Set on a quiet apple orchard in the Green Mountains, Fair Haven is a surprising and heartfelt feature film debut from director Kerstin Karlhuber. The film illustrates the conflict that exists between human nature and perceived expectations.
“I didn’t even know what a director did,” says Karlhuber. “I started as an actress. I performed in musical theater. Until I was on the set of a TV movie and there was so much time down that I just started looking at what everyone was doing. I wanted to follow every cable, track down every line, until I could see how absolutely everything worked together.”
Karlhuber’s inquisitive nature soon brought her to the other side of the camera, where her career in filmmaking really began to take shape. With an eye towards feature film work, Karlhuber cut her teeth building a portfolio of acclaimed short films, including the 2006 documentary Apple Hill, which offers an intimate glimpse into the often unforgiving life of fruit farming in America – in particular, apple farming.
“I don’t just shoot films about apples,” Karlhuber clarifies with a laugh. “I grew up in Vermont. I loved Vermont for Fair Haven because it is just gorgeous! My inspiration came from the landscapes, people. [Writer Jack Bryant] added the perspective on reparative therapy, which plays a large role in our film.”
Fair Haven opens as a young man named James is returning home from a Christian-based gay reparative therapy camp – a rather shocking notion in a state perhaps best known for progressively liberal politics and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. With a head full of nonsense about the definitions of love, sexuality, and sin, James is attempting to adjust to a normal quiet, hetero life in a normal, quiet town. His father, Richard, envisions a future where James takes over the family apple orchards, settles down with a nice girl, and has a family. James, however, has aspirations to study music and leave the farming life behind, while battling his emotions and sense of loss over past love.
“Jack Bryant is a remarkable screenwriter,” says the director. “Jack and I worked on this together after unsuccessfully trying to get a bigger feature film project off the ground. When the budget was lower than we wanted we didn’t give up. We scaled the story back, pulled ideas from other screenplays we had. We worked on other films in much the same way. This was a proven method for us.”
She goes on to share, “We brought in a producer [Tom Malloy], which really got the wheels turning. Then our casting director Judy Henderson brought in Tom Wopat (Dukes of Hazzard, Django Unchained) for the role of Richard. Tom talked with us in casting and he prepared two scenes. He was so passionate about the role, he came in dressed as a farmer…it was a no-brainer.”
Tom Wopat delivers a convincing portrayal of Richard Grant, the emotionally distant father of James. Richard has his own demons in this film, between his inability to mourn the death of his wife, his struggles with alcoholism, and difficulty understanding his son, James. He fears change, choosing to maintain his focus on tradition – something he and James do not see eye to eye on.
“I wanted the audience to reach through the screen and hug James,” explains Karlhuber. “I was very particular with who would play James and I said I was not going with a taped audition for the role. Then Michael Grant’s audition tape came in and Judy told me, ‘but you have to watch just this one.’ His audition opened with a concert piano performance and by the time I had reached the end it was so evident. This was James.”
A common challenge among independent LGBT films, Fair Haven garnered a limited budget. As a result, logistics and costs handicapped much of the production, which forced the cast and crew to endure a rapid 14-day shoot.
“It was insane. A whirlwind,” Karlhuber says, recalling the resource challenges. “I thought I wouldn’t do that again, but when I saw everything was coming together it ended up being a really amazing time.”
Much like the character of James, the film found a way to define itself and reach beyond the limitations and expectations that surrounded it. James and Richard find ways to bond and accept an alternate expectation for their respective futures. In much the same fashion, Fair Haven finds a way to reach all audiences, LGBT or otherwise, and offer some heartfelt perspective on how to define love and family, and which traditions are worth breaking for the purpose of forming new and better traditions.
“I like to think that, in the end, Richard and James’ father-son relationship finally blossoms. It’s a beautiful ending,” says the director.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Kerstin Karlhuber