Baucis & Philemon: A Tale’s Transformation

Twenty centuries ago, Ovid published his Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem of countless mythological transformations.

Just a few weeks ago, one of these tales underwent a transformation of its own, in the form of a romantic short film titled Baucis & Philemon.

The film is far from perfect, much further than most of my recent ones. I like to blame some of that on the conditions of the project: the hastiness of completing it in five days and the awful weather conditions on shooting day.

But hey, the most miserable shooting conditions are the most memorable, right?

Story Time with Ovid

Here’s how the original story goes:

Jupiter (Zeus) and Mercury (Hermes) went to a valley in Phrygia to test the hospitality of the human inhabitants. Disguised as travelers, they knocked on every door and begged for food and shelter. However, with each knock, they were sent away into the stormy night.

This was until they approached the hut of Philemon and Baucis, a humble, old married couple. They offered shelter and a meal to the masked gods. However, they noticed that although the travelers kept drinking, their wine glasses were always full.

Jupiter and Mercury revealed themselves and led the couple to the peak of the valley. As punishment for the other humans’ lack of hospitality, they flooded the town, allowing only old Philemon and Baucis to survive. In gratitude, the gods offered each of them one wish. Here’s what they wished:

  1. For their hut to be transformed into a golden temple, where they may worship the gods in their final years.
  2. To die at the same moment, so neither has to endure the grief of burying the other.

For the final page of the tale, I’ll let Stanley Lombardo take over with his creative translation of a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Their prayer was answered. They took care of the temple for the rest of their lives, until one day, old and worn out, they happened to be standing in front of the sacred steps, talking about the place and all that had happened there, when Philemon saw Baucis, and Baucis saw Philemon sprouting leaves. As the canopy grew over their faces, they cried out while they could the same words together, ‘Good-bye, my love,’ just as the bark closed over their lips.

Beautiful.

Cur Hoc Faciendum Erat

(For those who don’t nerd-out over Latin like I do, that means Why This Had to Be Made.)

My Latin teacher assigned us a project to make an artistic adaption of a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It could be anything we wanted, from a rap to a puppet show.

I decided to make a short film based on my favorite myth: you guessed it, Baucis & Philemon. I particularly adore the ending of the myth, in which the old couple becomes a pair of intertwining trees, forever locked in an embrace. It’s romantic and sweet and I’m a huge sucker for it.

But how do you spin a 2000-year-old tale in a new, creative way?

Revitalizing an Elderly Tale

I didn’t want my film to be a direct page-to-screen translation of the text for two reasons:

  1. If my film has nothing original to say, then why am I making it at all?
  2. I don’t have the FX capabilities to show the gods, the flood, or the transformation in a decently realistic way.

Rather, I incorporated ideas from the story throughout and preserved the theme of a love so undying that it outlives the couple itself.

I also aged down the couple to a pair of teenagers so I could, you know, actually find actors.

The final change I made (and the most important, in my opinion) was the ending. While in Ovid’s story, the couple dies together in an embrace as they wished, I chose to only have Philemon die. In this way, the story is one of love and loss, of moving on, of feeling someone’s love even after they have passed.

Because, as we all know, things never go as planned.

I wrote the script as a non-linear narrative, introducing Baucis’ grief as our present and the couple’s love as a flashback Baucis ponders on as she says goodbye.

…without Letting the Story Die

Yes, I did choose to focus on a small portion of the story, but I still wanted to do Ovid’s myth justice. Here are some details that transcended 2000 years into the final film:

As we transition into the flashback, Philemon reads aloud Lombardo’s translation of the section of the story in which Baucis and Philemon are turned to trees.

The film’s location centers around a tree that breaks into two limbs as it rises up: a visual symbol for the couple’s eventual reunion as trees. Coincidentally, I pass this tree everyday as I walk to school.

Baucis’ final words to the tree are Goodbye, my love. This is directly quoted from Lombardo’s translation of the couple’s final words to each other: Vale, o coniunx.

Casting and the Like

I tend to cast people I’ve already worked with. Probably because I don’t know enough about casting yet to hear multiple renditions of a scene and choose the best one. I also don’t know enough about directing to pull emotions out of an actor; they have to be able to do that themselves.

But people I’ve already worked with? I trust that they can find emotions within themselves, that they know what I’m looking for in their performance. However, with such a short timeframe to complete this project (5 days!), availability was an issue.

As a result, I ended up asking Annika Helgelson, who I’d only worked with in the theater. However, having seen her act in multiple productions, I trusted her ability to portray the strong yet vulnerable character of Baucis.

I asked Ian Dugan, who starred in Lemonhead and Guilt, to play Baucis’ ill-fated love interest Philemon. I trusted him to pull off the hopeless romantic who dreams of becoming trees.

In the film, Baucis places a framed piece of artwork at the foot of the tree: a painting of the couple transforming into a pair of intertwining trees. I reached out to an incredibly talented friend of mine: Sanjana Chimata. Despite only having a mere 3 days to complete the artwork, Sanjana crafted for me a beautifully intimate charcoal painting which captured all the emotions I was aiming for.

Screen Shot 2019-01-13 at 4.16.12 PM.png

Thank you, Sanjana.

Shooting in the Rain

The one day that the two actors’ schedules aligned was Sunday, the day before the project was due.

Unfortunately, the weather’s schedule didn’t line up so nicely.

On Sunday, it was windy and rainy and felt below freezing. I expected it to rain a little, but I certainly didn’t expect this.

The scorching rays of the sun made Lemonhead’s outdoor shoot tiresome. Well, those rays couldn’t hold a candle to the monstrous weather that came our way on December 16, 2018.

But the show must go on, right?

In spite of the weather, Annika and Ian still agreed to act in the film, and my father graciously helped me shoot.

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You can tell how happy he was to be helping out.

We used garbage bags to carry and store equipment, and umbrellas to protect them (and us) while shooting. However, the wind did a great job at helping the rain hit us anyway. Thanks!

We began with Annika’s solo scenes.

The first and final images of the film are wide shots of the tree.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 4.51.22 pmscreen shot 2019-01-13 at 4.52.08 pm

Even this early on in the shoot, you can see water droplets landing on the lens.

Somehow, in a shot of only her hand on a tree, Annika managed to capture her character’s grief and struggle to let go.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 4.56.16 pmscreen shot 2019-01-13 at 4.58.34 pm

Annika absolutely blew me away (even more than the fierce wind) in her monologue to the tree. She was able to portray this scene seriously (and brilliantly, may I add) despite talking to a tree.

Screen Shot 2019-01-13 at 5.08.59 PM.png

This was also my favorite shot compositionally, functioning as the OTS-pair to the hand shot.

I had told Ian to come late since his character wasn’t in this scene (at least, not in human form). Since we had some extra time, we filmed the monologue five times before stopping. Her line delivery and facial expressions felt more real with each take, so the fifth ended up making the final cut.

Ian arrived, and we began to shoot the second scene. I had planned to transition from scene 1 by keeping the camera in the same exact place as in the shot above and racking focus to Annika, seated at a distance. However, upon trying this, it was impossible to keep Annika in the frame, so I quickly came up with a different way to transition:

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 5.17.04 pmscreen shot 2019-01-13 at 5.17.47 pm

This way, the constant between the two scenes is still the tree, which is what I intended with the original plan. The flashback is the story behind the tree its meaning to their relationship, after all.

For the flashback shots, I unlocked the tilt and pan knobs on the tripod so the frame wouldn’t be so locked in place. This shows how he brought her life, energy, and possibility. Once he’s gone, the world feels much more stuck.

I chose to have Baucis draw Philemon so her painting of them doesn’t come out of nowhere at the end of the film. A pistol fired in Act III should hang on the wall in Act I, right Chekhov?

Annika sat on a yoga mat because the ground was soaked.

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There was a continuity error in shooting. I’ll give you a second to find it, if you haven’t already.

Sorry, you’re out of time.

When we cut during the twirl, Ian’s hood suddenly appears on his head.

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Oops. I suppose script supervisors are pretty important after all.

Both actors were willing to kiss for the film, so we got a sweet moment that made the romance feel stronger, and his death harsher.

Some water must have gotten on the inside glass of the 50mm lens, because the last shot we filmed looks like this:

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Don’t worry, I was able to get it off once I got home.

The actors did fantastic in their roles, and the chemistry between them was youthful yet mature. Short yet eternal.

By the end of the two-hour shoot, we had soaking clothes and numb fingers.

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But hey, we also had a film.

A Quick Edit

I edited the film quickly so it would be done before the due date.

I titled the film Baucis & Philemon to establish it as a loose retelling rather than simply an allusion. (I even gave Ovid story credits.) I used an ampersand (&) rather than the word and because it looks like a pair of intertwining trees. This may seem like a silly detail to point out, but I opted to use the word and for my October film Inside and Out. I’ll save that explanation for a later post.

In the opening shot, the title appears on the tree in red, the same color as the umbrella.

Screen Shot 2019-01-13 at 6.16.25 PM.png

The credits fall with the same shade.

Unlike in many of my films, I faded in and out to start and end the film. It really depends on the style and tone of the film. Baucis & Philemon is soft and sweet, much different from the harsh, disconcerting Inside and Out.

I did a lot of searching to find royalty-free music that was soft and romantic. I fell in love with Jonny Easton‘s piano-harp duet Love Story. He has a lovely collection of royalty-free tracks on iTunes, so I would recommend checking those out next time you need a light yet emotional melody to string along your film.

I chose to align the music based on my favorite part of the film: the twirl. The chimes come in with the spin, and they work in unison to establish the chemistry and tone.

With the music, the film took on a new tone, and a new meaning. Annika’s monologue was no longer a tragic reaction to her lover’s death but rather a bittersweet ode to him, a goodbye to him, an expression of belief in their eventual reunion. As a result, the entire film seemed to transform. It no longer felt like a tragedy. From cover to cover, Baucis & Philemon is a story of love, a spirit which transcends from life to the afterlife and beyond.

Imperfections, Memories

Well, without any further ado, here’s Baucis & Philemon:

To be completely honest, I questioned whether I should post the film on this website.

Due to the severity of the weather, some of the shots were slightly rushed. Good enough became the benchmark. The film is much further from perfect than I’d typically accept. As I said earlier, things never go as planned.

But they go as they’re meant to. For the present-day sections of the film, I think the rain actually makes the film better. Sometimes, the unexpected can lead to the greatest surprises.

Similarly, I found a talented, professional actress in Annika, even though this was her screen debut. She played Baucis with a poignant softness without resorting to theatrics more suitable to be seen from a distance. Her transition from stage to screen was seamless, so I’m super excited to work with her in future projects.

Overall, despite the film’s flaws, I’m very proud of it. It was my first dip into the world of romance, and I see it as a sweet adaption of my favorite myth. This film also reminded me that great work produces great works. I carpe diemed a project I could have half-done and got a love story out of it.

I owe everyone involved in this project great gratitude…and apologies. They spent two hours in awful conditions so the show could go on. Thanks for trooping all the way through. I hope this made the day memorable for you, for better or for worse. It certainly did for me.

In my next post, I’ll write about my first trek into another genre: experimental film. In The Elements, my crew and I portrayed the four stages of grief (denial, anger, sadness, acceptance) through the four elements (air, fire, water, earth). It was sort of an experimental cross between The Phone Rang and Inside and Out: a one-shot film with complex moving parts, including creative uses of color.

Speaking of which…

I am honored to announce that Inside and Out will premiere at the 17th Garden State Film Festival at the end of March! Until then, you can watch the trailer online over and over. Seriously, do it. I want the views.

Fade to black.

3 thoughts on “Baucis & Philemon: A Tale’s Transformation

  1. The memories will last for ever. Truly I thought we were going to die from hypothermia! Always love watching you at work. Remember me when your famous and you need someone to get you your coffee! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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