When you think of moviemaking towns you think of Hollywood. You think of New York. You don’t think of Chehalis. In fact, probably the last place you’d expect to find filmmaking going on is the little town of 7,020 in Southwestern Washington. But thanks to a Hollywood expatriate named C. Tad Devlin, Chehalis has indeed become a film center of sorts. The proof will be presented Saturday at the Blue Mouse Theatre in Tacoma’s Proctor District, where “The Immigrant Garden,” a feature made by Devlin in the bucolic countryside around Chehalis, will be screened. A portion of the proceeds from the five showings will go to benefit the 2003 Proctor Arts Festival.
Set in 1910, “The Immigrant Garden” tells the story of a motherless teenage girl from the farming community of Oakville whose correspondence with an elderly Englishwoman blossoms into a deep friendship. Both are gardeners, and the Englishwoman encloses seeds and valuable life lessons in her letters to the independent-minded young American.
The film got its start as a class project. Devlin, a 30-year film-industry veteran who started as a behind-the-camera go-fer on “Annie Hall” and worked his way up to executive producer on the 1997 blockbuster comedy “George of the Jungle,” moved to Chehalis in 1989 out of a sense of creative frustration. The 57-year-old said he wanted to make what he calls character-driven movies, pictures about believable people and their relationships. Increasingly he found Hollywood wanted only to make “eye candy”: blockbusters full of graphic sex and explosions. So he left. He sold his house. He sold his cars. He and his wife moved to Chehalis because he thought it would be a nice, quiet place to retire. He got a part-time job teaching night classes in screenwriting and media literacy to adults at Centralia Community College. And when one of his students, a playwright from Longview named Caroline Wood, brought him her first play, “The Immigrant Garden,” he got the idea to turn it into a movie. It was exactly the kind of character piece he felt Hollywood was no longer interested in making.
To keep costs down, he decided to shoot it with an off-the-shelf consumer-model digital camera. That saved a huge amount of money. Devlin said he spent $375 on digital videotape to shoot the movie. “If I had shot it on 35 mm film, it would have been $375,000,” he said. His actors and crew were students and other members of the community – around 350 in all. His star, Angela Johnson, was a 17-year-old student from Onalaska who had never been in a movie before. Local craftsmen built a camera dolly out of tractor parts. People agreed to work for little or no money and deferred. They’ll be paid what is due them if the movie ever turns a profit.
Even under those bare-bones conditions, the picture still cost $1.5 million to complete, most of that incurred during the post-production process. Devlin said he and his wife put $500,000 of their own money into it – their life savings. “I put every dime into it,” he said. “I’m broke.”
But the picture got made. Getting it distributed and exhibited has been another matter. To date, Devlin has primarily shown it at charity fund-raisers around the state, like the one Saturday at the Blue Mouse. “It’s my baby,” he said. And he’s proud of it.
Soren Andersen: 253-597-8742, Ext. 6235
If you go
What: “The Immigrant Garden.”
Where: Blue Mouse Theatre, 2611 N. Proctor St., Tacoma.
When:12, 2, 4, 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $12-$8, available at the Blue Mouse box office and also at Tacoma Trains, The Pacific Northwest Shop, Old House Mercantile, the Discovery Shop and Pomodoro’s Restaurant, all in the Proctor business district. Proceeds will benefit the 2003 Proctor Arts Festival.