WATERVILLE — For Hilary Brougher, making a low budget, independent film is both a joyous and an arduous process but one she wouldn’t swap for making a high budget, commercial blockbuster.

The results she reaps from independent filmmaking is nowhere more sharply evident than in “South Mountain,” her smallest budget film yet but a subtle and deeply powerful one she has brought to the 22nd annual Maine International Film Festival.

Brougher, 50, of New York City, both wrote and directed “South Mountain,” which would be screened Sunday night at the Waterville Opera House before she was to be honored with the festival’s Mid-Life Achievement Award.

It is the most prestigious award given during the 10-day festival, which brings thousands of movie enthusiasts and nearly 100 American independent and foreign made films to the Opera House and Railroad Square Cinema.

Festival officials say Brougher, who also is chairman of the film department at Columbia University School of the Arts, embodies everything the festival strives to present.

Brougher, an award winning writer-director, joins a long list of those who have received that or a similar award: Sissy Spacek, Ed Harris, John Turturro, Bud Cort, Peter Fonda, Glenn Close, Lili Taylor, Terrence Malik, Keith Carradine, Lauren Hutton, Thelma Schoonmaker, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill, Jos Stelling, Malcolm McDowell, Jonathan Demme, Michael Murphy, Jay Cocks, Robert BentonGabriel Byrne and Dominique Sanda.

Brougher said Sunday morning in an interview that she is deeply flattered to be considered in the same company as the former award recipients.

“I know I don’t have that kind of profile, but I appreciate that the festival is recognizing a filmmaker who, at 50-years-old, is emergent,” she said.

Brougher was equally praiseworthy of the festival itself, which she said she grew up with, having come for the first time in 1998 with her film “Sticky Fingers of Time” and three times since then.

“This is one of the most impeccably programmed festivals out there,” she said. “I love that about this festival, that it is in a beautiful area of intense natural beauty, and friendly. I find the festival sort of invigorating and relaxing because it is not about sales and promoting products and selling products. It’s always about watching films, from everywhere. This is a remarkable international festival.”

“South Mountain” is about an artist and teacher, Lila, played by Talia Balsam, and her writer husband, Edgar, portrayed by Scott Cohen, whose lives appear to be facing great change as their children leave the nest and he confesses to having fathered a child with another woman.

The film is beautifully shot, by Brougher’s cinematographer husband, Ethan Mass, in the southern Catskill Mountains of New York, in Brougher’s mother’s house.

“I sort of wrote the film for her house, which sits on a mountain and opens to all points in terms of window light,” Brougher said. “It’s actually a great house to shoot in. I wrote it for the house, which allowed me to make it for very little money. My husband shot it with a modest lighting kit, and the light is primarily natural light.”

Brougher spent about four years writing the story, which is about middle age and embracing the concept of aging, acceptance and letting go. It was shot over 15 days in the summer of 2017 with a small cast, including her twin children, Violet Rea and Guthrie Mass.

Brougher spent 1 1/2 years editing the film with friend and collaborator Maria Roenblum who, with Susan A. Stover and Kristin Frost, are the film’s producers.

“It’s telling a story of loss but not in a tragic way,” Brougher said. “It’s about getting her (Lila) to this moment of quiet, after the storm of loss.”

Working with Balsam and Cohen was extraordinary, according to Brougher.

“I think Talia’s work is magnificent, and people are gobsmacked with it,” she said. “Every day, in the editing room, we’d find something new that she did. Scott’s work is so subtle, and I think he is remarkable. They know each other, and they’re friends. They bring such wonderful energy to the set and to the work.”

Brougher said it is probably the most personal film she has made — it is set in her mother’s house, and her husband and children were part of it, as were her best friends, Roenblum and Stover.

“It’s a film that was made by old and new friends. The hardest part about it was we didn’t have a lot of money, and that’s never easy. You rely on people’s generosity and hope that it’s all worth it to them. You try not to overstep.”

The cast was wonderful to work with, according to Brougher.

“Actors bring something to their films, which is not just working on a script,” she said. “They bring heart to the project and purpose to the project.”

The benefit of both writing and directing a film is that one has a great sense of creative freedom, according to Brougher. That does not happen if one is beholden to others, she said. It is, structurally, an unusual film, and if it were to become a commercial film, for instance, those in charge would likely place the birth scene at the end, instead of toward the beginning, of the film, she said:

“There are things, structurally, that you could not do if you went through the traditional development process. It really was execution-dependent and needed to be made the way it was made. It needed to be made in the low-key way so it could find itself and be unconventional. Had it played by the rules, I don’t think it would have worked.”

 

EARLY INFLUENCES

Brougher grew up in upstate New York where she would often go to an art movie house with her parents to watch films.

“That calendar house, akin to Railroad Square, was very, very important,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to be an artist, and film was the art I wanted to be involved in. I grew up loving film and thought, ‘This is the medium for me.'”

A shy and restless girl, Brougher attended Kingston High School. At 14, she bought a Super 8mm film camera and taught herself how to shoot.

“I made a ton of crazy Super 8 films that were poetic and strange. You know how Spielberg made cool action films? Mine were a very strange cross-breed of things I was seeing at the art house as a kid. I knew I loved images, and I loved taking the camera out. They were strange and beautiful little films. They probably wouldn’t mean anything to anybody else. They allowed me to connect to my own eye and my own instinct.”

Brougher went on to study at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and then worked in film a few years, doing anything she could on set, including as a camera assistant.

She wrote and directed “The Sticky Fingers of Time,” which was released in 1997. It’s about a fiction writer who steps out to buy coffee in 1953 and is mysteriously transported to the year 1997 where she meets a woman and they discover they are able to live time out of order. In 2006, Brougher’s “Stephanie Daley” was released, starring Tilda Swinton, Amber Tamblyn and Tim Hutton.

The film is about a 16-year-old girl who faces murder charges in the death of her newborn and a pregnant forensic psychologist is hired to find the truth in the case.

“The Sticky Fingers … ” will be shown at 3:30 p.m. Monday at the Opera House; “Stephanie Daley” will be shown at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, also at the Opera House; and “South Mountain” will be screened again at 3:15 p.m. Friday at Railroad Square.

A party for Brougher was to follow Sunday night’s showing and award presentation, at 8:30 p.m. at OPA restaurant downtown.

Brougher, who will be in Waterville with her husband and children until Friday, will be present after the screenings to take part in question-and-answer sessions with audiences — an activity to which she looks forward.

“I just appreciate the way this community supports this festival,” Brougher said. “It means a lot to filmmakers. We don’t have it easy, so it’s a real morale booster for us.”

 

FUTURE OF INDEPENDENT FILM

Brougher said it is a blessing to be able to make small, independent films, despite the challenges that go along with it — acquiring financing is a major one.

Being able to teach at Columbia, which she loves, allows her to work on filmmaking on her own time (she describes herself as “a bit of a slow writer” who writes many, many drafts).

She does not want to make big films and said that is not what she is meant to do.

“It’s not a loss — it’s a gain for me to continue to make small films,” she said. “It’s a triumph.”

Right now it’s tough because people are not buying smaller films, according to Brougher. Amazon and Netflix, once great platforms for showcasing such films, are not buying them as they once did.

On the other hand, there are more avenues for people to show their films online, whether they are purchased or not. So film festivals are hugely important in allowing truly independent films to be viewed, Brougher said.

“It’s a time of enormous potential, but it’s not as easy as it might look,” she said.

The U.S. has never subsidized filmmaking the way it is done in other countries, according to Brougher.

“That’s why festivals are important, because that’s how they’re going to continue to exist and continue on,” she said. “These films are art films and not pieces of commerce.”

What’s next for Brougher?

“I’ll probably spend the next year shepherding this film (“South Mountain”) formally in some way,” she said.

Brougher is working on a documentary with a friend about the loss of her friend’s father, an artist.

“Hopefully, the documentary will be done by 2022. I’d like to shoot another feature in the summer of 2021. If I’m outputting a film every four or five years, that would be ideal. It’ll be a brisk pace for me.”

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