Styling by Carrie Montgomery Hurlbutt
Photographed at the Maine Historical Society
A pair of young auteurs brings a piece of Hollywood to Portland.
When husband-and-wife filmmakers Sean Mewshaw and Desi Van Til were shooting Tumbledown—their movie about a young woman grieving the death of her famous folksinger husband—they would each bring along a packed bag of clothes to the set, in preparation for 12-hour days at locations that might or might not have heat. “I dressed like a good Mainer,” says Van Til, who is originally from Farmington, where the film is set. “Sweaters, jackets, boots, jeans, and wearing all of my L.L.Bean vests to stay warm.”
Film production is about function over fashion, which means that Van Til’s utilitarian look was not altogether different from how the movie’s lead character dresses, bundled up in clothing plucked from her late husband’s closet. When Van Til is not shooting outdoors in late winter, however, her style tends to run towards the creative: playful patterns, fun polka dots, and exuberant use of color. Even then, she can’t help but keep the weather in mind. “I love that in Maine you get to have different uniforms,” she says. “I find myself dressing the way that I shop at a farmers’ market—with seasonal influences. In the summer it seems very romantic to me to wear a white cotton eyelet dress, and in the fall I want to wear tweed with elbow patches or a skirt with leather boots.”
For Mewshaw, who directed the film, dressing in the winter is “a question of survival, and then in the summer, it’s just about fun.” Depending on his schedule, he might layer a jacket over a hoodie for a meeting with financiers or wear jeans and a t-shirt if he’s working from home. And while the pair tend to dress eight-month-old baby Emerson in hand-me-downs, Arden, their six-year-old daughter, is beginning to assert her own independent style. She prefers no-frills fashion that’s fitting for a pint-size explorer, who can often be found catching frogs or climbing trees in the backyard of their townhouse in the West End.
They moved to the John Calvin Stevens-designed home in 2011, four years after arriving in Portland with Van Til’s Tumbledown screenplay in hand. It was a welcome change after a decade spent in Los Angeles, where they met. (Despite both being English majors at Princeton University just two years apart, Van Til and Mewshaw didn’t connect until after they had graduated.) Wanting to film in Farmington, they believed their time East was only temporary. “Or at least that’s what we told our friends,” says Van Til. But it took seven years for the movie to go into production, a complicated process that involved securing financing, juggling actors’ schedules, and even campaigning for state legislation that would offer more competitive film incentives (something which has repeatedly failed to pass and ultimately resulted in the film being shot in Massachusetts).
Somewhere early in the production process, they realized “the amazing gift in all of it was discovering how wonderful life was living in Portland,” says Mewshaw. Although they weren’t able to shoot here, depicting a genuine Maine experience and recreating the authenticity of the small town remained an essential part of the film—and to them, was pivotal to Tumbledown’s success. “The project is so close to Desi’s heart—it’s about her hometown—and it was so close to mine in that I was falling in love with Maine as we were trying to make it,” he says.
Tumbledown premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival (Van Til wore a black Nanette Lepore dress, Mewshaw wore a charcoal Burberry suit) and is now set to roll out to theaters in 50 markets across the country starting on Valentine’s Day 2016. While this professional success and critical acclaim is rewarding, the couple says they are particularly gratified by feedback they have received from fellow Mainers. Van Til enthusiastically recalls the letters and emails they’ve received from locals who have caught early screenings. She explains, “One wrote, ‘Oh, that scene on the ice. I remember that sound on Wilson Lake,’ or another said, ‘I’ve never seen a film that portrays Maine the way that I know it.’ It means so much to me that people in Maine recognize a part of their state in it.”