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Can You Go Home Again? Tom O'Brien on "Fairhaven"

Does a guy like Tom Brady really have it all? Tom O'Brien blurs the lines between documentary and narrative in his directorial debut, "Fairhaven." The TFF 2012 film opens today in New York & Boston.

Fairhaven is a New England drama that chronicles the longstanding friendship between three men who grew up together and are now faced with the looming dread of middle age. Jon (writer/director Tom O’Brien) still clings to his high school glory days on the football field and only now is coming to terms with the present. In a last attempt to realize his life ambition, he quits his dull 9-to-5 gig to focus on becoming a full-time writer.

As part of re-connecting with his younger self, Jon jumps at the chance to reunite with his oldest friend Dave (co-writer Chris Messina) who has returned home to attend his father’s funeral. Jon is baffled by Dave’s impulsive and destructive behavior, as is their friend Sam (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), who is recently divorced and also trying to start his life a-fresh.

Also starring Sarah Paulson and Alexie Gilmore, Fairhaven is an intimate character piece that successfully interweaves comedy and drama in its exploration of the buried feelings and unresolved issues that inevitably are part of long-time friendships. Fairhaven hits theaters starting this weekend at Cinema Village in NYC and the Somerville Theater in Boston. There will be a Q & As following the 7:15PM and 9:00PM shows at Cinema Village on Friday, January 11. Not on the East Coast? Fairhaven hits VOD nationwide and digital platforms on Tuesday, January 15.

Note: This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Fairhaven.  How would you describe the movie?

Tom O’Brien: We’ve been doing a lot of the synopsis stuff now, but I think it’s always interesting to have someone else do the synopsis. I’m just so “in it.” That’s why it was so exciting to see the announcement and read what Tribeca had to say about Fairhaven. They called it “a thoughtful meditation of love, loss and friendship.” I would probably add too that it’s a comic drama that's also a reunion story about these three friends who grew up together in a small town and are all stuck in their separate ways. They come together for this moment, and they are all affected by it.

Tribeca: I understand that a particular media moment inspired you to make Fairhaven.  Is that true?

Tom O’Brien: The idea for the script was inspired by the Tom Brady interview on 60 Minutes, in which he was asked the following question:  “After three Super Bowls and three MVP awards, you are at the absolute top of your profession. How does it feel?” His response was striking: “When it all happened, when all my dreams had come true, I thought, is this it? There’s gotta be something more than this.” I sort of took that sentiment as being very profound and ran with it from my point of view.

Tribeca: Tom Brady’s doing ok. He’s got Gisele.

Tom O’Brien: [laughs] Exactly! That’s what everyone says, but that’s the point of the movie. Everyone looks at him and just assumes he is happy, you know… “If I had what he had, I’d be happy.” All that came up again with this year’s Super Bowl and Gisele’s involvement.

Tribeca: I saw that you and Fairhaven actor Chris Messina share the story credits. Can you talk about your collaboration with Chris while writing the screenplay?

Tom O’Brien: Well, that Tom Brady interview is where the idea started, and then I brought the script to Chris. Interestingly enough, he was staying with this mutual friend of ours in a Tribeca loft, right around the corner from here. We had our first script session right there. We’ve been friends for a long time, and we’re in a theater company together. I’m very dialogue-based, and he is very visual.

So it was great to have him be able to pull the script apart and be like, “What if the characters were at the fork instead of being in the restaurant and then go in here, etc., etc.?” Then I would say, “Great idea,” and we’d go from there. I’d take notes and write another draft. At that time, he was living in LA. So it would be 6 months between our sessions, but I would go out to LA for a week and bring my new draft. He would go through it and give me notes and so on and so on. We ended up doing that for nearly 5 years before we finally got the project together.

Tribeca: Five years is a long time. Fairhaven must have been a real passion project.

Tom O’Brien: It was. Even though we were always doing other things, there was always something keeping the Fairhaven project alive. Every time we thought it was dead, something would come along and bring it back to life.

Tribeca: This is the first feature that you have directed. Given that you originally started out as an actor, is directing something you always wanted to do?

Tom O’Brien: No, it’s funny. I kind of got into the directing indirectly. I had directed plays that I had written before, so I felt comfortable working with actors. I didn’t initially think I was going to direct Fairhaven. The process took so long, though, that finally I said, “Somebody has to make this happen. I’ll take the ball and run with it.” I directed the movie out of necessity.

Tribeca:  I know you’re from Boston, which you can really feel in the film. Fairhaven has this great New England vibe, but at the same time it feels like a universal story. How did you settle on the town of Fairhaven?

Tom O’Brien: Well, Fairhaven was actually half of the inspiration, along with the Tom Brady interview. My mother moved there after I went to college.  I used to visit her when I was in school, and every time I drove into that town, I was struck by the fact that it isn’t a Cape Cod tourist trap. I could hear a Bruce Springsteen song playing when I came into Fairhaven. It’s so cinematic that I just always thought someone should make a movie here. In fact, when I first started writing the screenplay, I was at my mother’s house in Fairhaven.

Tribeca: Was the town of Fairhaven welcoming to the film and its cast/crew?

Tom O’Brien: It’s funny. I started as an outsider, and I knew very little about the town. As the project got going and I started to get really involved, I would go to Fairhaven and stay there for the weekend. Through our Facebook page, we ended up meeting practically the whole town, including the people who eventually put us up. Everyone was so helpful. All our locations were donated, and people really got behind the movie. Their support made our film happen. We had such a low budget that it wouldn’t have been possible without the town’s support. They were all the extras in the movie and a couple of the townspeople had small speaking roles.

Tribeca: Has anyone from Fairhaven seen the film yet?

Tom O’Brien: I don’t think so. I’ve heard that a couple of people are going to make the trip here for the Festival. It will be exciting to have some real Fairhaven people at the showing.

Tribeca: Can you talk a little bit about the casting of the film?

Tom O’Brien: Well obviously, Chris was with it from the very beginning. I think that having him involved in the project, and him already so respected in the industry, really brought legitimacy to the project. I think that’s what really drew people like Rich Sommer and Sarah Paulson, who both really wanted to work with Chris. He’s such an actor’s actor.

Tribeca: The cast had such great chemistry. Their relationships and friendships are the backbone of the film. Were you able to have a rehearsal period?

Tom O’Brien: Barely any. Rich came on really late. He and Chris did another movie together that’s playing at Tribeca called The Giant Mechanical Man. I think Rich was actually on that set when he got the script that we sent him. Rich and Chris really got along, and he responded to the material. I didn’t meet him until the day before we started shooting.

Tribeca: I loved how real Fairhaven was—it offers up great naturalistic slices of life.

Tom O’Brien: My whole thing is that I like to blur the lines between documentary and feature, so I was aiming for a film that is very naturalistic. That’s how I write anyway, and I encourage improvisation. For Fairhaven, the actors would learn the scenes and we would shoot all day, have dinner, watch dailies, and go into somebody’s hotel room and look at the next day’s scenes. The actors would learn the scenes, and I would basically say, “Throw those away.” They would have the bones and structure for the scenes and say it however it came out of their mouths. Most of the time, we got these great improvisational lines. It was a really nice blend of script and improv.

Tribeca: It definitely comes across over the film. It must have been helpful to be an actor/director, because you already have the skills to draw what you need from your cast members.

Tom O’Brien: I knew if I had a strong point directing my first feature, it would be directing my actors. That I was very comfortable doing; for the rest of the stuff, I was pretty clueless [laughs]. I knew the performances were either going to make or break this movie. As long as I could give these actors as much freedom as possible, I knew it was going to work out. The cast was just so talented. There was no need to micro-manage them.

Tribeca: What’s it like to direct yourself?

Tom O’Brien: I really didn’t have to do that, because I had Chris on set. We’re such good friends, and we trust each other’s work so much. When he wasn’t acting, he would go behind the monitor and put the earphones on and come back and give me notes. I could totally give him the reins when I was directing. That was really nice.

Tribeca: Do you have any favorite moments from the film?

Tom O’Brien: There’s a scene in the real estate office when Chris and I are getting high.  Then we go visit Rich at his work. Right before the take, I made Chris laugh, and Chris just gets in these laugh fits and can’t stop. It was a ten-minute take, and he literally laughed for ten minutes straight. There were times when I thought about stopping the entire take because it was so crazy, but for some reason, I let it just go and we finished the scene. It was so perfect, because we just came from getting high and that scene seems to be playing really well. That was our lightning strikes moment.

Tribeca: Are there any scenes you regret leaving on the cutting room floor?

Tom O’Brien: There was so much. We handed the footage over to our editor, Nick Houy— who had worked as an assistant editor on some big features—and we couldn’t have been happier with the result. Fairhaven was actually Nick's first time working on a feature as the lead editor. He worked on some documentaries, and this experience was part of the reason why we hired him. We knew that we were going to give him a lot of footage to deal with. He’d be going through the footage and say, “This is a great moment. Did you get the reverse angle of that?” And of course, we didn’t. He somehow managed to edit Fairhaven like a documentary and use off-camera lines, etc. He was a life saver.

Tribeca: As a writer/director, is there any lesson you learned that you could share with our readers?

Tom O’Brien: The biggest lesson I learned was not to be attached to your preconceived notions of how the scene is going to go. When you write a script, you have a vision of what the scene will look like in your head or what the characters will look like, and you must be ready to change when you get to the shoot. I originally thought of Fairhaven as an autumn movie, and the first day we got to Fairhaven, it snowed. We thought, “What are we going to do? How are we going to match this?” It literally snowed for three weeks. There was even a blizzard.

We were covered in snow, and now I can’t think of Fairhaven as anything but a winter movie. Obviously, you have to have a vision, and that vision gives you something to move towards, but if you hold on to that vision too tightly, you’ll just miss all the magical moments that you could capture.

Tribeca: The cinematography is really striking in Fairhaven. Did any films inspire you while you were making the film?

Tom O’Brien: Yeah, Chris and I are big fans of Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nicholson was always improvising in these beautiful shots. I knew I wanted to have a real nice look to the movie.

Our fantastic director of photography, Peter Simonite, pushed our producer Massoumeh Emami, to get the Arri Elexa instead of the Red camera, which we were originally going to use. We had no business using the Arri Elexa, since it just came out [laughs] and we had no money. Massoumeh, being a miracle worker, was able to get the camera, the only one was in Massachusetts. We were shooting in the dead of winter when nobody else was shooting, so we got this great equipment, which otherwise would have been just sitting on the shelf, and this great crew. No one else dared to film during three blizzards [laughs]. We got some great deals, but people thought we were crazy.

Tribeca: So relativity smooth sailing from then on?

Tom O’Brien: Not really, but we managed to make it work. We totally maxed out our camera budget, so we didn’t have a playback system. You know, it’s an actor/director’s first film and there’s no playback? So we would have the monitor set up, and Massoumeh would literally tape the monitor during the take on her iPhone. We essentially used her iPhone as our playback system.

Tribeca: What are you most looking forward to at Tribeca?

Tom O’Brien: I think just sharing the movie with an audience. We’ve only had one test screening with 25 people, so to be able to watch the film with a couple hundred people is going to be an amazing experience. That’s probably the main thing I’m looking forward to. The parties won’t be bad, either [laughs].

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?

Tom O’Brien: I know I’m supposed to say Truffaut or Fellini, but the filmmakers that really inspire me are the ones whose films I can relate to. I love Kelly Reichardt. Old Joy is one of my favorite movies. I love Kenneth Lonergan. You Can Count On Me is so great. I love what Ed Burns is doing now with the scaled-down production. It would have to be more of a dinner party with Kelly Reichardt, Kenneth Lonergan, and Ed Burns, and then Woody Allen and John Cassavetes come in to round it out.

Tribeca: What’s your favorite New York movie?

Tom O’Brien: I’d have to go with Manhattan. That shot with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton getting out of the cab and that walk…it’s amazing. It’s so beautiful.

Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?

Tom O’Brien: Oh man. It would probably be called I hate bio pics, but here it is anyway.

Tribeca: What makes Fairhaven a Tribeca must see?

Tom O’Brien: The performances. Well, that sounds pretty bad because I also act in the film, but besides my performance [laughs].  See it for the other performances.

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