Finding facts in fiction: ‘Beneath the Harvest Sky’ brings authenticity to silver screen


Source: Shane Leonard

Medill alumna Gita Pullapilly and her husband Aron Gaudet have shifted from documentary filmmaking to writing and directing fiction with their newest project, “Beneath the Harvest Sky.” The film screened April 18 at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Cat Zakrzewski, Reporter

Gita Pullapilly (Medill ’01) laughs as she remembers the rough cuts she made in her first editing class. The mistakes are far behind the filmmaker, whose latest project screened April 18 at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

Pullapilly and her husband, Aron Gaudet, are part of a small niche of moviemakers who shift between documentary and narrative fiction films.

The pair first rose to the spotlight for their work on “The Way We Get By,” a documentary that aired on Public Broadcasting Service about a group of senior citizens in Maine who greet U.S. troops at the airport. The couple returned to Maine for their first foray into writing and directing fiction for the screen, “Beneath the Harvest Sky.”

The film, which hits limited theaters in May and is available for digital download, tells the coming-of-age story of two boys, Casper and Dominic, in a small farm town. The pair plans to leave the town behind in hopes of finding a better life in Boston, but their dream is threatened when Casper (Emory Cohen) gets caught up in his father’s drug smuggling and his girlfriend gets pregnant.

Critics praised the couple’s departure from documentary work to fictional narrative for its authenticity. For Pullapilly, the greatest challenge in creating a fictional film was managing a much larger crew. In the past, Pullapilly and her husband had made films with each other and maybe one other person, she said. For “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” she said they adapted to leading a 50- to 70-person crew.

But despite initial “growing pains,” Pullapilly said her documentary background was an asset. She said her ability to help the actors develop real, believable characters and express emotional dimensions came from her roots in journalism. She and Gaudet met when they were working for television news stations in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“We kept it as much like a documentary as possible,” Pullapilly said. “We would say, would we believe (the actors) if this were a documentary? If not, we would work on it.”

Chicago resident Zoe Levin plays Tasha, Casper’s girlfriend who gets pregnant right as the pair is set to leave town. She said Pullapilly’s female perspective helped her develop her character more.

“Tasha can be very one-dimensional with her language, but I wanted to bring out her vulnerability,” Levin said. “Gita really helped me play around with that. She also helped me find girls in the town … real girls who felt the way Tasha did.”

Timm Sharp, who plays Casper’s uncle Badger, said the highlight of working with Pullapilly and Gaudet was how welcoming the pair was to his ideas. Sharp brought his dog to the filming location and later realized having the dog appear in the film with him would add an extra dimension to his character. Pullapilly loved it, he said.

“She’s so respectful and open for whatever,” Sharp said. “That makes it a better movie.”

The pair’s decision to film on location in Aroostook County, Maine, also contributed to the production’s authenticity. The whole cast and crew lived in the small town for about a month while shooting. Cohen even arrived a few weeks early to completely immerse himself in the town’s culture and lived with the young adults he was attempting to portray, Sharp said.

Because the town was not equipped to host a crew of that size, the team took residence in a Christian retreat center. Sharp described the arrangements as “dorm life.”

“We would all hang out and talk after work,” he said. “There were pictures of Jesus everywhere.”

Levin said the unique living situation made her feel like the cast and crew were a family and helped her immerse herself in the film.

“I found it hard to separate reality from filming,” Levin said. “It felt like we were really kind of living it. There wasn’t a lot to do in that town. We really felt that angst those teenagers experience.”

But for Pullapilly, critics’ praise of the authenticity have been the “biggest compliment.” She said she really learned how to tell a story about social issues without hitting an audience over the head from the same professor who had to wade through her first rough edits for journalism class, Larry Stuelpnagel.

“He would always tell us it’s about bringing them into the story and then telling them the facts,” Pullapilly said. “I’ve always remembered that.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the filming location. “Beneath the Harvest Sky” was taped on location in Aroostook County, Maine. The Daily regrets the error. 

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