April 29, 2017
by Preston Barta
Photo credit: Jackson Smith and Jeffrey DeMunn in a scene from “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.”
While she has many films and television credits to her name including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starman and Animal House, Karen Allen has been exercising her creative mind for some time. Whether it’s writing stories or directing theater, it’s clear she’s made to do more than light up the screen and dazzle us with her charm and strong characters.
After directing theater for the past decade, many began to ask the question of when Allen would dip her toes into the filmmaking pool. Like anyone making his or her first feature, it was a big deal to Allen. She didn’t want to direct the first script that landed in her lap. It had to come for a deep, profound and personal place.
For Allen, the story that offered that came from American writer Carson McCullers, who wrote a moving short story, titled “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.”
The story follows a 12-year-old paperboy (portrayed in the film by newcomer Jackson Smith) who decides to stop in a local coffee shop before finishing his early morning route. When the boy enters the streetcar café he notices some soldiers, some laborers from a nearby mill and a curious old man (Jeffrey DeMunn) drinking beer alone.
After the café owner pays little attention to him, the boy decides to leave. But before the boy makes it out the door the old man declares that he loves him. This statement, of course, causes the boy to be taken aback. Embarrassed and unsure of what to do next, the boy sits down with the old man who offers to explain what he means.
“I read McCullers’ story when I was in my early 20s and it took a hold of me and hasn’t let go since,” Allen said during a recent phone call before the film’s regional premiere at the USA Film Festival. “It’s a very ordinary story about a mundane morning in a café, but McCullers wrote this beautiful exchange between a young boy and an older man that we know nothing about, a vagabond in away.”
Allen said she never grows tired of hearing about the nature of love. In her mind, the way in which our culture today teaches love as being something outside of ourselves, how it must be something grasped onto and held, and when we lose it we suffer, was something that needed to be explored more through storytelling. By adapting McCullers’ short Allen saw an opportunity to take an already heartfelt story about finding love within yourself and expanding its reach.
“Even in the times that we are living in right now, it’s such an important message to hear. I feel it more today than I did when I first read it. I think at the time I was very intrigued that this 25-year-old woman from the South sat down and wrote this rich story. Short stories are so extraordinary because it can send the reader through a whole world of experiences, and this story does just that.”
While “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” may not feature many characters or take place in more than one location, it was the simplicity of the story that allowed Allen to bring more to the table as a filmmaker.
“People handed me many feature-length scripts before I decided to do this film. I know many directors who started their film careers by directing features. For me, however, it wasn’t something I wanted to subject myself to, because I observed the sheer level of panic on many of those director’s faces,” Allen quipped. “So I wanted to start quietly and delve into something that I loved already.”
The idea of falling in love, allowing someone to be loved or understanding how love can exist is individually unique. Each person has their own introduction and definition. Allen’s definition came from a rather surprising place.
“Not to speak ill of my parents, but they were very limited in that department. So I had to seek places outside of my own family,” Allen said. “I watched a lot of old films on television growing up and read a lot of great literature. They were all wonderful teachers, but I had a deep love for trees. I grew up always having trees as a place to go to for solace. They were very parental in nature and would absorb all my sorrows and disappointments.”
Allen’s connection and admiration of trees comes through in her directorial debut. At the film’s opening sequence, the boy can be seen with a tree. It was a little element from Allen’s life that she worked into the narrative.
“A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” reveals much about the weaknesses and strengths, victories and defeats that accompany life’s journey. Sometimes sharing simple, short stories can yield the most incredible results.