Filmmaker Gita Pullapilly. Photo Credit: Shane Leonard.

Filmmaker Gita Pullapilly. Photo Credit: Shane Leonard.

Maine — a state that is best known for its mouthwatering lobster, saccharine maple syrup, picturesque landscapes, and plentiful of moose sightings – has attracted more than its share of nature lovers, writers and tourists. But despite its appealing small-town atmosphere and local attractions, it isn’t necessarily a mecca for those who live there. And this is exactly what Beneath the Harvest Sky, a film by Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet, focuses on – the heart and soul of the everyday people and their constant struggle to put bread on the table while they dream of a better tomorrow and the chance to move away.

Full of character and local charm, this teen indie drama centers on the lives of two best friends — Casper, a rebel-like soul with a big heart (Emory Cohen), and Dominic, a mature dreamer (Callan McAuliffe) — who make a vow to leave behind their lives in Van Buren, ME to pursue the chance at happiness in Boston, MA, but only once they can save up enough money to do so. With not many options available to them, the teens embrace the scarce job opportunities that come their way – legal or not. While Dominic works hard on a potato harvest farm (where he meets his “harvest buddy” girlfriend), Casper, working together with his outlaw father, smuggles drugs in from the Canadian border. Suffice it to say, the challenges they encounter based off their decisions, both professional and personal, test their friendship and make them question what is most important when considering the future.

Gaudet, a fellow Mainer himself, and Pullapilly, a South Bend, IN native, made this film in hopes of giving small-town teens something they could relate to in the midst of supernatural and superhero films. This also led to their decision in releasing it simultaneously in movie theaters and on VOD, hence providing access to those who might not live near a major city. But what they’ve truly accomplished with this fiction debut is far more superior to eliciting connection and engagement — they’ve captured authenticity in its purest form. Wanting to share their passion for filmmaking and experiences at the Tribeca Film Festival, Pullapilly and Gaudet spoke with GALO about their casting choices, the reasons for their location choice, and what they think about their film being called the next Stand By Me.

GALO: The film gives rise to an important subject matter that doesn’t only affect Maine, but various small towns and less populated states around America — the question of whether the youth will stay or depart on a journey to a larger city in search of jobs and a brighter future. Why did you want to examine this subject matter in the film? (From my personal travels to Maine, I know that finding a job there is problematic — many folks have multiple positions at diverse businesses, and it still is barely enough for most to get by.)

Aron Gaudet: I stumbled across some photos of a potato harvest in northern Maine and I was pretty taken by them. I showed them to Gita and we decided to travel to Maine and drive up north to Aroostook County. When we got there, we were impressed by the beautiful landscapes but also saw the decay of the area. We kept asking ourselves one question: “How do people survive in towns like this?” This became the question we wanted to answer, and through our research we realized that in order to survive up there, you have to think creatively and innovatively. Whether that’s growing blue potatoes or finding a new way to bring something over the border. What happens in Van Buren, Maine is no different than what happens in many rural towns across the country. Most businesses have folded, families have left, and those that remain must find as many opportunities as possible in order to survive.

Gita Pullapilly: We quickly understood the struggle, and also the choices that many in these towns have to make. And we realized it was never a good people vs. bad people story, but a story of how people survive. Because Van Buren is a border town, it made for some more unique aspects, but the struggle is all the same.

GALO: Not only is the storyline based in Maine, but the feature film itself was produced in the northern area of the state (not to mention you had an exclusive theater preview of the film there). What fascinated you about this East Coast state and its residents in particular? And were the location and its people the only inspiration for this film?

AG: I am actually from Maine. I grew up in Old Town, Maine. But in [my] 26 years of living in Maine, I had only been north to Aroostook County once. I just had no personal reason to go there. But I became fascinated by the world up there, and I felt like a coming-of-age story could be set there and be something different that hadn’t been seen before.

GP: Our last feature, a documentary, called The Way We Get By, also takes place in Maine — Bangor. And we spent five years working on that film. And when it came to releasing The Way We Get By, we had so many champions in Maine that we were able to garner enough support to release it nationally. We knew if we were going to take on our first narrative feature, the people of Maine would be able to help us.

GALO: Going back to the aspect of leaving everything behind, one scene that struck me in particular was when Dominic and Casper are sitting in the car, observing Casper’s uncle, and an emotional exchange of words erupts, with Casper saying, “What happens at the end of the game?” And Dominic responding back, “This town has nothing that either one of us wants.” Why is it important to Dominic to leave this town with Casper, especially given that his future in Maine is all but guaranteed in terms of work and completely unknown elsewhere? Is it the uncertainty and thrill of adventure that is driving him to this decision?

AG: Talking to a lot of teens up in northern Maine, the one thing they kept telling us was that as soon as they turned 18, they planned to leave town. Maybe join the military, move to Bangor or Portland, Maine for school, but one way or another, they wanted to get out and go somewhere — anywhere. I think if you’re growing up in a small town, after 18 years, it might seem like you’ve seen and done it all and you want to do something different.

GP: I grew up in South Bend, Indiana. It’s a small town, too, outside of the University of Notre Dame. I had plenty of opportunities in South Bend, but I wanted something more for myself, something the small town life didn’t offer. Like most people who end up leaving, I truly believe…yes, it’s maybe more risky, but also there are more opportunities out there and more chances to live a more fulfilling life. And sometimes things that are guaranteed — and maybe the easier, safer route — aren’t necessarily the best for you. At that age, it’s all about discovery and wanting more in life. And, I think, in a lot of ways, I related to Dominic in that way.

GALO: Both actors do a spectacular job with their roles. What scenes proved to be most challenging for both Emory Cohen and Callan McAuliffe, and what fascinated you about them during the audition process enough to cast them in the film?

AG: Emory and Callan are really amazing and gifted actors. We’re very proud of their performances. Casting director Allison Jones discovered Emory and Callan for us. Emory was the first person she sent us for Casper, and we joked that we’d look pretty naïve if we cast the first person she sent our way, but we did and it was the best decision we ever made. Callan is an Australian actor, and in his audition, we saw the traits we loved so much about Dominic in him. He had a sweet, good-natured side, but he also had a ruggedness that was needed to play a kid from northern Maine. And we felt like they had such great chemistry on screen and they looked like real kids from “The County.”

GP: Though Emory and Callan both have very different ways of working as actors — they both worked off of each other and bonded naturally since cast and crew stayed at a catholic retreat center up there. In terms of challenging scenes, I think every scene has its level of complexity because each has its own set of layers that we were hoping to convey through Emory and Callan. But even just getting the potato canons to work on cue proved sometimes harder than you’d think.

GALO: The film has been said to be the next Stand By Me for the young adult and adult generation. Do you agree with this notion?

GP: There is no question that Stand By Me, The Outsiders, Breaking Away, At Close Range, Rumble Fish, these films from the ’80s really resonated with us. When I was growing up, these were the films I related to — and even to this day, I think back to scenes from those movies and just how they impacted me in my life. So, to be compared to Stand By Me for this generation is the biggest honor.

AG: I think we often wondered what movies were being made for young adults today that didn’t involve vampires or somebody turning into a werewolf, and we realized there really weren’t many films out there where small town teens could see some version of themselves and their life up on screen. We hope they discover [this] film.