How much do you really get to know a college from an official tour? The pervading opinion is not a lot. But in new film Middleton, a campus visit leads two starkly different parents to get to know themselves – and each other – as they wander off from the tour group.
Shot in eastern Washington at Gonzaga University and Washington State University, Middleton had its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival on Friday night. The film, which takes place all in one day at the titular fictional school, stars Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia as the parents who meet on the college tour. Garcia’s George is a prim and proper surgeon and a father of a teenage son who’s not at all interested in Middleton. Farmiga’s Edith, mother of studious and driven Audrey, is irreverent and free-spirited, though chained down by an unfulfilling job and a stagnant relationship with her husband. The two go from butting heads at a strained first meeting to hitting it off as they run wild around campus and share their fears about facing life alone with their spouses when their kids have left for college.
“I loved Edith,” Farmiga told EW after the premiere screening. “I wanted to be Edith. I wanted her to be my mom. I wanted to mother like her. And there was a lot to be learned from this character.”
Garcia was drawn to his character for the way George reminded him of Jacques Tati, director of mid-20th century French films, a favorite of both Garcia and Middleton director/co-writer Adam Rodgers. “To me [George] is like Harold Lloyd and Jaques Tati mixed into one,” Garcia said. “He’s trying to follow the wake of this tornado of a woman that’s powering through this campus, and he’s just sucked up into her energy.”
One of Rodgers’ own college tour experiences inspired the film. As a teenager, touring 15 New England schools with his father felt like a ritual. “On that last [tour], I was so burned out,” the first-time feature director recalled. “I was on the edge of this tour, and I saw this girl near a fountain carrying her shoes, and I found my 16-year-old self just walking towards her. And we played tour hooky and spent the whole day together.” Now as a father of two (one of whom is heading to college this fall), Rodgers considered the compelling question the film answers: “What was going on with my dad when I was wandering around?”
Though the filmmakers had to drop the original title Admissions when a certain Tina Fey movie came along, Rodgers says he found Middleton to ultimately be a better fit. The name for the fictional college comes from Middletown, Conn., the location of Wesleyan University, where Rodgers played tour hooky. But it also nods to middle-of-life rut Edith and George are both stuck in.
Pacing Edith and George’s relationship required a lot of scaling back of the charge between the two characters. Of working with Garcia, Farmiga said there was “a lot of s—- and giggles. We got close fast.”
Both actors shared the screen with family members in Middleton. Playing Edith’s daughter is Farmiga’s 18-year-old sister Taissa Farmiga (who also appears in SIFF’s closing night film, Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring). Building a mother-daughter relationship for their characters didn’t take much of a leap of imagination for the two actresses. “It’s built-in. I’m like her surrogate mom. There’s 21 years between us,” Vera Farmiga explained. “What you see in the film is my love for her.”
Garcia’s 25-year-old daughter Daniella Garcia-Lorido plays Daphne, a Middleton student George and Edith meet when they sneak into the school’s film projection room. After Daphne lets George use her dorm room computer, things take a turn for the dopey when Daphne’s boyfriend pulls out his bong. Soon a stoned George is trying to cheer up an alternatively giggly and teary Edith with some dance moves. The script described the moment as “George dances like an octopus falling out of a tree.” One might think that shooting this scene had to be a new experience for the father-daughter pair, but Garcia joked, “Oh, she’s seen me fall out of a tree as an octopus many times.”
The scene provoked a lot of laughter from the audience on Friday, as did plenty of other comedic moments, including the pieces of trivia from the quintessential annoyingly perky college tour guide (Nicholas Braun). But as George and Edith open up and discover themselves, there were also dramatic moments that got quieter reactions from the crowd. “It was such a treat to listen to the audience listen to the film,” Vera Farmiga said. “They were quite vocal, and in these moments of self-discovery, where these characters make these profound acknowledgements about their lack of eagerness or their complacency or their loneliness, you hear the audience identify with it with sighs and breaths.”
Middleton’s filmmakers will get the chance to observe another audience’s response to the movie at the Maui Film Festival, where it will screen next month. Anchor Bay Entertainment, which also distributed Garcia’s 2009 drama City Island, is aiming for a first-quarter 2014 release.