"At Middleton" director Adam Rodgers (far right) with actor Andy Garcia (far left) and Alison Bailes at an "At Middleton" screening.

"At Middleton" director Adam Rodgers (far right) with actor Andy Garcia (far left) and Alison Bailes at an "At Middleton" screening. (Rob Kim, Getty Images / January 30, 2014)

Adam Rodgers and his grandfather thought they were taking the train to Philadelphia to check out colleges. But the cinema gods had other things in mind.

"We're coming up the escalator," the Baltimore-born director recalled, "and I see this dolly track, I see this big Panavision camera. They were making a movie — Harrison Ford was there. They were making a movie called 'Witness.' I begged my grandfather to let me just stay in Penn Station to watch a little bit. Of course, a little bit became an hour, and an hour became three hours. We pretty much missed my interview at Penn and just hung out at the train station and watched. … For me, that was one of those indelible moments, where I knew I wanted to do this. I didn't quite know how I'd get there, but I knew it was what I wanted."

Since 2001, the New York University film school grad has been living and working in Hollywood. But it wasn't until he and his writing partner, Glenn German, took control of their own destinies that one of their feature-film projects made it onto the big screen. Today, Rodgers' first feature as a director and co-screenwriter, the college-romance-with-a-twist "At Middleton," opens in theaters.

Perhaps the biggest lesson he learned, Rodgers said, was the importance of big-name casting. He and German had been shopping their project around for some two years when Oscar-nominated actor Andy Garcia agreed to not only join the cast, but lend his name as producer. Within a year, the financing lined up, filming on "At Middleton" began in Washington state.

Of course, it helped that Garcia and co-star Vera Farmiga slid so perfectly into their roles — Garcia as the tautly wound, straight-arrow George, Farmiga as the more-free-spirited, uninhibited Edith.

"Every notable director of our age has weighed in on the percentage that casting figures into your directorial success," Rodgers says. "Spike Lee says it's 65 percent, Billy Wilder says it's 80 percent, Francis Coppola said it's 95 percent. Whatever it is, it's a huge number. When you cast really great actors, it puts you at a huge advantage. … What was always surprising was just how inventive and courageous Vera and Andy were in trying things."

What also was a little surprising, Rodgers says, was how easy feature filmmaking turned out to be — at least compared to those short films he'd been churning out.

"On short films, you're the director, but you're also coiling cable, you're taking the equipment car back to the rental house, you're cooking meals for the crew, you're doing all those things that one does when you're making a short film for no money. On a feature, as modest as our budget was [$2.5 million], I just got so much help, so much support. Honestly, it was a relief to make the movie."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com