Love and Learning in Indie Flick

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When Jeffrey Fine, writer and director of the film “Cherry,” went to Brown University in his teens, he met a student who was completely different from everyone else on-campus. He said she spoke her mind, she was charming and she had a lasting impact on his life. She was also in her mid-30s.

Fine’s film, “Cherry,” which will play at the Woodstock Film Festival next week, is a semi-autobiographical story following a boy in his youth trying to balance schoolwork, friendships and nontraditional relationships with women of all ages, all while he faces the struggles of becoming a man.

Fine said he tried to mirror the details of his own experiences closely when making the film.

“I think when you’re making your own film and you’re making something that’s personal, you want to be honest,” he said. “For me, this film was an opportunity to be honest about the kind of experiences that I’ve had and to try to explore them and be true.”

Written while Fine was between shoots for his documentary work on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, “Cherry” was a dream project that had been lingering in his brain for a long time.

The main character, Aaron, is a young man who has been sheltered by his family and has experienced very little in his 17 years of life. After being accepted into an engineering program at an Ivy League school, he is finally released from the grasp of his parents and given the freedom he always desired. But soon Aaron’s life takes a sudden turn, plunging him into an unusual love triangle.

Aaron is caught between Linda (Laura Allen), a 34-year-old woman in the resumed education program at the university, and her 14-year-old daughter, Beth (Brittany Robertson), who falls in love with him and takes every opportunity to force herself into his company.

Although Fine said the idea of a 14-year-old loving a 17-year-old and a 17-year-old loving a 34-year-old may be shocking, it was something that was needed in order to create a barrier between the three main characters. Fine was even told at the Traverse City Film Festival by filmmaker Michael Moore that if the film had gone in a different direction, “it could have easily been creepy.”

“The age issues on some level kind of disappear because none of these people are stalkers. These are people who are just trying to connect,” he said. “I think the interesting tension in the story comes from nobody really being right for each other.”

When directing the young actor who plays Aaron (Kyle Gallner), Fine did not control the way the character was portrayed. Even though Aaron was just a version of himself, Fine gave Gallner the opportunity to make the character his own.

Fine said the audition process during the pre-production of the film gave him a new perspective as to what his characters could become – especially when the actors he met brought qualities that he didn’t even know he was looking for.

“I know [my characters] and I know the rhythm of their dialogue,” he said. “It was tempting on some levels to not jump on my actors and try to recreate exactly what I had in my head. But I found that the best thing I could do was to hire actors who, in their auditions, surprised me.”

Because “Cherry” is an independently produced film, Fine said budget problems were a common hurdle in the filmmaking process. When he first presented the script to a producer in Los Angeles, Calif., Fine was told he could not make the movie he wanted for under a million dollars.

Instead of giving up, Fine did everything he could to spend as little money as possible. Instead of filming where he had originally planned in Providence, R.I., Fine was given the opportunity to film from Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University through an incentives program that was recently launched through the state.

The college students at these schools even lent a helping hand in front and behind the camera through internships and general volunteering. On top of that, Fine and his entire cast and crew were allowed to stay in a vacant dorm building on campus.

“The budget would have been triple even if we had filmed it in Los Angeles,” he said. “Without the incentives and without the good will of the Michigan people that really rallied behind us and were incredibly generous, we wouldn’t have been able to do this film.”

After Fine finishes showing the film around the country, he plans on adapting a novel that explores some related themes to “Cherry” and a drama from the 1850s that takes place in Mississippi.

As for right now, Fine is scheduled to show “Cherry” at the Woodstock Film Festival on Oct. 1 and 3, where he hopes to meet a new audience who appreciates independent film as much as he does.

“The reason I made this film is I wanted to make something honest and that people could relate to and connect with,” he said. “I think that a lot of Hollywood films are great but at the end of the day it’s more of a ride to have that human connection.”

To purchase tickets to see “Cherry,” on Oct. 1 or 3 at the Woodstock Film Festival, visit the festival’s official site.