Sean Mewshaw and Desi Van Til talk 'Tumbledown'

Photo Credit: Starz
February 5th, 2016

Director Sean Mewshaw and writer Desi Van Til are two brilliant filmmakers who have worked tirelessly over the past several years to get their film Tumbledown to the big screen. Throughout this interview you can really feel their close connection as they finish each others sentences concerning their child and brand new film. Tumbledown has just been released in NY and LA and will hit On Demand on February 12th. The movie stars the beautiful Rebecca Hall (The Prestige) as a young widow whose famous folk singer husband died under mysterious, at least it looks that way to some, circumstances. His death has brought an NYC writer, played by Jason Sudeikis, into her life as he tries to immortalize the musician through his novel. Here is what the two had to say about the film.

Nick Leyland from TMN: Now, you two wrote the screenplay, and Sean, you directed it. Is that right? 

Sean Mewshaw: That's correct.

TMN: Okay. And you two are married, correct? 

Desi Van Til: We are, we are now. We weren't when I started writing. We were just dating, and this movie has spanned our courtship, our getting engaged, our getting married, and now we have a six-year-old and a one-year-old, so it's sort of our entire relationship has been from beginning to hopefully not the end of our marriage.

Sean Mewshaw: Underpinning of our entire relationship.

TMN: [laughter] You two working on it and dating and whatever, I can imagine what the dinner conversation was about, right? 

Desi Van Til: Yeah. And our six-year-old daughter... Did I tell you this, Sean? Last night, I was tucking Arden into bed, and I told her, "After this movie comes out, we're not really gonna be talking about 'Tumbledown' so much anymore." And she said, "Well, what are you gonna do?" And I said, "Well, we're gonna work on our next film." And she said, "Well, hopefully... " No, she didn't say hopefully. She said, "Okay, but the next one won't take so many years because we're not first-time filmmakers anymore."


Desi Van Til: And she included herself, she said, "we". "We're not first-time filmmakers anymore."

TMN: [laughter] That's great. Well, she'll remember it forever, right? 

Desi Van Til: I think, at this point, at six, I think she will. We're bringing her to LA for the premiere next week, and I asked her, "Do you wanna walk the red carpet with us?" She said, "I don't think so." And I said, "I think you might wanna consider it because the 16-year-old version of yourself is gonna get really mad at the six-year-old version if you don't."

TMN: [laughter] That's true. That's great, though. Hopefully, maybe she'll get into film making as well.

Desi Van Til: Well, she's certainly a storyteller.

TMN: Now, since you wrote the film and it took this long to do it, how would you always get in the mood to write a film like this? I figured like, wine and maybe, Jeff Buckley.

Desi Van Til: Well, the funny thing, of course, is that the script has been written for so long. It didn't take this many years to write the script. It took this many years to put the movie together. When I look back... Obviously, over time, movies or scripts get refined when you're stepping away from it for a year while you're waiting for cast to read, or waiting for seasons to change to shoot something. Then you come back to it with fresh eyes and realize, "Well, we can work on this or change this a little bit."

Desi Van Til: But where the mood comes from, the mood came from a sense of longing, I believe, when I was living in Los Angeles and working in development, and being a little homesick for my hometown of Farmington, Maine, and listening to a lot of Ray LaMontagne, the wonderful singer-songwriter who's actually, spent a lot of time up in that neck of the woods where I'm from. And I was really inspired by Richard Linklater's films with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Before Sunset. I had just watched... Before Sunset had just come out, and I started writing these scenes. I didn't have the story lined up necessarily, but I had the idea of these characters of Hannah and Andrew.

Desi Van Til: I knew that she was from Maine, and I knew that he was from New York, and that he was sort of an academic and that she was a robust Mainer in the woods who was going through some grief. And then I really let them start having conversations, and the story evolved from there. And then my then-boyfriend, Sean, he read that first draft with me, and then we were off to the races, collaborating to do what it took to get it made, including quitting my job and moving to Maine.

Desi Van Til: I guess it's more like the slow train, the slow train up a very steep mountain, of trying to get an indie film together where your filmmaker has the stigma of first-time director, the yoke around his neck that sort of slowed us down. But we wouldn't have it any other way. The whole point was to move here to make this film together because it was always that.

Sean Mewshaw: It was always about both of us.

Desi Van Til: Yeah.

Sean Mewshaw: That's the thing. As we said, it's our first child. It just wasn't born until after our second and third children were born.

Desi Van Til: That's right.

TMN: Making this film, Sean, did it change your thought process towards filmmaking? 'Cause you've been in the business for awhile, but this is your first full feature, I think, that you've directed. Did it change your thought process at all? 

Sean Mewshaw: It really did, because I had the interesting experience of working on big Hollywood films, and I didn't go to film school; I wanted to sort of learn by watching the professionals, and learn by doing. It's really hard to go from the kind of resources, time, and wherewithal that those productions afford a director, and to remember that your every whim cannot be satisfied and in fact, even your slightest desire might get crushed into a very small version of itself because you're working on a much smaller indie. The good thing is that... I've worked in the theater for many decades, trying to make art, trying to make human beings come alive, trying to make entertainment with absolutely no resources. And also, like anybody else I've made a lot of music videos, small commercials, short films, where we were working fast and loose, nothing really can, I don't think, prepare you for directing a feature besides actually doing it, and I think the biggest lessons I learned were unexpected. 

Sean Mewshaw: I know how you make a story come alive with the camera, I know how you work with actors, and I know how to do it in a really limited amount of time. I had that experience, but then it was overwhelming to realize because there's more money on the line, because the actors you're working with have so much more experience than you do and so much more to say that there's a lot much more at stake. And the complicated things are the things sort of outside the frame, like the movie-making is great, but the constraints of the production and the other voices that are trying to tell you what your film should be or has to be in order to qualify for this rating, or in order to be commercial enough or whatever else, that's the first experience I truly had with other people making sure that I was on whatever right track they thought was appropriate for the film, and having to express myself as clearly as possible, communicate extensively with everyone around me about exactly what the film was we were making.

Sean Mewshaw: And that experience was just eye-opening about how clear a communicator, a feature film director has to be to survive. You can't leave anything unsaid. You have to be so specific about your vision because you're never gonna get exactly what you want so you might as well start from a place of expressing precisely what you want, and then you'll get as close to that as you can.

Desi Van Til: And you have to do it with time crunch and no sleep and all that.

Sean Mewshaw: No sleep, and a baby, and a wife who wrote the screen play, oh boy. That was a fun experience. So many masters.

TMN: One of the most important things in this film is obviously the music, because it kind of... I wanna say it brings a character to life, but it's kind of a weird phrase to say because he has passed away in the film already.

Desi Van Til: Yeah, he's dead.

TMN: But tell me about the choice for the music that you were gonna use to embody this Hunter. 'Cause obviously, you couldn't use anything that anybody knew. You had to have something brand new, I'm guessing. I'm not too sure. I don't know anything about the music yet, so you can tell me.

Sean Mewshaw: Well, yeah. It was our intention all along to use original songs. It was really, really much harder than we thought it would be to convince a musician to write a whole album for our movie, for the purposes of our film in character, which I think I understand better now why that would be the case. It takes so much out of a musician to create a whole album and it's very much tied up with their identity. So doing so as another person, that tended to confuse the musicians we talked to until we came across Damian Jurado, who recorded the music. His voice, right off the bat, seemed perfect for me. We were always looking for a folk musician who had both sort of a manly sexiness but also this broken emotionality, this sensitivity. And he's a true artist. The guy has been working for 20 years. Every album is this fascinating new world. And when I first talked to him, I learned that, luckily enough, he tends to write his albums in character. He kind of dreams up, maybe Tom Waits-like, a whole alternate reality, and he writes from the perspective of, "This is the story I'm telling." He kind of makes a novel out of every album.

Sean Mewshaw: So, he was totally in tune with the idea of taking on this character and writing for this world, and he just delivered this beautiful album to us. It was an incredible gift to be able to ground the emotions and the relations... The movie completely images around the notion that the musician, the dead musician, was something of a genius, was somebody worth spending years of your life researching and trying to get to the bottom of. So, if we didn't have music that felt even close to that, we were dead in the water. It was one of the biggest obstacles. So, I feel like, once again, knowing very specifically what we thought would bring about the right kind of music help lead us to the right kind of musician and then he just blew it away. I love the album so much still, and I think people who hear it love it too. It's one of the first things that people at all the film festivals would come up and just say...

Desi Van Til: "Where do I get the music?"

Sean Mewshaw: Yeah, "I want this album. I want this music." So, I feel like that helped so much.

Starz Digital Media

(Rebecca Hall and Jason Sudeikis in Tumbledown)

TMN: Well, let's talk a minute about Rebecca Hall. You had Sudeikis and you have Rebecca Hall. In my opinion, Rebecca, she's about as timeless of an actress as it gets.

Desi Van Til: Yep.

TMN: What do you think that she brought to the film? Because her character, Hannah, she's this closed off person in a lot of ways and she must have been a pretty hard character to portray.

Desi Van Til: Well, Rebecca was the perfect person for us to embody our Hannah because she is a person... Hannah is supposed to be this person who is not a dour and somber person who's going through the paces of grief. She is a person who is robust and full of life. She is bursting with this vigor, and then had this sort of tragedy happened to her. And so the person who is beneath this sadness, or beneath the sort of stasis or paralysis, has to be somebody that you... It's like one of those scratching boards, where it's black on top and then there's the Technicolor underneath. It's supposed to just be right underneath the surface that you see all of the potential of who Hannah is at her best, just covered with this sort of layer of sadness or tragedy that is not at all...

Sean Mewshaw: Who she is.

Desi Van Til: It's not who she is, exactly. And the reason that Rebecca is perfect for that is that, in real life, who Rebecca Hall is, besides the fact that she's brilliant and beautiful, and a really talented actor, is that she is just this brilliant, warm, open, easy lass, that that's exactly who Hannah is. And so it was actually...

Sean Mewshaw: She's an enthusiast about life, and she voraciously reads, she knows how...

Desi Van Til: She plays music.

Sean Mewshaw: To play piano, guitar. She just...

Desi Van Til: She sings.

Sean Mewshaw: She eats life on a stick, and that's exactly who, at the core, Hannah was, and then sort of held back by this veneer of sorrow. 

Desi Van Til: So the hope is that that is who she will eventually become again, and that this relationship with Jason, with Andrew's character, whether or not it's temporary, or whether or not they'll go off into the sunset, we don't really know, long-term, what happens to them, but at least their interactions, over the course of this film, help dislodge for her, a little bit of this emotional paralysis and helps her become that person who she truly is.

TMN: I wanna know what the feeling was like when the first night you sat, before the premiere of the film? 

Sean Mewshaw: It was incredible mix of being utterly terrified, and having that stage fright ice running through your veins.


Sean Mewshaw: We were in this 900-seat theater, down in Tribeca, where it's, "If we flop, we're gonna flop hard." And the incredible gift of the first few laughs churning over and rolling into this sort of, these crashing waves of laughter, and looking down around yourself, at the audience, and actually seeing people be moved by the film in a tough New York audience, that was one of the most satisfying things I think we'll ever feel. It was really joyful. And I gotta say, even after the movie, I was terrified. Getting up for the Q&A I thought, "They're all lying. They didn't really like it that much."

Desi Van Til: That was not my experience at all.


Desi Van Til: My experience of it was, I was just so grateful to actually be there with a completed film, with a film that Sean and I were both proud of, with our cast, that we were so grateful to... With our producers who had stuck with us for so long. So, for us, being in... Or, at least for me, being in that front room in Tribeca, walking the red carpet and seeing all of my Maine... We had half of Maine come down to Tribeca. Our friends from Portland, our friends from Farmington were there, just getting such a kick out of us walking the red carpet and supporting the film, and I felt like, no matter what, there are people... So many of the people for whom I wrote this film, Farmingtonians, other Mainers, they were there, and I knew that they were gonna connect with it, and the fact that everybody else did too was real gravy. So, I don't know. In some ways, I didn't have those feelings of nerves that Sean did. I was just excited because I felt like, "If we can't just enjoy this moment after all these years, what's the point of doing it?" So, it was pretty elating.