How an actor from New York and a cinematographer from Texas made a movie about small-town Mass.

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O'Brien in Fairhaven. ()
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Established by Robert DeNiro, the Tribeca Film Festival has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2012 festival goes from April 18-29. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Fairhaven, written and directed by its star Tom O'Brien, is a beautifully observed film about the friendships of three grown men and what happens to them over the course of one weekend in their hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts.

Rooted in its evocative small fishing-town location, Fairhaven is O'Brien's first feature, premiering at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

Six years in development, and shot in only 18 days, O'Brien, a New Yorker, wrote the first draft of the script while visiting his mother, who was living in Fairhaven at the time.

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"Chris [Messina] and I were friends for a long time and we were in a theatre company in New York and talked about wanting to make a movie together," O'Brien told me, in an interview.

O'Brien showed Messina his draft of the script and Messina loved it, and wanted to help him develop it.

"We worked on it slowly," said O'Brien, "because he was in Los Angeles and I was in New York. We would get together maybe three times a year for a week and do a week of script work. Meantime, I would be working on financing and reworking it and doing stuff on my own and he was having his career out in Los Angeles. It was a long process. I liked it like that because it allowed the script to grow organically."

The impetus for writing the script was not only the town of Fairhaven itself, which O'Brien found "cinematic," but an interview he heard with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in which Brady said, "There's got to be something more than this," a comment that is a running theme throughout the film.

O'Brien said, "I saw that interview [with Tom Brady] and I had the experience that the character Jon had. It was this profound moment for me and I tried to talk about it to my friends and they wouldn't get it. That was what got me started on the screenplay. And then it was also the town of Fairhaven. I thought 'This would be a great place for a movie.' I started fantasizing about the lives of the people there."

Once pre-production began and O'Brien started visiting Fairhaven, he said, "When I went around meeting everybody, every house we went into they would make me a quahog and give me a Narragansett, even if it was 11 in the morning."

Although they did one reading of the script for some financial backers, the main workshopping of the script was done by O'Brien and Messina, hashing out the characters, reading all the parts, pulling the script apart and putting it back together again. The two actors talked a lot about the movies they loved, the films that inspired them, specifically in terms of what O'Brien wanted to create in Fairhaven.

O'Brien said, "People would say that the script reminded them of Beautiful Girls a lot, which is a movie I really loved. Tonally, we always wanted to bring it more to All the Real Girls, so we talked about All the Real Girls a lot. We talked about Five Easy Pieces, stylistically,we really like those 70s movies. Recently, we loved Old Joy, which is about old friends reconnecting. It's a really subtle movie and we wanted to do something like that."

Getting Peter Simonite on board as cinematographer was a coup. Simonite captures the the frigid and beautiful bleak reality of a fishing town in winter, rooting the film in its location in such a palpable way that you can smell the lobster traps on the piers.

Hailing from Austin, Texas, Simonite had never been up in that area of New England before, and O'Brien said, "When he got there he kept raving about the light. 'It's amazing!' He would just talk about the light in the way a cinematographer does, and I think there was something to having an outsider's perspective. He appreciated the light so much."

Simonite had been working in music videos and commercials, and was also second-unit photographer on Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. One of O'Brien's executive producers recommended Simonite for the job on Fairhaven.

O'Brien said, "I loved his reel. I got on the phone with him and we really clicked... He's this guy who has worked his way through the ranks. We caught him at a great moment."

Originally, O'Brien had wanted to shoot in either the fall or the spring, but it ended up being the right time, in terms of financing and scheduling, right in the middle of winter.

O'Brien laughed about it.

"It was the most snowy winter ever in New England," he said." And now I can't imagine the movie not being a winter movie. It worked out perfectly. We had to make a leap of faith."

In terms of being a first-time director as well as one of the stars in the film, O'Brien said that it was, at times, a challenge to balance both of those roles. However, he said, "We had a really good team so I felt taken care of as an actor ... I would let myself go into the acting and let everybody else take care of the set. I was able to go in and out of it."

O'Brien said he enjoyed directing.

"I had directed theatre," he said, "and I had worked with actors so I knew that was the part I would be strongest at. Being on the set and dealing with all the personalities, and being the father of the set, wasn't the most fun for me. But I really enjoyed working with the actors and the D.P. My style as a director was pretty much hands-off and just let people do their thing. It really comes together in postproduction. You always hear that. But that was when I really felt like a director, when I was in the editing room and working with the composer."

The script is clearly very strong, but it has an improvisational feel to it. It is hard to believe, in the hands of these actors, that some of the dialogue was ever words on a page.  

"We always knew we wanted to improvise," O'Brien said. "My thing with improvisation is that I really want a script first. The way I write is very naturalistic. I write 'dot dot dot,' 'I mean,' 'you know.' I put all those things in. It was easy for us to go off the script and back on because it was written so naturalistically. Some scenes would be completely improv and totally off the script and some scenes would be totally on the script and some scenes were a mix. I've seen movies that do that and the scripted parts stick out so much. We wanted to make it seamless."

The current trend in cinema today in terms of portraying male friendship is dominated by Judd Apatow and films like The Hangover: "bromances" featuring men in a state of arrested development, with an undercurrent of hostility and misogyny. This may come from an honest place, but it isn't all there is.

O'Brien's film deals with male friendship on a far more recognizable, human scale.  

O'Brien said, "I think that when I look at movies out there in the mainstream culture, I don't really relate to them. That's not the kind of friendships that I have. There was definitely a conscious effort to do something a little more unique to what I know in my life, and be less of the cliche. I wanted to try and get to the truth of real friendships."