BAR HARBOR — “The Sounding” has its roots in a Hulls Cove summer cottage known as “East Cote,” where the film’s, writer, director and star, Catherine Eaton, spent her childhood summers. The film is among those to be screened at Reel Pizza Cinerama this weekend as part of its MIFF-by-the-Sea selection of films from the Maine International Film Festival,
Eaton is back in Bar Harbor this week to visit family and attend the MIFF-by-the-Sea screening.
It is something of a homecoming for Eaton and her movie, which is, not coincidentally, set on an island in Maine named “East Cote.”
“It broke my heart when the house had to be sold after my grandparents died,” Eaton said.
By the time the family cottage went on the market, Eaton had become an actor in New York City. Her last visit to East Cote, which overlooks Frenchman Bay, was on her birthday one September, when she invited a group of artist friends to join her. The group essentially camped out in the empty building.
“It was a wonderful event, and the following year, I got an email from one of those friends asking me where we were going to hold the ‘salon’ that September.”
They found a home for what became monthly salons at a hotel in New York, and it was this extended network of friends who eventually helped carry Eaton’s spark of an idea along its journey to becoming the full-fledged feature film it is today.
But first, there was a badly broken ankle.
Like many young actors, Eaton, who had had some success on the New York stage, decided to move to Los Angeles about 10 years ago to try her luck in Hollywood.
Just a few months in, however, she got a call from her family and learned that her mother, at their home in Vermont, had broken her ankle and would need help.
“I was the single daughter without a steady job, so I was the obvious candidate,” Eaton said. “I thought it would be a month or two, but six months later, I was still there.”
As much as she loves her mother and home in bucolic Essex, Vt., Eaton said she was going a little stir crazy.
“One night in my room, I was feeling starved for the language of theater,” she said, “and I found myself tearing out pages from my ‘Complete Works of Shakespeare’ and pinning them up on my wall. I just needed to be surrounded, bathed in that language.”
She said that when her mother saw what must have looked something like that scene of madness from “A Beautiful Mind,” she was worried for her daughter’s sanity.
But like that mad mathematician, Eaton said she began to see connections between the plays, themes and even conversations between various characters from different works.
“I began to wonder what it might be like if Shakespeare were the only language available or the only language a person chose to speak. Could they make themselves understood, accepted?”
An idea was ignited, and thus began the long journey that has now brought it back to Maine.
The character’s name is “Olivia.” She is raised by her grandfather on a remote Maine island, where he has educated her in all the classics. At some point in her life and for no apparent reason, Olivia stops speaking or writing the language of the day and chooses instead to communicate with remembered dialogue from the plays and literature she loves. The question is, will this sort of eccentricity, this quirkiness, be allowed? Or will society insist that she be “fixed”?
This is the premise of Eaton’s film, “The Sounding.”
“At first, it was just a play scene, a monologue set in a brightly lit institutional room where a patient tries to communicate with an unseen doctor using the language of another age,” Eaton said.
When Eaton returned to New York in 2007, she met the Irish writer Bryan Delaney, who became both her boyfriend and collaborator. He encouraged her to perform the piece on stage.
And she did, in churches, large and small halls, postage stamp-sized stages and even abroad in Ireland, where they packed her props in a trunk and rattled around the countryside performing at any space that would have them.
“My smallest and in some ways my best audience was three people and a dog at this little stone, freezing cold, Irish church,” Eaton said. “We actually had to talk them into being our audience while they were visiting a loved one at the cemetery. They were so appreciative after.”
Back in New York, she performed it at one of her monthly salons at the hotel and was invited by the director of an innovative new performance space in a storefront window in the New York City financial district to perform it there.
“At first, I said ‘no’” Eaton said. “I thought the play was too complex, too intimate to be viewed through a window with the sound piped onto the street.
“But then I asked myself, why was I in New York if not to do crazy things?”
The window performance turned out to be something of a cult favorite, at times requiring police to disperse the crowds that gathered in front of the window to see a woman arguing in Elizabethan dialogue with an unseen adversary.
At almost every show, a man appeared in a tuxedo carrying a peach-colored copy of the day’s Financial Times.
“We called him the ‘financier,” Eaton said.
After the final performance, the man in the tuxedo introduced himself and offered to help finance a feature-length film version of Eaton’s show.
That was five years ago. In the five years since, Eaton and Delaney researched and developed their screenplay and shot a short version for “practice.” They hired a cast, several of whom – like Harris Yulin, who plays Olivia’s grandfather – are well-known character actors, assembled a crew, found more investors and a location, and undertook myriad of other tasks that have to be accomplished before the first frame is shot.
Along the way, Eaton said she naturally eased into the director’s chair.
“I never imagined I would write, direct and act in a movie,” she said, “but now I can’t imagine not doing at least one of those jobs – not necessarily all at once – for the rest of my career.”
As fraught as that triple-tasking can be with worry and responsibility, Eaton said the rewards have made it all more than worth the stress. The film, which has been making the festival circuit since March, has garnered many awards and accolades already.
“The response from audiences has been wonderful,” she said. “I’ve seen this thing evolve from a figment of my imagination to this fully formed thing people can actually see. When they get it, appreciate it, well, I get positively giddy.”
Eaton said she hopes for a 2018 theatrical release of “The Sounding,” but in the meantime, she has a couple of other ideas for movies, and a TV show, about an agoraphobic travel writer that she is in the process of developing.
“The Sounding” will be screened at MIFF-by-the-Sea at Reel Pizza on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 15 and 16, at 8 p.m. Eaton will be on hand to answer questions from the audience. For a complete MIFF schedule, visit www.reelpizza.com.