Despite being English majors, active in performance groups like Theater Intime, and only two years apart at Princeton, Sean Mewshaw ’97 and Desi Van Til ’99 never crossed paths on campus. But the pair, who are now married with two children, share a common path: They both point to their experiences at the University as imperative to their success in the film industry.
Van Til and Mewshaw met in Los Angeles in 2000 through mutual friends and began dating soon after while starting to establish themselves professionally in Hollywood; during that time Mewshaw worked on Gangs of New York and Remember the Titans, and Van Til helped produce 13 Going On 30 andDrillbit Taylor.
After almost a decade of working in Los Angeles, Van Til began feeling homesick for her home state of Maine. She began to write — first a series of scenes between two characters, but it soon developed into a full-blown screenplay called Tumbledown, named after a mountain not far from Van Til’s hometown of Farmington, Maine.
“It was very much Desi diving into her own inquisitions about ‘why do I live in LA, could I live back in Maine, and what does it mean to live in the woods where it’s beautiful and you have time and space,’ ” said Mewshaw.
Tumbledown is a comedic love story about a woman named Hannah (Rebecca Hall) who lives in the woods of Maine and is struggling to move on with her life after the death of her husband. When she meets Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), a New York academic who has his own theories about her late husband’s death, the two collaborate to put together the real story.
Described by Van Til as “a celebration of my hometown and the people who live there,” the setting ofTumbledown in small-town Maine is nearly as important to the story as the characters and plot. Mewshaw said he was struck by the tight-knit and friendly community in Farmington the first time he visited.
“When Desi first brought me back, it wasn’t like ‘Here’s my family, meet my parents, and this is where I lived,’ ” he said. “We did the tour and met all the parents of the kids she went to high school with and grew up with because she was very much raised by this wonderful community.”
The couple decided to pack their bags and move to Maine in the hopes of making the movie cheaply themselves. After seven years of work that included cutting down the script, finding and hiring well-known actors, shooting, and editing, the film was screened for the first time at the Tribeca Film Festival last April.
“There was this amazing feeling of having 900 live bodies laughing at your movie and crying at your movie — I’ll never forget the satisfaction of that feeling of ‘Wow, it’s connecting with people,’ ” Van Til said.
Over the following months Tumbledown was shown at more than a dozen other film festivals around the country. The film was well received by audiences and won several awards (in Savannah, Mewshaw won Best Director and the movie won Best Film; Van Til won Best Screenplay in Napa) and is will be accessible to a larger audience next month. Starting Feb. 5, viewers in New York City and Los Angeles can see it, and a week later, on Feb. 12, audiences in 50 other markets across the country can see it in theaters as well. On Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m., there will be a special screening and Q&A session with the filmmakers at Princeton’s Garden Theater. Viewers who don’t live in those areas can download it on iTunes or catch it on Video on Demand on cable channels.
Now that work on Tumbledown is starting to wrap up (“I feel like it’s our baby and we’re sending it off to college but still sending care packages,” Mewshaw said), the filmmakers are already looking ahead towards their next respective projects. Mewshaw is working with another screenwriter on a new film, and Van Til is writing another screenplay. But while they’re pursuing different paths now, both agree that there’s something special about being husband and wife and creative partners.
“We work well enough together because we believe in each other’s strong feelings,” Van Til said. “If Sean or I stick to our guns vehemently, usually it’s for a good reason, and I know if Sean says, ‘I know I’m right’ about something, I’ll believe him, and vice versa. And in that way we’re each others check and balance creatively.”