Filmmaker Tom Brandau was 20 when his father committed suicide in Ocean City. More than two decades later, that terrible event has been transformed into the dramatic center of Brandau's first feature-length film, Cold Harbor.
Even while struggling to make sense of his father's death, Brandau realized that his loss might also have the potential to inspire. "It would have been different if I wasn't a filmmaker to begin with, but I was a filmmaker," says Brandau, who teaches film classes at Towson University.
"I was already established at what I was doing as an artist. And with [my father's death] being one of the more dramatic moments that I've experienced in life, it made perfect sense to me to use it in order to create a piece of art."
Brandau's movie, which will have its Maryland premiere tonight at the Senator Theatre, chronicles the stories of four brothers attempting to come to terms with the suicide of their estranged father. "It's a mix of what really happened and what could have happened," Brandau says. "That was just a decision on my part to make the film more dramatic and less autobiographical, perhaps. I approached it from the point of view of it being a piece of art, being something that could be universally appreciated for itself."
The effort was decades in the making. After his father's death, the Baltimore native tucked his idea for a movie in the back of his mind and continued his studies, first at Towson University (then Towson State), then the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.
In 1990, Brandau took a production job at WBFF-TV (Fox 45) but continued to pursue his own projects. Most notable was Sonny and Cornblatt, which explored the relationship between two elderly neighbors - one black and one Jewish - as they begrudgingly help each other through the loss of their spouses. The short film won several regional and national awards and was aired on public television. Then, in 1992, while still at Fox, Brandau wrote the first draft of Cold Harbor.
He spent the next few years trying to develop the project, but it didn't begin to take shape until 1994 when he encountered an old college acquaintance, actor Mark Redfield, at auditions for a television commercial.
The Towson graduates immediately began trading stories about life after college. Redfield, who is interested in production and direction as well as acting, had been working predominantly in theater while trying to develop his own feature film. When Brandau mentioned his interest in making movies, each recognized the other as a kindred spirit. From that point on, Redfield would have a significant role in the development and eventual production of Cold Harbor.
In the spring of 1995, Brandau quit his job at Fox and took a much-needed vacation. His plan was to drive to Alaska to think things - including Cold Harbor - over. One day, he called Redfield from a pay phone in Saskatchewan and said he wanted to go into production as soon as possible. Redfield told his excited friend: "Think about it on the trip back. And if you're still feeling the same way when you're faced with Baltimore reality and life, I'm game."
When Brandau returned to Baltimore in October, he was, if anything, even more serious about making the film. "I wanted to do it before I had a chance to change my mind," he says. "I knew that the more time I had to think about it, the greater the chance that I would talk myself out of it."
With that in mind, the partners got to work, finalizing the script and scouting locations. The movie, which follows the four brothers as they wrestle with their feelings for their late father, is set in the fictional seaside town of Cold Harbor. Brandau and Redfield agreed that Rehoboth, Del., possessed precisely the "quaint" feeling that they wanted to capture on film.
"The brothers drink too much and they fight a lot and a lot of old wounds are opened. They basically deal with each other like siblings often do in high-stress moments," Brandau says. "At the core of it, they really do like each other, that's the bottom line. They just aren't used to being locked in a house on the beach in winter with nothing to do but drink, fight and think about their dead father."
Redfield adds: "It's really the feelings and the emotions that are the true story and not necessarily the events."
The production team
Pulling together a production team was not difficult. "We have a lot of friends who are professionals in the business. We just started calling good people," Brandau says. One was production manager Kathi Ash, who had just wrapped up a season of Homicide: Life on the Street. And Redfield, in addition to being the film's producer, played the eldest brother.
They cast the other three principals (Richard Lopez, James Caffery and Adam Raynen), secured the beach house where most of the action takes place and began filming.
Shortly after Cold Harbor wrapped, Redfield co-founded (with Stuart Voytilla) the production company Redfield Arts. The studio's first two projects were Cold Harbor and last year's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which won several awards and now has a home video and cable television deal with Echelon Entertainment). Next month Redfield Arts begins shooting Chainsaw Sally, a feature that Redfield describes as a "black-comedy-gore picture," and which includes cameo appearances by Gunnar Hansen, the original "Leatherface" in the '70s film classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Herschell Gordon Lewis, director of Blood Feast.
As for Cold Harbor's future, Brandau and Redfield are hoping for a video deal and next year plan to enter festivals across the country in hopes of attracting distributors. (Its next screening will be Nov. 8 at the Rehoboth Beach Festival). For now though, having completed the film is a source of great satisfaction.
"It's been challenging, but making a feature film on any level is daunting," Brandau says. "It's very difficult to do - very much like running a marathon, as I tell my students.
"At the beginning, you have high hopes that you're going to cross the finish line first and it's going to be this glorious experience. In the middle, you feel happy to still be on your feet, and to still be moving. And by the end of it, the victory is just that you cross the finish line, not that you get there first."
The Maryland premiere of Cold Harbor is tonight at 8 at the Senator Theatre. Tickets are $20. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the American Film Institute, to benefit its film preservation and restoration programs. Call 410-435-8338.