and I did.
I helped provide some mentorship as he got out into the festival world. Since I had made [my previous film] People, Places, Things with Beachside Films, I had a good relationship with them, and I knew that their mandate was looking for projects that fell into the world of what Matthew was exploring, in terms of low-budget films. Matthew already had Maine written, and he shared that script with me. I thought it was very wonderful. It was set in a place where a lot of people don't make movies. That's what I focus a lot of my films on—making them in regional places and mainly also about characters that aren't supposed to be together, but somehow do intersect and learn something from each other. So it all started checking the boxes.
"It was a very Cinderella story, the way that it came together."
I had preemptively peppered Beachside with Matthew and his work. Beachside came on board and we started the casting process, and I'll let Matthew tell about that! It was a very Cinderella story, the way that it came together. A lot of timing aligned at the right places, and very early on, Laia and Thomas came on board the project because Matthew wanted them.
Brown: Schmoozed them up! Thomas, remember I sent you that Tarkovsky poem?
Mann: Yeah! And he sent me a note. We Skyped after I had watched his first film, and I remember thinking, "How have I never seen any of these actors? Their performances are amazing!" It felt like I'm intruding on this group of friends. It felt like driving around aimlessly at night in high school, you know? I was like, "Wow, it's pretty magical how he captured that feeling. I would like to do something like that—something that feels that raw and immediate." It was my chance.
Brown: And Laia came on, actually, before that. I saw Victoria. I was like, "Holy shit, this is the best performance of the year! This is insane. Who is this person?" What that character goes through is... I don't think I've seen a movie recently where a character has so many different colors.
Laia Costa: Maine. [Laughs]
Brown: I was pretty set on her. It had to be her. Her role was originally written for an American woman, but as soon as I saw that, I thought, "It's her movie."
Mann: I'm so glad it was Laia, too, because I was like, "I'm going to have to spend so much time with this person. All my scenes are with this one person. If it's not fun to act with them, then it's going to be a beating." But I had seen that movie, and I was like, "Oh, great, this is going to be so much fun." And it was.
NFS: What kind of conversations did you have about the characters? These are complex people with many conflicting desires and needs.
Mann: We spent hours just sitting down, going through scenes, talking about them. We would go into the history of the characters and talk about their backstories. But sometimes that is just to inspire you more than anything. You don't necessarily have to decide on a definitive backstory. So it was just having conversations and finding out what worked, and reading through the scenes out loud, and being like, "Oh, that's superfluous; we can do that with a look." It was a lot of trimming it down and adapting it for our personalities.
Costa: We started talking like a year before we started shooting. When I read the script, at the beginning, I wasn't able to get my character, but I could see that there was a whole world there. It was very apart from mine. That was something that I really liked a lot, and I was able to see that if I got close to [Matt] and talked to him—just exchange ideas of movies, music, and books—I could understand. So we were in touch all the time. And that helped me a lot.
As an actress, I think it's great when you go into a character and spend time trying to get there. And if you have someone who's helping you to get there, it's perfect. You learn so much.
"As many times as you're hiking in and out, that's time you're not having on camera.... I didn't want anyone exhausted from making the long journey to set."
NFS: Much of the film rests upon these two performances—the unspoken words that manifest in the physical interactions and the body language. You jump into the film with so much underlying tension; as an audience member, you're trying to figure out the relationship between these people, why they're so irritable, and why they can't be open and honest with each other. How did you get into that space where so much was communicated nonverbally?
Costa: We worked a lot on Bluebird's past. I was not sharing that information with Thomas.
Mann: Oh, yeah, you had secret meetings together.
Costa: Well, you didn't need to know, and I think that plays onscreen a lot.
Brown: I think we talked in between every take, now that I'm thinking about it.
Mann: There were times when I didn't want to talk about it! Like, "Let me just do it again. You know I don't want to talk about it first!"
I don't remember the order that we shot in. I'm sure Sofi Marshall [the editor] played with the structure of it, so a scene that was in the script, maybe in the middle, is now more towards the beginning. It throws you right in the middle of the action.
Shelton: Matthew and I made agreements early in production about a few scenes that we couldn't put at the beginning of the schedule. We wanted to preserve some of that intimacy. That was a big thing--no matter what happens in the wild elements of working outdoors, there were a few things we really couldn't compromise on.
NFS: Can you talk a little bit about shooting outdoors? What were the challenges for everyone?
Shelton: Matthew and I were living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is about a two-hour excursion from the area in Grayson County, Virginia where our primary base of the film was set. So Matthew, Donald, and I did a little road trip. They showed me the areas that sparked the motivation for the film. Then I came in and thought, "Where do we make our hub?" I wanted to get the most out of this beautiful landscape. I wanted to plant our flag in the center, so we could go to as many state parks as [possible] and a lot of diversity in landscapes.
One thing I was very adamant about was limiting how far we hiked things in. I wanted to try to limit it to a 15-minute hike in, but then maybe one or two times, we could go really, really far in.
As many times as you're hiking in and out of set, that's time you're not having on camera. And since this was such a performance-driven film, I wanted to give Matthew the time with the talent. I wanted to give Laia and Thomas room to just play. I didn't want anyone exhausted from making the long journey to set. That was a major logistical challenge.
Donald Monroe: The biggest challenge for me was definitely chasing the sun around. For the most part, we were doing one scene per day, or two scenes per day, which meant that the sun was going to keep moving while we're shooting. So chasing the sun around was our big challenge, as far as the schedule.
"We had to retrofit everything to the elements."
At the same time, a challenge was balancing Matthew's priorities, as far as what we need to spend the most amount of time on. For that one tent scene, I think we had two nights. And it's a short scene.
Brown: They gave me a lot of time, and I really appreciated that. [The entire shoot] was 20 days.
Shelton: 19 days in Virginia and one day off the coast of North Carolina.
Brown: And three for rehearsal.
NFS: How much did you have to pare down, in terms of equipment, given that you were shooting in the wilderness?
Shelton: Well, we were blessed with one thing: Matthew had his first film premiere at the L.A. Film Festival, so he was eligible, to apply for the Abelcine Grant, and we won it. We got a beautiful Panasonic Varicam package.
Monroe: When it came to picking out all the equipment, it's important to say that we actually made a concept of this film a year before we made the feature. And it was pretty much the same crew. So we knew exactly what we needed for everything. We had the wind rags, light mats, etc. As far as the camera was concerned, we had a very simple thing that we were going to go for, and we really designed the movie around what we had. We also used Cooke Speed Panchros.
Shelton: We knew we were going to make the feature, but Matthew and Donald shot the concept on their own as kind of a test run. Beachside was on board supporting the concept of the film. We thought it would be great to set Matthew up for success.
"They knew what they were getting into, yeah. More than anything, it was like, 'You know we're going to make this film outside in Virginia, in the summertime, during very long days.'"
Monroe: Yeah, I think it was important because we had to retrofit everything to the elements. We got it down. And we were fortunate with the weather. We could have gotten flushed out easily. We just knew how to handle it, and I'm glad we had that time beforehand.
Shelton: With their first film, they mastered shooting in lots of confined spaces. Visually, I knew this would be the opposite for them. Now, the wide outdoors is your oyster.
Monroe: Oh, but there were still car shoots [in this movie]. And the tent scene.
Shelton: Well, with that [prior] knowledge, I knew that those scenes wouldn't be a problem. You'd mastered that.
NFS: Did the concept also help get the rest of the crew on board and on the same page, ultimately?
Shelton: They knew what they were getting into, yeah. More than anything, it was like, "You know we're going to make this film outside in Virginia, in the summertime, during very long days."
Monroe: The food was a lot better on the feature!
Shelton: We definitely had one of the best caterers I've ever had in my life on this film: Two Trees Catering.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.