The germination of this project was a choice: do I go to film school or make a film? Perhaps unwisely (it has sometimes felt that way) I chose to make a feature-length film, and one that was quirky, moody, and unique. It would bring to life one of my favorite novels, Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, in a modern context, and be influenced by 1970s French and Scandinavian cinema. The result is a truly independent “auteur” film.
I reread the Hardy’s novel several times to create the script, and it became clear to me that the most important, intriguing character in the novel was not Eustacia Vye or Clym Yeobright or the other inhabitants of Egdon Heath, but rather the heath itself. I love the island of Martha's Vineyard, where I have spent happy and sad times with family and friends on a remote farm. This place inspired me to become the new heath, with open plains, wild moors and ocean beaches. In the script tried to transmute the people of the very English Egdon Heath onto a very American island. I re-imagined Hardy’s heath folk as native islanders and “summer visitors” of Martha’s Vineyard, and adapted their situations and choices to a modern context. The classic “frosty” New England temperament, and the farm’s stark landscapes, would exemplify and influence the emotional distances and isolation of the characters.
In the novel, Hardy seemed to say that humans are very small players in an ancient, changing landscape. Nature will continue on, humans will not. Hardy's description of the Heath sums up this concept: "...its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things..." Hardy’s Egdon Heath was a symbol of both the brute force and the tranquility of Nature, and as a portal to the greater authority of pagan gods.
In technical terms, Nature guides and shapes this film. In some scenes, the viewer is meant to see from nature’s perspective: the characters are seen from a physical, and therefore emotional, distance. Under the looming sky and circling osprey, their intense struggles and passions are trivialized, and exposed as vain.
These wide shots reflect this creative decision, and the viewer may not be too sympathetic to the characters: neither is Nature. Hardy created characters that represent humans in all their flawed glory. Cliona whines and rages. Ned sabotages himself. Henry wavers between loyalty to mother and to his headstrong wife. Tamsin loves an unreliable man. Mrs Goodrich is bound by status and a closed mind. Redmond pines for a woman beyond his social standing. They are small town legends. The natural world around them could impart wisdom and insight, through the cycles of the seasons, omens and signs, birds and animals. Some choose to live with fervor and fury, others mildly, as thunderstorms or sunny days. Nature offers them all a lesson of humility through their narcissism, should they could grasp it. This lack of vision twists their individual fates. Several characters fail to see beyond themselves, and pay dearly for it. Some carry on, with resigned serenity. One sees…in the final moment.
The film, like the novel, is a pastoral, spiritual work. At the end of the novel Hardy made Clym Yeobright (the “Henry Goodrich” character in THE MISTOVER TALE) a broken man, transformed by his losses, but alive to hope. I think Hardy meant to convey that our natural environment, or our perception of it, can become our fate. Eustacia (“Cliona”) railed at the Heath as her stern exacting jailer, whose life force diminished hers. Clym (“Henry”) saw beyond its fury to its gentleness, and it gave him a different destiny. Nature ever reminds us that our joy and despair, however wonderful or overwhelming, are fleeting and cyclical. In natural cycles, darkness always recedes in time, and then there is Light.
Ideally, this film should be viewed in a theatre: it was made to envelop the viewer. Small TV and computer screens may not present it to its best advantage. We purposefully gave the film a slightly misty, retro look and aura, to conjure a sense of the recent past. The wild nature sounds, all recorded on location, are meant to surround and transport the viewer - as is the soundtrack by Jérôme Leroy, which expertly captures the characters’ pathos and ephemeral joys, and this grand, active landscape. There are imperfections, and a dark mood, that some viewers may not see beyond. But I don’t regret that the film is not glossy. My hope is that the film will find its audience among emotional, contemplative, or moody types who roam lonely places and converse with Nature.
The years it took the complete this film have taught me many important life and work lessons, and the final version of the film, with added scenes at the end, speaks to my own journey. I was a different person when I began this film, and with the cast and crew I lived through the hurricane of its creation. In a sense I have been transformed by it, as Henry has in the film’s last scene. There is a lightness is sharing this film with the world, and solace in knowing that I stayed true to my original vision. I hope you enjoy it. - Harry Tappan Heher
- Harry Tappan Heher