On a remote island off the coast of Maine, Hannah Newcombe has grown up as far away from a regular childhood as possible. An orphan dropped off at a church, she lives lives with the island’s sole preacher – she’s part daughter/part maid. Her dream to attend a prestigious religious boarding school is clearly his dream, forced upon her. Hannah has no direction anyway, no ties to anything.
When a classmate leaps to his assumed death off of a cliff, Hannah becomes obsessed with the missing boy, Hannah inserts herself into the life of the boy’s father. She takes the boy’s place on a lobster boat, and for the first time has something she can call her own.
Set in the late 1980s, as the Voyager Spacecraft passed Neptune and headed out into the unknown, NEPTUNE is the story of Hannah’s departure from the safety of her sheltered life for adulthood. Beautifully shot with a phenomenal performance by Jane Ackermann as Hannah, writer/director Derek Kimball’s film is perfect festival film, a small story told with such depth and craft that you can’t help but be lifted to a faraway place. It introduces a couple of strong voices (Kimball and Ackermann) that I really cannot wait to see more work from.
I had a chance to speak with the writer/director and his star at the film’s screening at Slamdance.
BEARS: So, place is such a part of the film; not just Hannah’s life in Maine, but the remoteness of it all, and the daily life on the island. Can you tell me a little about where you shot, how you became familiar with it, and how it informed the work?
Derek Kimball: We were both raised in Maine and I have always wanted to use the texture of that state in a feature film because there’s something inarticulable about the beauty there. It’s a little spooky and some of the Old World values are still intact there. We shot it all up and down the coast of Maine. It’s not an island, but obviously shooting on an island isn’t feasible because you have to ferry people in and out. So we hand selected locations that we felt were kind of quintessentially Maine without being too “calendar-town” – you know, so cute and quaint that they belong on a calendar.
Jane Ackermann: Or a J Crew catalogue
Kimball: Because Maine isn’t really like that. For all of it’s beauty, it’s really kind of rough in a lot of ways, you know? And the people who live there really build themselves into that landscape, and become part of the landscape, and the landscape in turn becomes part of them. So, there’s a lot of roughness around the edge that I feel like is missing from a lot of depiction of New England small-town life.
BEARS: So, did you have some of the places in mind when you were writing? Did you know what you were writing for? what you could and couldn’t do before you went location scouting?
Kimball: Honestly, no. I mean, I know what Maine has available. But, all of the locations had to be found and procured.
BEARS: Sometimes that’s better because you’re not going in with any preconceptions.
Kimball: The last short I wrote I had a location in mind and that was a great luxury, because I knew immediately what my limitations were. But for this, the locations took about a year to find, because some of them are really challenging.
BEARS: Is it spread out pretty far?
Kimball: Yeah, I mean, Maine’s a big state. We’re all based in Portland which is in the southern tip and we did the bulk of the shooting near the mid-coast, which is about a two-hour drive.
BEARS: So, what do you think is quintessentially different about Maine compared to the rest of New England and the rest of the country?
Kimball: On the surface, there’s a real hesitance to become homogenized. Billboards are illegal, you know, buildings aren’t allowed to grow a certain number of stories. And, add to that, everything above Bangor is trees, and Bangor’s halfway up the state. So, you’re talking hundreds of miles of woods that are just untouched. Add to that the rocky coastline and dark gray ocean, so there’s something about all of that kind of elemental texture – it’s almost supernatural.
Ackermann: It kind of lends itself to this folklorish kind of vibe.
Kimball: Right, and, you know, I think folklore’s the right word for it, because people look to folklore in order to put themselves in accord with their natural surrounding.
BEARS: Well, so you had the place that you could depend on to provide the atmosphere, but so much of this film rests on one truly fantastic and nuanced performance.
Ackermann: Thank you.
Ackermann: No, we’d never met until he reached out to me because he saw my headshot on a casting website in Boston. And he thought I was from Boston, but I lived across the street from him.
Ackermann: That’s Maine. I mean, it’s small and everyone’s concentrated.
Kimball: And everybody lives across the street.
Ackermann: We’d never worked together before, but I think we justclicked. We’re both only children and we have a similar play-the-cards-close-to-the-chest kind of thing going on.
BEARS: It’s sorta dangerous to write a film that’s really entirely so dependent on one person and then try to cast that role. When you were writing, did you think about that?
Kimball: I feel like you can explore something much more intimately if you tether it to a specific point of view. So, the shorts that I’ve done and in NEPTUNE, there’s no experience in that film that isn’t tainted and informed by the main character Hannah’s point of view and her mindset and what she’s going through and what influences are affecting her. I find that keeping that point of view strong and upfront is a great way to allow people to really climb inside that role. I think that’s always the goal for most filmmakers: try create characters that are empathetic. But I’m always inclined to make it all inclusive, just make it about one character, never leave their experience. So, yeah, it’s asking a ton. But as soon as I saw Jane read for the role I knew we were gonna be set. I mean, she has an extremely compelling quality, she makes really smart choices as an actor, she’s extremely intuitive and she’s very trusting of that intuition. So it was like getting the keys to the car.
BEARS: And she’s the car.
Ackermann: Vroom vroom.
BEARS: So, what did you do to prepare for the role?
Ackermann: I’d never been on a feature film before, so I didn’t know how to prepare exactly. Derek and I had a lot of really great conversations about the quality of the language and what she’s going through and kind of this blank slate that she represents. I didn’t really do a lot of preparation. I think living in Maine and being a 14-year-old girl was kind of a lot for me at the time. I was going through a lot, coming into my own, and becoming like, a human being, and recognizing the responsibility. The right place at the right time, and listening to Derek and listening to my fellow actors on set was all I needed.
BEARS: I think one of the things this film is about is fatherhood. Hannah is searching — or really comparing — potential father figures.
Kimball: Yeah, that was a theme that ended up emerging as I wrote and once identified it, I realized that that was really powerful and I pushed it to the front of the narrative. Like Jane said Hannah is a little bit of a blank slate. At no point did anybody ask her, “What are your values? What are you interested in? What do you want out of life?” She’s grown up in this church where all of her destinies have been imposed upon her by the priest and then she meets the father of the drowned boy. She at first sees that as a way out, and then, his desperation kind of unfolds and you see that he’s no better than the priest. They’re both just trying to fill voids inside of their own lives using this empty vessel, this blank slate,.
BEARS: How was it performing with each one of those actors? Did you interact differently with each one of them on set?
Ackermann: Yeah, definitely. I mean, Tony [Reilly, who plays Reverend Jerry Cook] and Bill [McDonough, who plays Herb Quinn] are very different people and their roles are really different, and they’re both very different from their characters, but Tony I’ve known since I was probably like 9 or 10, we did some theatre in Portland together. And so, we kind of had more of like an uncle-niece, father-daughter, but not quite, relationship, which I think fit the set up for the film pretty well. And Bill and I-
Kimball: And you and Bill were just like buds.
Ackermann: We were just like buddies hanging out. So, it was definitely a different vibe with each character, but the quality of the relationships kind of wasn’t compromised in either way.
BEARS: So let’s talk about the film’s title. Obviously the Quinn boy is lost in the water, and there is a lot of water imagery, as there would have to be, on an island, thus Neptune, god of the oceans. But there is also the Neptune flyby by the Voyager spacecraft, which I have to tell you, is a very vivid memory in my mind from childhood. I remember rushing to get the newspaper Sunday full-color pullout section with the first images. It was really an exciting time, a trip into the unknown.
Kimball: Actually we couldn’t figure out a title for the film, and all the titles sounded kind of like whimsical Ingmar Bergman titles and as soon as I thought of Neptune I was just doing a little research and I realized that in 1989 the Voyager II probe was passing the planet Neptune and I thought, “What a great metaphor, because that is where that satellite is reaching the edge of the universe and about to embark into unknown deep space.”
Kimball: With the advent of the internet, there really is no such thing as an insular upbringing. We have access to the rest of the world at our fingertips. And, I feel fortunate to have grown up in a generation where that wasn’t actually the case.
BEARS: Now she could just text her thoughts to the other boy from her class who was there that day, late at night, instead of him just showing up at her house.
Kimball: Exactly. And I love the idea that the school sending these relics from the mainland and there’s a reverence to them because they represent where she wants to be.
Ackermann: And there’s an act of pursuing those, like going to the post office, picking it up, and anticipating – there’s that anticipatory suspense that she feels about receiving that kind of affirmation.
BEARS: So Neptune can serve both as the remote distance of space, but also the very physical and immediate water that surrounds her, keeps her from the mainland. Water is both life and death, it’s both her prison and her departure.
BEARS: So, this is a very “film festival” film. I don’t mean this in any sort of negative way. But it’s sort of anti-commercial. It’s very Indie, it’s got that sort of character deciding for themselves-life changing thing that plays really great at festivals and everybody loves. So tell me a little about what is your goal with this, what are you hoping with this film?
Kimball: Like everybody else I’m hoping that I can get it in front of as many eyes as possible. But also, Maine has a really vibrant, talented community of artists, but there’s not a lot of the infrastructure that you’ll find in one of the major hub like New York. And I think one of the challenges for any small town that has a lot of talent in the filmmaking community is this lack of infrastructure. So, if I could choose anything, I would love for this film to act as a catalyst for the next project, and the next project. The terrain is really uncertain right now for independent filmmakers because there’s even less of a concrete model of distribution. The internet has simultaneously given us access to an audience but also made it incredibly difficult to rise above the noise, and so I think everybody is looking for, “What’s the business model? How can I make this a viable living?”
Kimball: A lot of feature films don’t come out of Maine because I think people haven’t figured out how to make it a viable living. My goal is to turn this, maybe even if it just did festival circuits and whatever, but my goal is to turn this into a viable industry that I can bring back to Maine and feed that really hungry, vibrant, talented community.
NEPTUNE is currently on the festival circuit, screening next at the DC Independent Film Festival in March.