Actor Chris Messina tries a new, more gritty approach
The independent-film movement lately has been flooded with twentysomething upstarts such as Sean Durkin ("Martha Marcy May Marlene") Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Drake Doremus ("Like Crazy") who see themselves as filmmakers first and foremost and had a clear vision of the kind of movie they wanted to make pretty much from the time they reached finger-painting age.
An older model of indie filmmaker -- the struggling actor who picks up a pen or a camera because he or she can't find the parts he or she wants -- has been harder to come by.
Which makes the DIY story of Tom O'Brien and Chris Messina, the writer-actors behind the new indie drama "Fairhaven," an interesting exception.
O’Brien, who also directed "Fairhaven," is a New York-based actor and filmmaker who felt like he was never going to tell the stories he was interested in if he simply went the spec script or audition route.
Messina had been getting plenty of movie and television parts; the problem was that that they all came in the same key. He played Claire's sweet up-the-middle boyfriend on "Six Feet Under," and similar nice-guy spousal roles in "Julie & Julia," "Greenberg" and a bunch of others that might make you say, 'Oh, that guy.'"
The pair, who met doing New York theater in the 1990s and early 2000s, decided to write a script that would shake things up for both of them.
"Being in New York theater years ago, I got to to play these great characters -- drug dealers, gang leaders," Messina recalled over lunch with O'Brien recently. "And then I went to Los Angeles and I was cast as a Republican lawyer on 'Six Feet Under,' which seemed new and great, but then after a while some people start to think that that's all you are. So a part of the idea was to turn it all on its head." (It should be noted that Messina has done a number of indie films as well, playing the lead opposite Rashida Jones in the romantic drama "Monogamy," among other roles.)
O’Brien had a similar feeling as his friend. "I'd watch these movies and think 'that's not the Chris I know," said the actor, who's mostly worked in theater. "And I wasn't even getting those kinds of roles."
So the two began writing "Fairhaven," basing it loosely on a Massachusetts town where O'Brien's mother lived and a Long Island suburb where Messina grew up. Over a period of several years, the two would send the script back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, with the writers getting together in the same city a few weeks each year to hammer out the details. Last year, they scraped up enough money to begin shooting.
"We had about three conversations with studios to maybe get a star and try to get it made at a bigger budget," O'Brien recalled. But he and Messina ultimately decided that would defeat the purpose of doing a movie like this in the first place.
The film centers on three mid-30s childhood buddies who come together in the titular Massachusetts fishing town after the death of one of their fathers.
The grown-man-returns-home tale is about as archetypal as it gets in male-centric cinema, from the indie mopiness of Zach Braff's "Garden State" to the poignant comedy of Ted Demme's "Beautiful Girls."
But it feels fresh here, thanks to the movie's subtle rhythms, the likability of its main characters and, considering the through-line of white thirtysomething men staring into the abyss, a surprising amount of humor. (A running joke about how even Tom Brady feels let down by life is a standout.)
O'Brien said he wanted to make a movie that dealt with being a youngish man in ways that Hollywood doesn't. "I like those Judd Apatow movies, but I never feel I can relate to the any of the characters," he said.
The actors said working with each other was liberating because it allowed for a kind of improvisation that's rare even in independent cinema.
'"With a lot of these small movies, you get on the phone with the director before you start shooting and talk about Cassavetes and Altman and all these great filmmakers," Messina said. "And then you get to set and it all goes out the window. You start doing a little improv and some producer comes up and says, 'Um, we gotta get out of this location, so please stick to the script.'"
The pair said they have no grand distribution plans for their movie. They're not counting on a major release, let alone a crossover hit; they just wanted to tell a story their way and get it seen by a handful of people. "Fairhaven" played the recent Tribeca Film Festival and will likely land just that kind of niche distribution deal. It's a dispiriting sign of the times--"Beautiful Girls" and "Garden State" each grossed more than $20 million.
But in a period when workaday actors are lucky to get a juicy role, Messina and O'Brien consider it triumph just getting "Fairhaven" made. "We can move on now," O'Brien said, laughing. "Though we have a couple of other scripts we've been talking about writing that look at some similar issues."
-- Steven Zeitchik in New York
Photo. Sarah Paulson and Chris Messina in "Fairhaven." Credit: Dada Films