Detroit Free Press – Michigan connections of ‘Beside Still Waters’ run deep

Beside still waters

Chris Lowell is coming back to Michigan, the place where his passion project found a home.

The 30-year-old actor is best known for playing Emma Stone’s boyfriend in “The Help” and Stosh (Piz) Piznarski in the “Veronica Mars” TV series and 2014 movie. Most recently, he starred in the short-lived Fox military sitcom “Enlisted.”

But Lowell is also the guy whose feature film directing debut, “Beside Still Waters,” was shot in Petoskey in 2012. A year before that, he was working on the screenplay a few hundred miles to the south in Ann Arbor, where he just happened to be acting in a movie.

“I was actually working on the script in Michigan, not knowing I would be shooting the film a year later in Michigan,” says the 30-year-old actor.

Lowell will be at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township on Wednesday night for a screening of “Beside Still Waters,” a small-budget independent movie that nabbed the audience and jury prize at the 2013 Austin Film Festival’s narrative feature awards.

While it inevitably draws comparisons to earlier friend reunions like “The Big Chill,” the movie stands on its own with visual elegance (it was shot on film) and blend of nostalgic moods with very contemporary characters.

At the heart of the story is Daniel (Ryan Eggold of the CW’s “90210”), whose parents have died in an auto accident and family lakefront home has been sold. He gathers his old group of pals, including an ex-girlfriend, Olivia (Britt Lower of CBS’ “Unforgettable”) who brings along her new fiancé (Reid Scott of HBO’s “Veep”), for one last hurrah. But a night of drinking, dining and skinny-dipping leads to the sort of missteps and awkward realizations that are necessary for moving on with life.

The film stars a handsome cast of actors on the verge of bigger things. And the drama is punctuated by wistful black-and-white photos, which were shot by Lowell at his family’s home in Georgia.

For Lowell, “Beside Still Waters” was inspired by his family’s home in Georgia and written by him and his writing partner, Mohit Narang, as a sort of exercise in the process of working together.

While acting in an indie called “Brightest Star,” Lowell showed the script to producers of the movie, including West Bloomfield native Jason Potash. When they came back to him interested in making the project, it was Potash who nudged him in the direction of Michigan, with its numerous lakes and film incentives, as a location.

“Beside Still Waters” wound up being financed, cast, shot and mixed all in 2012. Early that year, it was approved for nearly $80,000 in Michigan film incentives on an anticipated $276,000 of in-state spending.

“It was crazy,” recalls Lowell by phone. “We moved at breakneck speed. I think for me personally, I got very spoiled. I assumed the distribution would be just as seamless and quick.”

But for smaller films, distribution is usually a marathon, not a sprint. With a deal proving elusive given the relatively unknown cast, Lowell launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $60,000 to cover finishing costs for the movie and wound up with more than $200,000.

The crowd-funding success helped turn the doubts around. Tribeca Films ended up landing “Beside Still Waters,” which is also available on video on demand.

Lowell credits some Michigan serendipity with helping smooth bumps in the screenplay. While he was co-starring with Liam Hemsworth in the 1960s dramedy “Love and Honor” in 2011, he asked its co-screenwriter, University of Michigan professor Jim Burnstein to read a draft of the “Beside Still Waters” script.

“It was wonderful, because I felt like I was getting a lesson in screenwriting,” Lowell says. He credits Burnstein with providing the most influential notes on the script and nudging him toward a key scene near the end with Daniel and his rival, Henry.

Lowell also praises Petoskey for providing a very Americana look for the film’s setting. The house that’s the main location happened to have the perfect karma as well.

“We were shooting literally next door to the Hemingway” vacation cottage, says Lowell, noting that Daniel feels an affinity for the brooding writer.

A country store that was a setting already had photos of Hemingway up on the wall. “It seemed very serendipitous, one of those moments where you feel you’re doing something right.”

The content of “Beside Still Waters” is purposely devoid of topical references, even though the dilemmas faced by its characters are very much of the moment.

“The main struggle of ‘The Big Chill’ is you have these characters who are entering middle age and are saying, ‘Oh no, I’ve failed. I’ve become my parents.’ That’s the failure,” says Lowell.

“I think the undercurrent in ‘Beside Still Waters’ is these are characters at the crossroads of their lives. And the tragedy they are dealing with is, ‘Oh no, I’ve failed. I’m not going to be my parents. At this age, my parents had finished school, they had jobs, they had a home, they had me.’ They’ve been fired, they are lost, they don’t know what they are doing with their lives. They are more aimless.”

Lowell says it’s no mistake that metro Detroit is the place where the movie is concluding what he calls a “mini-tour” of screenings.

“We shot the movie in Michigan. I want to finish the movie in Michigan. I’m really excited to have our last theatrical screening be in the state that actually gave birth to the film in the first place.”

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