Daffodils and dahlias are not the only things that blossom in “The Immigrant Garden.”
Self-discovery, tolerance, friendship, knowledge, and respect grow out of the correspondence between the gentle drama’s two main characters, young Cecily Barnes and 80-year-old Louise Beauchamp, the elderly woman with whom she exchanges letters.
Although an ocean – and several generations – separate the two, their love of gardening entwines their lives as Cecily learns what her older friend has to share. Mrs. Beauchamp sends to Cecily seeds for the young woman’s garden – the immigrant garden – as well as the seeds of her own wisdom. In the process, Mrs. Beauchamp reaps some understanding of her own.
“THE IMMIGRANT GARDEN” is a film being shot in and around Lewis County. Directed and produced by C. Tad Devlin, Chehalis, and written by Longview resident Caroline Wood, the film is an adaptation of an original – and award-winning – play by Wood.
The play was cast in late July by Devlin, Wood, and casting director Dan Waller. Production began in August. For the cast and crew, mostly Southwest Washington residents, what began as a class project at Centralia College has become their first venture into the high stakes and often high-pressure world of movie making.
“(Tad) said, as a class, we’re going to work on a fiction piece and a nonfiction piece,” Wood said. “It was going to be a half-hour piece – a class project. “Tad said this is a good enough story, let’s go for it, and it just started growing.”
As Wood talks, she is seated in the foyer of Rutherglen Mansion, a grande dame of a home in Longview that perfectly fits within the film’s early 20th century time frame. The Colonial Revival residence -nearly 15,000 square feet on a remote hillside overlooking the Columbia River floodplain –was built in 1926 and maintains much of its original splendor.
On a recent Monday, the crew was using the mansion’s ballroom, anteroom and other quarters to shoot the scenes revolving around Cecily’s 18th birthday party. While the crew waits for Devlin, they perform the multiple tasks many have been assigned.
Make-up artists work on actors upstairs while set designers dress the rooms to reflect the post-Victorian time frame in which “The Immigrant Garden” takes place. Production Designer Michael Duquette kneels before the tile-faced hearth to make sure the fire’s soft glow, combined with the auxiliary lighting, is going to be just the right level for the upcoming scene.
Cinematographer Gregg Campbell rolls a dolly-mounted camera back and forth across the tight quarters to find where the perfect shot will be made. Although Devlin is directing the film, Wood is on-site for most of the production. It is not, she said, an easy thing to let go of her work, but has only approving words for Devlin.
“He gave me the option to direct, but I thought ‘Oh gosh, I would be in over my head,’ “Wood said. “But when we’re shooting, he’s right there with the camera getting it just the way I think I would.”
Curt Harris, who plays Cecily’s father, is one of the multifaceted cast members who also pitches in on the behind-the-scenes work. “I tell you, he does a lot,” said Wood. An immigrant herself, coming to the United States as a child of 10, she still has traces of a gentle British accent. “But he does an exceptional job in his role.”
Cecily is played by 18-year-old Onalaska resident Angela Johnson, who originally planned to audition for a smaller role.
“At first, I kind of felt, ‘You know what, Angela? What if you got the lead role?’ ” Johnson recalled with a smile. “Once I started working on it, it was, like, normalcy. “So now, this is just what I do.”
Having the film rest on her young shoulders is a lot of responsibility, but Johnson, who has some theatrical experience, said she “relates” to Cecily. Wood agrees it was a stroke of good casting. “What I saw in her was that, you know, that innocence,” Wood said, and after a brief pause, added, “It’s kind of like a pureness, an excitement about life.”
When Johnson approaches Wood, as she often does, to ask “What would Cecily do?” Wood said, she tells the young actress, “You be honest and be open. “Leave the door open and she’ll meet you halfway.”
OTHER KEY PLAYERS wear their roles equally well, Wood said, noting 17-year-old Chehalis resident Jessica Kline is the perfect fit as Cecily’s rebellious friend, Mary. “Mary’s character … it’s just (Jessica),” said Wood. “That’s part of the magic. “There’s something bigger than all of us at work here, and you just have to make room for it.” Magic though it may be, it is also a lot of intense, hard work.
“Yes, it can be very hard,” Wood said. “We’re all going into it with ourself in mind, but you’ve got to put that aside. “This is about learning to get along with people,” she said. “There’s a lot of emotions flying around, you bet. Tad has had to calm people’s nerves; he’s had to be the arbitrator a lot of the time.
“But the people who are drawn to the industry are maybe more emotional,” she explained. “We’ve definitely all had our hard walls to hit, and had to work through it.”
Devlin, who can also be mercurial, said much of his own emotion stems from the doubt of others. “I get testy because people haven’t been exposed enough to know what’s really involved here,” said Devlin, on a lunch break from shooting at an 1880s vintage farmhouse between Rochester and Littlerock this week. “But my biggest frustration here is no one believes it’s real.
“I think, by and large, people don’t give it any credibility,” he said. “They think, ‘Oh, this is Lewis County. We aren’t very good.’ “That just isn’t true.” Devlin said the level of work he is seeing from his cast and crew is of high caliber, much of it better than even the actors themselves suspect. He also credits a lot of people who undoubtedly will not go on to fame and fortune, but have been important in enabling the company to make the film.
“The costumers, the Lewis County Master Gardeners, J.D. Fouts — They were incredible,” Devlin said. As it is, Devlin doesn’t know whether this maiden voyage will make or break his film company, Northwest Film Project, but he remains cautiously optimistic.
“I think we’ve got some gold here, but we won’t really know that until we’re in post-production,” Devlin said. In the end, he said, the important thing is to make a film of which he can be proud. He has that, he said, in “The Immigrant Garden.”
“I’m trying to do films about youth, for youth – real issues that kids will face in their own lives,” Devlin said. “I want to do films that reflect values that we need as a society – tolerance and self-respect, respect for others, family.”
Hollywood veteran Devlin has a long list of credits – including co-producer of “When a Man Loves a Woman” and associate producer of “Sleeping With the Enemy” – but has not had success in bringing a film of “everyday people trying to live good lives” to fruition in Los Angeles.
So he’s bankrolling the independent project, teaching his roster of newcomers the ins and outs of the business, juggling personality clashes, and working hard at completing the film.
A key role – Mrs. Beauchamp – has yet to be cast, but Devlin said that, too, is not unusual by Hollywood standards. Since the woman corresponds with Cecily from overseas, her scenes can all be completed in the post-production process. “Caroline and I are probably going to make a decision by the end of this week,” Devlin said Tuesday.
Since the project’s inception, they have created a wish list that includes the likes of Joan Plowright, Angela Lansbury and Judi Dench. However, reality suggests they will find another actress. “You don’t want to put a jet engine in when you’re building a small car,” Devlin said. When his pragmatic side kicked in, he added with a smile, “Too, I don’t think we can afford one.”
When the final cut is made, he said, marketing will become the next big focus. “We’ll start shopping it around,” Devlin said. “Right now, I think it looks pretty good. I’m happy.”