This is Our Youth

Published April 21, 2014

ABOVE: (LEFT TO RIGHT) CALLAN MCAULIFFE, SARAH SUTHERLAND, AND EMORY COHEN IN BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY. PHOTO COURTESY OF TRIBECA FILMS.

Beneath the Harvest Sky, which screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a gritty, wrong-side-of the-tracks story with echoes of Winter’s Bone and The Place Beyond the Pines—a film in which Emory Cohen also gave a dark, explosive performance.

In Beneath the Harvest Sky, Cohen once again portrays a troubled teenager who involves his innocent friend (Callan McAuliffe) in drugs, as he did with Dane DeHaan in The Place Beyond the Pines. The desperate poverty which leads to meth dealing in the Ozarks of Winter’s Bone and bank robbery in Pines results in smuggling pills across the Canadian/Maine border in Harvest Sky. Like those earlier films, in Beneath the Harvest Sky filmmakers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly find a lyrical, bleak beauty in hardscrabble rural Maine.

Gaudet and Pullapilly, whose Emmy-nominated documentary The Way We Get By won the Special Jury Award at SXSW in 2009, establish their theme in a scene set in their protagonists’ high school English class. During a discussion of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, the teacher postulates that “some choices aren’t choices at all; maybe some things are beyond your control.” Cohen’s character, Casper, gets thrown out of the classroom for belligerence and comments that the novel’s antihero, Ponyboy is an example of “good people making bad choices.”

While Casper accepts the destiny chosen for him by his criminal father (Aiden Gillan, The Wire and Game of Thrones) and uncle (Timm Sharp), McAuliffe’s character, Dominic, works hard as a farmhand, harvesting blue potatoes and dreaming of moving to Boston (a map hanging in his bedroom reads, “You are here. But not for long.”) In an unusually believable depiction of teenage friendship, Dominic tries to convince Casper not to settle for a small-town future.

“A lot of the relationship in the film comes from the real-world bond we formed just from being around each other so much on the set,” McAuliffe told Interview on Friday. “Just being in the same place together for so long, it happened naturally and that really helped create a realistic relationship. It actually forces you to like each other,” he laughed.

“I showed up and figured that I was going to force Callan to be my best friend no matter what. I did not realize that I was going to get this kind of wild, Australian jolly rancher!” said Cohen. “He was quite charming and funny in a sort of strange, aloof way.

“Callan is an incredibly nice, sweet, talented human being and I’ve had a bit of an actor’s crush on him,” said Cohen. “So I had to work through those feelings to get to a place where I saw what he had and wanted to take them from him, which was also fun. It’s a much more intense place to be at then when you can allow yourself to just be charmed by him.”

Cohen told us that it was not a coincidence that he was once again cast as the antihero. “I am constantly interested in people who society calls ‘bad’ because I don’t like to just buy into something that everybody’s going to say. I want to investigate that for myself. With a character you get to fully investigate that emotionally and understand the parts of them that are in pain and scared and are good. That’s human.

“When I was a kid I saw Peter Pan and I loved Captain Hook and the Lost Boys because they were the ‘bad boys,'” recalled Cohen. “For a while when I was younger I pretended to be one, which I never really was. I just hung out with the guys who really were doing [bad] stuff.  As an actor, I lived through my imagination of that; of getting into fist fights and stuff. I’m glad I chose more vulnerable work about what is love and what is freedom and those kinds of things. But there’s something innate in me where I always come back to characters with an edge.”

Likewise, the baby-faced McAuliffe is often cast as the good guy. “I feel like I get cast in these types of roles because that’s what people see in me in auditions. But as an actor, I’d love to play a darker role at some point in the future,” he said. McAuliffe’s wish for a complex character was granted when he was cast as the young Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, with the adult Gatsby portayed by Leonardo DiCaprio.

“It was a very surreal experience and also a short one,” McAuliffe told us. “Working with Leo was wonderful because even though you’re slightly star-struck, he tries his best to make you feel at home on the set. Even during table reads and pre-production, he was a complete professional. He didn’t seem like a Hollywood star at all during that shoot. And Baz Luhrmann is a very eccentric man, a director with great vision. He brought a very creative aesthetic to a classic tale. He’s a fun guy who’s very entertaining.”

Cohen has also worked with major actors in his young career, including playing Bradley Cooper’s son in Pines. “I got to see the way he handles himself on a film set and the way he manages his career. That’s something I’m trying to get better at. I just did a film with Mark Wahlberg [The Gambler], and part of what I learned was seeing how he operates with all the things he has going on.

Both McAuliffe and Cohen could relate to their characters’ grappling with moral and ethical dilemmas in pursuit of a dream. “Every time I’ve ever had to shift around the people with whom I work in this industry, it’s an incredibly emotionally and physically taxing and dramatic experience. It’s something I never thought I’d have to deal with,” said McAuliffe. “There’s definitely a moral code or compass that you toy with and fiddle with. It’s part of the job and I’m used to it now. I kind of push those memories from my head.”

As for Cohen, “My parents split up about five years ago and I had to make a decision about whether I was going to be angry or be their friend. I chose to be their friend, but I wanted to be angry sometimes because I wanted to think that I was still a child, but I wasn’t anymore. It was time to grow up and accept the facts and see them as humans.”

BENEATH THE HARVEST SKY IS CURRENTLY SCREENING AT THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL. IT OPENS IN LIMITED RELEASE ON MAY 2.