Filmmaking | Interviews

Twists of Fate

1 Jun , 2003  

Written by Ann Jackman | Posted by:

Fate, hope, and positive outcomes are the themes of both this new independent film 'The Chester Story' and the lives of its filmmakers

The vagary of fate. What role does it play every day in our lives to change the course of best laid plans? How does its whimsical nature work to bring us together in unexpected ways? The new independent film, "The Chester Story" examines this theme and looks at how hope, love, and second chances can sometimes be born out of terrible tragedy. In the film, the lives of several characters become intertwined after a fateful car accident in a small North Carolina town.

In real life, the lives of writer/director, Rebecca Cook and producer, Courtney Williams also became intertwined, but under less serious circumstances. For them, fate took the form of a casual drink one evening in New York City.

"We both lived in New York and a producer friend introduced us," says Williams, a producer currently living in the Boston area. "We sat down for a drink together and I realized that Rebecca and I had the same visions and ideas. What started out as a drink eventually turned into a production company." Velveteen Films was formed in 1999, and "The Chester Story" is its second feature film. The first, also written by Cook, was "The Gypsy Years," shot in Waltham, Massachusetts near where Cook grew up.

Cook first picked up a camera at age 12 and always had an interest in independent films, with the goal of someday directing. In college she fell under the influence of both foreign films and independent icon Robert Altman. "I was very influenced by the film ‘Short Cuts,’" says Cook, "the intersecting stories that come together to tell an overall picture story about several people who impact on each other’s lives. That way of telling a story fascinated me, so I wanted to do something similar."

Cook wrote "The Chester Story" right after college. The idea for the film was inspired by the death of a college friend. After the funeral, Cook found that, though saddened by the tragedy, she began to appreciate many small and beautiful things about life that she realized she may not have noticed were it not for her friend’s death. Cook conceived of "The Chester Story" as a way to express the emotional impact of that revelation. "We’re so used to seeing films about death and tragedy that amounts to nothing but pain and sorrow, whereas my experience, whilst of course very sad and very painful, had really given me a wonderful perspective on life."


Director of Photography Harlan Bosmajian filming on the set of "The Chester Story."
[Click to enlarge]

In the story, a fatal car accident is the catalyst for the emotional journey of several lonely and vulnerable characters: a woman (Teri Hatcher), returning to North Carolina to rekindle a romance; a lawyer (Robert C. Trevalier), coming home to his dying mother; and a boy and his single waitress mom (Cody Newton and Andrea Powell), who struggle with his father’s death. As their personal stories intersect, they discover love, redemption, and a little bit about themselves.

Says Williams, "The film deals with how you can find positive endings out of a very negative situation. I really loved that it’s all about fate and timing and opening yourself up to allowing things to happen when they’re supposed to. All the characters are at very low points in their lives, so they’re really open to anything that can happen. Because every single day, fate is playing a part in somebody’s life."

And in real life, once again, fate conspired to intertwine Cook and Williams with another significant figure. A New York City producer, out of commission while preparing for neck surgery, happened to be browsing the NewEnglandFilm.com Web site when he noticed an ad for a producer. Richard Sirianni called Williams, was interested in the story, and asked to read the script. "Because I was in such a physically bad place, I was looking for something relaxing, not another action film or mob story," says Sirianni. "This was a nice simple story with a feel-good ending."

Since "The Chester Story" was only the second feature film for both Cook and Williams, they welcomed the added input of Sirianni, who had been producing for 13 years. "Since we had a million dollar budget, we were looking for someone with a little more experience, and particularly with post experience," says Williams.

Written in 1995, "The Chester Story" was Cook’s first script, but it was not her first film. After attending Bates College in Maine, she worked in various production assistant and intern jobs in Los Angeles, Boston, and NYC. It was a producer that she worked for in New York that encouraged her to go out and raise some money to shoot her first short. That gave her the confidence to pursue directing full-time, but after she and Williams formed Velveteen in 1999, they decided to shoot "The Gypsy Years" as their first feature instead of "The Chester Story." "When you hang onto something for so long, it becomes a part of you. And so I really wanted to be totally prepared to do ‘The Chester Story’ when it was right, versus ‘The Gypsy Years,’ which I had less fear about."

Williams and Cook used "The Gypsy Years," as a way to get their feet wet and learn the ins and outs of producing a film from beginning to end, including the most challenging part: raising money. "Courtney and I would go door to door from restaurant to restaurant and ask for donations and ask for favors," says Cook, "But I treasure that experience because it also prepared us for ‘The Chester Story.’" Their hard work paid off. Because of investor contacts they made on "The Gypsy Years," they didn’t have to go door to door for their second film. They shot "The Chester Story" with a $1.25 million budget. "We actually got paid and we actually paid people. And we shot on film instead of digiBeta," says Cook.

Once the money was in hand, the producers concentrated on finding locations and cast. Sirianni, who grew up in the business, had known Frank Capra, Jr. for years. Capra ran the Screen Gems Studio down in Wilmington, NC and Sirianni suggested that they shoot the film down there. Although Cook had set the story in New Hampshire, Sirianni felt the New England weather conditions in spring could be a limiting factor. After scouting locations and casting locally, Cook realized that she couldn’t avoid a southern look, feel, and accent in the film, so she fiddled with the script to reset it in North Carolina. "I realized I had to make the location work for me, but that is part of independent filmmaking — compromise."

In terms of casting, Sirianni was looking for at least one "name" actor for the film to potentially help with distribution down the line. Williams and Cook had sent the script to Teri Hatcher, who they considered to be a very underrated actress. "We both thought she was an amazing actress and that she doesn’t get the credit she deserves." Hatcher liked the script and agreed to do the film. The rest of the cast was mostly locals, including Trevalier, who plays Hatcher’s love interest. Though living in L.A., he was originally from North Carolina.

In the end, both Williams and Cook were very happy with the Wilmington location. "The film is beautifully shot and acted," says Williams, "and the studio was tremendous in every way. It was very much a family." Cook agrees. "The cast and crew were excellent. I was very happy. There’s a great community of filmmakers down there."

As is the nature of independent film, "The Chester Story" presented Cook and Williams with many producing challenges, including securing the perfect locations, competing with the big budget Hollywood films, like "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" and "Domestic Disturbance," for equipment and crew, and trying to balance time constraints with creativity. With independent film, "you can’t go overtime," says Cook, "so you’re limited in how much you can achieve in a day. You can’t be as creative in your shots. Also, I was learning as I was going along." Having not gone the traditional route of film school, Cook relied heavily on her DP, Harlan Bosmajian, and her "priceless" AD, Lisa DeFuso, who had worked with her on "The Gypsy Years."

The scariest, but most exhilarating part of the process for Cook was the first day. "The high point was seeing 30 cars in the parking lot on the first day and saying, my God they’re all here for my film? They’re all here for my vision? Are you kidding me?" The shoot went smoothly over the months of April and May in 2001, and Cook, Williams, Sirianni, and the first AD spent all of it living together in a rented house on the beach, adding to the family feeling around the film.

"Because we lived all together, the job didn’t end, so that aspect was very tiring," says Cook. "As the director, you are really operating 24 hours a day. So I got no sleep. It was always go, go, go. I found it to be unbelievable, taxing — emotionally, mentally, and physically — but it was also an exhilarating high. I can’t wait to go at it again."

For Williams, the experience only confirmed what she already knew. "I love producing. I love being involved from conception through graduation, helping the project grow. Then it’s nice to sit back and let the spokes join on their own to form a wheel. It’s a beautiful moment, until reality sets in and the phone starts ringing."

"During filming we all got along really well. It was a very magical time," says Sirianni. Magical is the right word, because once again, the film’s theme of fate, chance encounters, and love flowed over into real life, as Sirianni ended up meeting the woman who is now his wife while down in North Carolina.

Having finished the film in 2001, finding a distributor was the next big challenge. After a long process of finding the perfect fit, Porchlight Entertainment is distributing it internationally, and Outrider Pictures domestically. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response overseas, particularly in the U.K., where its run on Sky Movies was extended an extra month. In the U.S., it premiered in Wilmington this past February. Both Williams and Cook are hoping to tentatively schedule a theatrical release in New York and Boston later in the summer or fall when the competition from big budget summer blockbusters isn’t as fierce.

"It’s definitely a date movie," says Sirianni. "So if guys want to get in good with their girlfriend, they should suggest they see this movie. It’s for people who don’t want to see ‘The Matrix’ [sequels] and who are tired of violence and gore."

Though it has been a long, difficult, and often exhilarating journey from when Cook first wrote the script in 1995 to its release in 2003, it was well worth the wait. "It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I miss it every day." The result of all their hard work is a simple sweet film that speaks to the core of everyday human experience and emotion, and in particular, how the simple twists of fate can change your life by giving you a new perspective. As Cook says, one of the messages of the film is that the tragedy of death can redefine life, and out of what appears to be a very negative situation, something positive can blossom. "It’s a very sweet balance of reality and fate and life blended together."

And where will fate take these three filmmakers now? Cook, Williams, and Sirianni are all planning their next projects, but who knows how fate will intervene to change the course of these three lives?

‘The Chester Story’ is being distributed by Outrider Pictures in the U.S. For more information, check out the film’s Web site: www.thechesterstory.vze.com


'The Chester Story' is being distributed by Outrider Pictures in the U.S. For more information, check out the film’s Web site: www.thechesterstory.vze.com