Genuine independent filmmaking is a grueling process of fund-raising, budget squeezing, bargain-location scouting, and cast cultivating — with plenty of sputters and glitches along the way as money runs out on one phase and needs to be scraped together again for the next.
The South Fork might not be the obvious first choice of filmmakers on a shoestring (given the cost of getting things done here, and a production’s reliance on the weather for exterior scenes). But for her 30-minute short feature “The Sea Is All I Know,” Jordan Bayne found a wealth of good will and generosity here, much of it stemming from her film’s lead actress, Melissa Leo.
Ms. Leo, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar back in February for the movie “The Fighter,” has a lifelong association with East Hampton, because her father, the writer and bayman Arnold Leo, lives in Springs.
Ms. Bayne spent large blocks of time on the South Fork in the early 1990s and she recalled its beauty fondly during a recent conversation. She was part of a community of artists and other creative people who flocked to the beach at Gibson Lane in Sagaponack and hung out in farmhouses and barns before the real estate market went from gang-busters into true, mad overdrive.
Her plot centers on an estranged couple whose terminally ill daughter requests help in ending her life. Ms. Leo is the mother and Peter Gerety, one of her co-stars on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” plays the father, a fisherman.
“When I wrote the film, I knew so many beautiful spots and friends that it made sense to shoot the film” on the South Fork, she said. She had met Ms. Leo on the set of “One Night,” a film released in 2007, and began writing “The Sea Is All I Know” the same year.
“I started off acting and thought it was all I was going to do with my life. But I saw that there were no roles for women unless it was a sexy woman on the arm of some guy or a prostitute. I did both those roles and they’re not too complex. I started writing for myself, to make more complex roles.” Although she still teaches acting, once she started directing her first short film, “Argo,” she decided she no longer wanted to be both behind and in front of the camera.
“Jordan has a strong quality to her. I wouldn’t want to name it,” Ms. Leo told The Star last week. “When she got in touch again, I told her, ‘I knew I hadn’t seen the last of you,’ and she had this amazing script.”
“Melissa and I talked about this a lot. It was a lot of the reason why she wanted to do the film,” Ms. Bayne said. “People are very uncomfortable with their relationship to death. I thought it was an important topic, but from the beginning I thought I wrote a story about love.” Over the course of the film, “that estranged couple go through so many things because of their daughter dying. They are forced to face so much about themselves and their own belief system. It’s about what it’s like to love someone beyond your own needs, to let them have dignity in their final moments. I never meant to write a story about assisted suicide, but I did and when I was done, I could see the power of that.”
Ms. Leo said that while Ms. Bayne’s film “is so beautiful it could be set anywhere,” she was pleased to help integrate the story into “the world of the East End that I know so well.” She asked her father to help.
“It was a pleasure to link up my dad and Jordan to facilitate the authenticity on the boats,” Ms. Leo said. “She’s clever enough to have made up the scenes herself, but the connectedness is beautiful.” Ms. Leo, who still visits her father on occasion, when she’s not on location for a movie or in New Orleans shooting the HBO series “Treme,” was not in the scenes shot on the East End, but did her bits on City Island in the Bronx.
Mr. Leo appeared in the 1995 movie “Last Summer in the Hamptons” with his daughter and helped Ms. Bayne with suggestions and permits for locations. He also introduced her to Brad and Cynthia Loewen: Mr. Loewen’s pound traps are featured prominently in the short film. “It’s really fascinating technology,” Ms. Bayne said, “because it’s set up from a system of netting that hasn’t changed for 200 to 300 years.”
Through her filmmaking and getting to know the Loewens, she developed a genuine respect for the fishing traditions of the area and the challenges the old fishing families face. “Brad is a 13th-generation fisherman. He’s out there, but he’s the last in the line. It’s a tragic thing. He understands why his son feels he can’t make a living wage doing it and he thinks he’s right.”
Mr. Loewen, who was initially hired to pilot his boat and provide some instruction to make the scenes look realistic, ended up with so much screen time that he has been sent paperwork to join the Screen Actors Guild. “If you’re in a scene for a length of time, you’re considered an actor,” he said. “We were out in the boat, lifting the trap, and Peter and I were just talking about fishing, having a conversation. I wasn’t supposed to be in the scene but the director said, ‘Talk all you want.’ ” In the end, they needed him in the scene so that Mr. Gerety did not look like he was talking only to the fish.
“It was nice footage,”Ms. Bayne said, “something he didn’t expect, nor did I. Brad was just Brad. There is an ease about him; he’s comfortable with who he is just going along with things.” She added that Mr. Gerety told her it was “one of the most wonderful days of his life to go out fishing with Brad.”
Ms. Loewen, an artist and a baker, contributed to the film, too. One of her paintings was used in a scene and she provided the crew with iced tea and brownies during the two extremely hot days of filming last June. Mr. Gerety bought the painting.
The couple were impressed by how down to earth the cast and crew were. “They weren’t celebrities, even though they are celebrities,” Ms. Loewen said.
“Although the film is not about fishermen, the character is a fisherman and they didn’t treat it at all like a stereotype. They didn’t come across as a bunch of beer-swilling fools,” Mr. Loewen said. “It’s a human story about a very human dilemma, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Ms. Bayne just recently completed “The Sea Is All I Know” and has begun sending it out to film festivals in hopes of both exposure and a shot at distribution. At 30 minutes, it is an unusual length for a short film; its subject matter is also tough. She hopes that the Hamptons International Film Festival will take notice of the setting and story. She also plans to bring it to Cannes for its Short Film Corner, which is a showcase for pieces that are out of competition but seeking distribution.
“I’m hoping to do as many film festivals over this next year as I can,” she said. She also is optimistic that Ms. Leo’s Oscar win might help shift the movie to the top of the pile. “If 100 films are submitted and if they see Melissa Leo in mine, I think they will give us a closer look. She gives us a higher profile.”
Musing on the changes in her professional life, post-Oscar, and its possible impact on Ms. Bayne’s movie, Ms. Leo said, “It’s a really hard call to make. As things go, as much has not changed as has changed. Jordan has a beautiful but difficult film. It’s not what you typically see in a film festival . . . but I would really love to have it screened on a big screen.”