We go to the movies for a lot of reasons – for entertainment or escape, or to experience people and places we don’t see in our real lives. Multiplexes are almost always filled with the special effects and faraway lands of movies like “The Hunger Games” and “The Hobbit,” but it seems that the most common sight on big screens in the last month has been Spokane itself, with three locally filmed features all premiering in theaters in January.
First it was the inspirational drama “Different Drummers,” based on the true story of a friendship between two young boys in the late 1960s. Then it was “Knights of Badassdom,” a gory fantasy comedy set in the world of live action role players. And now we have “At Middleton,” a low-key romance co-produced by North by Northwest Productions and starring Academy Award-nominated actors Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga.
Directed by Adam Rodgers (making his feature debut), “At Middleton” was filmed in the summer of 2012 in Spokane and Pullman, combining footage shot on the Gonzaga and Washington State University campuses to create the grounds of the fictional Middleton College. It’s the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore, a quirky, dialogue-driven story about two strangers in crumbling marriages who meet and share something special over the course of a single day.
Garcia, who also has a producer credit on the film, said he was immediately drawn to the script. “I loved the story, the construction, the writing – everything about it,” he said during a recent phone interview. “The movie had this tonal quality that I found very beautiful.”
He plays an uptight heart surgeon named George who’s accompanying his college-bound son (Spencer Lofranco) on a tour of the Middleton campus; Farmiga plays Edith, an eccentric, outspoken woman who’s in the same tour group with her academically overachieving daughter (Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s real-life sister). George and Edith seem to be at odds – he’s all business, she’s a loose cannon – but they end up ditching the group and wandering the campus together, looking for a sense of adventure and discovery that they so desperately need.
There’s not much of a plot to “At Middleton”: It’s loosely structured, with George and Edith ambling from one part of the campus to another, and it’s closer in spirit to Richard Linklater’s walk-and-talk romance “Before Sunrise” than your typical college-based film. In fact, this might be the first college movie in which the parents get to have all the fun.
But there is a love story at the center of the movie, as George and Edith begin to fall for one another almost in spite of themselves.
“Even though there are shenanigans, it’s very human,” Garcia said. “The relationships are very palpable, and there’s a reality to them. That stems from the writing itself – that’s your base. But then there’s the chemistry between all the actors, and the movie comes alive.”
The appeal of the movie hinges on that chemistry between the two lead actors, but Garcia said he and Farmiga hadn’t met before the first day of filming, which seems in line with the reality of the characters.
“We shot the movie in 20 days, and Vera and I worked the first 17 days,” Garcia said. “We never read the script together, and there was never any rehearsal.”
For an independent production with a limited shooting schedule and budget, Garcia said that everything came together effortlessly and that the Pacific Northwest locations were a pleasure to work in. “It’s an absolutely beautiful area,” he said. “The people were warm-hearted and hospitable, and the crew we worked with and the guys from North by Northwest were great.”
“At Middleton” probably won’t be a huge hit, nor will it have a blockbuster theatrical release – most people will likely see it through digital streaming or OnDemand services – but Garcia said he took on the project for the artistic satisfaction rather than the paycheck.
“It’s like doing an off-Broadway play; it’s not a financial decision. You’re really taking a financial hit by doing it and taking yourself out of work for something else,” he said. “But people were there because they wanted to be there. You feel like you’ve been given a privilege to do something like this, at any price.”