By Hartley Pleshaw
Award winning Actress directs her first film—in the Berkshires
If it were only for her appearances in two iconic films which have long since acquired legendary status, she would have a secure and admired place in film history. But Karen Allen has accomplished far more in her life and career than just her roles in National Lampoon’s ANIMAL HOUSE and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. She has given many memorable film performances outside of these two classics, and is an acclaimed stage actress and director.
For some who have accomplished so much over the course of four decades, it might seem like a good time to take a break, or, at the very least, to not venture into new creative territory. But Karen Allen has, literally, other ideas.
She has just completed her first film as a director, an adaptation of Carson McCullers’ short story A TREE. A ROCK. A CLOUD. It was filmed in the region that Karen has called home for much of her adult life, the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.
Why, now, has she decided to direct a film?
“I started directing in the theater about ten years ago. I just found that I had a very strong sense of myself as a director, almost right away. I have worked with some extraordinary directors over the years, both in the theater and in film. I think I found myself very much intrigued by how directors worked with actors, how well some directors did their work with actors and how much of a struggle it sometimes was, and how easily a director can shut an actor down, by approaching something the wrong way, or by saying something the wrong way. This had been something that I had been particularly interested in.
“I really didn’t have any interest in directing a film. It’s not that it had never crossed my mind, but when it did cross my mind, I would sort of put it off to the side, as something that I probably wasn’t going to embark on in this lifetime. I felt that between acting and directing in the theater, and working as an actor in both theater and film that was really plenty of avenues for me to develop my creativity.”
“Then, I was sitting with a friend. He had produced a play I had directed in New York, and a play I had acted in in New York. He asked me: ‘Why not a film?’ We talked for a while. I said, well, if I ever were to do a film, I would want to do a short film, because I’ve worked so many times with first-time directors who kind of skipped that process. They never did a short film. They stepped into directing a feature fi lm for their first film. I watched them on the set. I watched a lot of very, very high-level challenges. I mean, that’s a steep learning curve!
“I just decided that if I were going to do something, I would want to do something that I knew well, that I had a strong feeling about, and that was a short film. “As the conversation continued, A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud., which was a short story I had known for a very long time, emerged as an idea. It was
something that I began to talk about. (My friend) was very enthusiastic about it. I believe that he was quite familiar with Carson McCullers’ work, and although he didn’t know that story, he read that
story right away, and he very much encouraged me to go with him to the office of the attorneys in New
York City who represent her work, to see if we could get the rights.
“Before I knew it, I was embarking on a process which became the next three years of my life!”
The friend Karen had this conversation with was producer Brian Long, who, along with Karen and Diane Pearlman (see IMAGINE November 2016 cover story), produced A TREE. A ROCK. A CLOUD. Although Karen had long experience as a stage director, she found that producing and directing a film was a very different experience.
“I told (Brian) that I felt that it was a very steep learning curve to direct a film, that it took place on a much larger scale. (It was) everything from raising the funds to hiring the crew to casting it to finding a location. I was used to the contained world of directing a play, where I almost always worked under an auspice. I would show up for the first day of rehearsal, work with a stage manager, my designers, my cast and sometimes the playwright, if it was a new play. That was my entire world.
“But in a film, you’re stepping into a much larger world. You have a camera crew. You have a sound crew. You have an Art Department. You have a Costume Department, not a costume designer.
“I was reluctant to think that that was something I would enjoy, or, on some level, feel like I knew
how to face the challenge of it. (Brian) was very encouraging, and I told him that, if I was going to do a film, I would want it to be a short film.
“He said, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ And I said, ‘There’s a Short Story that I know, A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud. that I’ve loved, for many, many years.’ I thought that it would be ideal for a first film, because there are only three speaking roles, and for the most part it takes place in one location. That seemed ideal for a first time film director.
“If you’re going to stick your toe in the water, I don’t think that it should be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!”
The film’s location would indeed not be in such a faraway place. It would be in a place Karen Allen
knew and knows well: the Berkshires. (Sandisfield Massachusetts, to be specific.)
“It really had to do with having fallen in love with a particular location. When I go to the airport, I use the Hartford airport, which is the closest airport to me. I take a route kind of on back roads. On that route, I had for many years driven by a café. It was an old café. It had a lot of different incarnations. It was a store at one point, a café, a dinner place, a breakfast place.
“I watched it go through these different incarnations, but I never really stopped there. I always looked at it with one eye and thought, ‘That looks like the kind of café in A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud..’ It had to do with its age. It was built in the 1930’s. It had to do with its positioning; it’s literally twelve feet from the road. It’s a little road. It sits where two rivers cross each other.
And there was just something about it that grabbed me.
“I went by it dozens and dozens of times. One day, I finally pulled over, and said, ‘I’m finally going to look into this place!’ And I walked in, and wouldn’t you know, it looked exactly right—at least structurally, if not in the specifics—everything was there. The bar was where I imagined it to be, the booths were where I imagined they would be, the kitchen was where I imagined it would be. “I couldn’t help but make note that this little place was a kind of ideal location for a film that I hadn’t even thought of making yet!”
For A TREE. A ROCK. A CLOUD., Karen Allen got what she wanted from her actors.
“Jeff DeMunn, who I have worked with on stage, and whose work I have admired going back forty years, is for me a master actor. I knew he’d be wonderful in the role.
“(I knew that) James McMenamin, who I’ve directed twice in plays, would take what was basically a one-dimensional role on the page, and turn it into something much, much more interesting.
“Jackson Smith, who plays the boy—I had an instinct about Jackson very early on. His approach to being
that boy in that story was exactly what I felt it needed. He just approached it with a kind of openness, availability, a kind of calmness, a presence….the ability to listen. (He was) a real receptacle for that story, a rare quality to find in a twelve-year-old.”
Karen Allen’s debut as a film director hasn’t meant that she’s abandoning acting herself. In fact, she’s just completed work on a film shot at the other end of Massachusetts—Cape Cod.
YEAR BY THE SEA is based on a book by journalist Joan Anderson about Anderson’s decision to leave her husband of over two decades to live by herself in a cottage on the Cape, in an attempt to reconnect with herself and decide the course of her future life. Karen plays the role of Joan Anderson.
“She grows. She changes. She challenges herself, and she finds this sort of inner joy that was kind of
lacking in her life. She lets all the things that she’s been struggling with….fall away. And she began to see another person emerge. A person who has much more enjoyment of life, and who is much more real
and authentic. Not frightened, and not constantly concerned about pleasing other people. She took
these big leaps toward rediscovering herself.”
In terms of taking risks, doing new things and discovering what she might be capable of, it would seem to be a character that Karen Allen clearly identifies with.
The website for A TREE. A ROCK. A CLOUD. is www.atreearockacloudthefilm.com. Its email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
YEAR BY THE SEA opens in New York September
9th, Los Angeles September 15th and in Boston
and San Francisco September 22nd. Its website is