The filmmakers behind the award-winning documentary on troop greeters at Bangor International Airport are in the final stages of editing their latest film, a coming-of-age story set in the northern Maine town of Van Buren.
Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet of Bar Harbor are putting the finishing touches on “Blue Potato.” The film is scheduled for release by the couple’s production company, Sunny Side Up Films, in the fall.
Set during the fall potato harvest, “Blue Potato” tells the story of two high school seniors contemplating life after graduation and the choices they face.
“One question raised is how can you survive in these dying rural towns,” Pullapilly said in a recent interview.
One of the friends is working the harvest to earn enough money to break away from the monotony and limited opportunities in his hometown. At the same time he engages in a struggle to save his best friend from engaging in one of those opportunities, albeit an illegal one, smuggling prescription drugs into the country from nearby Canada.
“Blue Potato” is a departure from “The Way We Get By,” the 2009 documentary film the couple produced about a trio of senior citizens who gather almost daily at the Bangor airport with others in a group that thanks soldiers on their way to or from the war in Iraq. The film garnered a number of awards and was nominated for an Emmy in the documentary and news category.
Following the success of “The Way We Get By” the couple was besieged with pitches to produce another documentary. They resisted.
“We said we wanted to break the mold and do something we haven’t done,” Pullapilly said.
At about the same time, Gaudet’s brother showed them photos he had taken of Aroostook County. Captivated by the images, they began planning a film based on the challenges of living there.
“We realized there was an incredible story up there on the border,” Pullapilly said.
This time, they decided the film would not be a documentary.
“We really felt this story was more powerful and compelling as fiction,” she said.
They decided to set the film in Van Buren, a town of about 2,100 on the Saint John River, directly across from Saint-Leonard, New Brunswick.
“The fascinating thing about Van Buren is that’s were the LaJoie family farm is,” Pullapilly.
The LaJoies were struggling to sustain their family farm when they hit upon the idea of growing blue potatoes, she explained. Today, their potatoes are used by the Terra Chips to make the company’s Terra Blues potato chips.
“It’s such an inspirational story line, so we thought it would be a great place to film the movie,” Pullapilly said.
Pullapilly and Gaudet got to know the LaJoie family intimately during the frequent trips they made between Bar Harbor and Van Buren during the year preceding the making of the movie. The time spent in Van Buren was instrumental to developing the script.
“We wanted to make sure it was as real and authentic as possible,” Pullapilly said.
The connection with the LaJoies gave the couple inroads into the close-knit community, providing them with access to people and settings they, as outsiders, would otherwise not have had. The film couldn’t have been made without the help of the LaJoies and other residents.
“It did literally take a village to create this film,” Pullapilly said.
Pullapilly and Gaudet wrote the script and directed the film together. Filming began in August and continued through the potato harvest.
The film used known actors with the Screen Actors Guild for the speaking roles, Gaudet said. The remaining roles were filled with a mix of professional actors from Maine and local residents with no experience. Casting was done by Allison Jones, who among her many credits has worked on television shows like “Arrested Development” and movies such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
The major challenge in getting the movie made was finding investors willing to take the risk of funding an independent film, the couple said. Gaudet admitted the couple didn’t do themselves “any favors” in choosing to go in a different direction than in “The Way We Get By.”
“It would have been easier if it were a documentary,” he said, adding that grant money is not available for narrative films as with documentaries. “You have to find people just as passionate about the story as you are.”
Gaudet currently is doing the final editing of “Blue Potato” while Pullapilly is working on promoting the film. The next step is distribution. That, too, is difficult for the independent filmmaker.
The couple plans to submit the film to film festivals for consideration. They declined to name the festivals they have their eye on so as, in Pullapilly’s words, “not to jinx it.” They pointed out that there were 10,000 submissions to this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is considered to be one of the premier showcases for independent films. Of the 10,000 submissions, only 120 films were chosen. Despite those odds, the couple remains optimistic about the future of “Blue Potato.”
“If you make a quality film, it does get noticed,” Gaudet said.