The tragedy of lost love is a common trope in narrative film; but rarely is it handled with as much delicacy and heartfelt sentiment as it is by Ellen Gerstein in her short “Come Away With Me.” In the film, a woman named Anne attends her high school reunion in the hopes of seeing her old love Michael. A couple in the 60s before they were torn apart by war and misunderstanding, Anne and Michael struggle to connect through the barrier of Michael’s Alzheimer’s. Despite their difficulties, Anne perseveres, continuing to believe in true love.
RIIFF got the chance to talk with director and lead actress Ellen Gerstein. Read the transcript below:
RIIFF: How did you get involved with this film? What made you interested in making it, both as a director and as an actress?
I loved the story and the two characters of “Come Away With Me.” I see Anne as an everyday hero for going after what she really wants. I wanted it to be very intimate and personal. I thought I could do a really good job directing it; I knew what I wanted and how I saw it. I also wanted to work with Charlie Robinson (Night Court, Hart of Dixie
). We both belong to the Actors Studio and have a great level of work ethic when it comes to bringing a story to life.
RIIFF: “Come Away With Me” was originally a play—were there any challenges in adapting the story from stage to screen?
Yes, I adapted it to a screenplay. I had to do some editing and shape it a little differently from what it originally was.
RIIFF: There is a striking height difference between yourself and Charlie Robinson. Was this an intentional part of the casting? How do you think the height difference affected the production and meaning of the film?
Concerning the height, I knew I wanted Charlie and just went with the height difference. We had to work around it for a few shots, but I think it worked out well! In life, sometimes the height difference is there, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
RIIFF: The title of the film, “Come Away With Me,” gestures towards a kind of escape. What do you think these characters are trying to escape from? Do they succeed?
Actually, I gave the name because, when they were high school sweethearts, they wanted to go away with each other. However, Anne was sent to school and they were inevitably separated. Now, Anne comes back to rekindle the romance for them to finally go away together. They don’t succeed, but again, this is sometimes what happens in life. I didn’t want to tack on a Hollywood ending; I just wanted to make it real.
RIIFF: Throughout the short, the sound and mention of trains are used to, as I understand it, represent Michael’s lost memory. Do you feel like the trains have some meaning beyond that?
I think that Michael keeps going back to the ‘train information’ because that’s where he feels in control. He has always loved trains; he knows everything about them. That’s his outlet, so that’s what he talks about. I think after they dance, and he looks at her, and he very tenderly talks about trains, I think he is telling her he loves her.
RIIFF: Both music and sound are integral parts of this film, from the song your character remembers to the repeated train whistle. Combined with the vibrant cinematography, this makes for a rich sensory experience. How did you mean for these intense sensory aspects to affect the viewer?
First of all, the train sounds are familiar, and the last train sound takes him away in his mind. The song is like a third character in the film—we start with it when she is full of excitement getting ready to see him. The song comes in while they dance, and Anne thinks she can bring him back by doing something they’ve done many times before: dancing to that song. Unfortunately, at the end, that is all Anne is left with; memories and the song. I think the audience is taken to a deeper place. Maybe they remember someone in their life through music, like Anne and Michael do. The cinematographer, Polly Morgan, was so talented and easy to work with. She kept movement, but was very subtle with it. I wanted to show that Michael’s life is there . . . on the bench . . . with no movement. In the ‘60s high school lovers would have two things: If you were going steady, the girl would wear the guy’s ring around her neck. And secondly, you always had a song. Thus, I wrote the song, “Come Away With Me Tonight” while I was walking my dog one day. I was fortunate to have Hollie Cavanagh from American Idol perform the piece.
RIIFF: There is a moment in the film when your character says that she, “lived this fabulous, meaningless, silly life,” in direct opposition to Michael’s life fighting for his country. However, while your character might privilege Michael’s life as more meaningful than hers, he cannot remember his life; so how can it have meaning? Do you think that meaning infused in the remembrance of the act or the act itself? What do you believe makes a life meaningful?
I think this is something Anne wanted to tell him for many, many years. In a way, she is telling herself. It is something she just had to say. I believe that doing what you really want to do is what success is all about. I think having a strong sense of humanity is quite meaningful.
RIIFF: What has the audience reaction to this film been? Was the reaction at RIIFF different than at other festivals?
I am so happy to say the reaction to the film has been incredible. People tell me that it touches their heart. Audiences react to all different aspects of the film. Whether it is a long lost love, or the trauma of PTSD and Alzheimer’s, viewers seem to love that it’s not a Hollywood ending. They love the realness that is speaks. RIIFF’s audience talked to me after the screening and expressed how moved they were. They reacted like the other festivals, so positively. I was thrilled!
RIIFF: What are you working on next?
EG: Currently, I’m refining a screen play called Just South Of Normal, and working on a webisode called Ronnie and Edgar. This is about two developmentally disabled best friends who move from the institution, where they have been living, to an apartment. The story follows their journey of living a new life. Lastly, I’m working on a one-woman show called My Psychotherapy ComeBack Tour, about a homeless therapist making a comeback. It is important to go onward . . . with LOVE.