“The experience of shooting in McClellanvile was really a gift,” says filmmaker Maggie Greenwald. Her topical drama, Sophie and the Rising Sun
, is one of several locally shot films at the 8th Annual Terrace Charleston Film Festival, which kicks off tomorrow. You can catch Sophie and the Rising Sun
on Fri. March 17 at 7 p.m. (followed by a Q&A with Greenwald) and Sat. March 18 at 4 p.m.
Being shot locally is all well and good, but are these high caliber films of the utmost professionalism? Greenwald’s certainly is, as evidenced by the critical acclaim it’s received, including its Official Selection title at Sundance.
The film is a historical drama set in rural South Carolina in 1941. An outsider — Mr. Ohta, a man of Asian descent — arrives in town under mysterious circumstances. Over time, he builds a rapport and becomes romantically involved with Sophie Willis, a quiet, reserved woman. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, their relationship and even their lives are endangered by a whirlwind of misguided patriotism, prejudice, and paranoia.
The film is based on Augusta Trobaugh’s 2001 novel of the same name.
“The inspiration for [executive producer] Nancy Dickenson in optioning the book and beginning the process was that she loved the novel,” says Greenwald, “And she loved the characters, but she also thought of the United States possibly beginning to do the same thing to Muslim-Americans that we’d done to Japanese-Americans.”
It’s a narrative that has gained newfound poignancy considering the millions of Americans who have been affected by President Trump’s proposed travel ban. “The disturbing thing for us is that the book has become profoundly more relevant than it was when we started the project eight years ago,” says Greenwald. “Since the election, the timing of the release of the movie is really meant to be, because I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t be moved by it now.”
The story takes place in the fictional town of Salty Creek, South Carolina. And though there are other locales throughout the southeast with the requisite marshland and moss-draped trees, “We came to South Carolina to scout because of the tax incentives,” says Greenwald.
[event-1]Come for the tax incentives, stay for the lush scenery.
Greenwald and her crew scouted several locations throughout the Lowcountry, but it wasn’t until they come upon a tiny coastal town just north of Charleston that a breakthrough happened. “We drove into McClellanville and we knew that this was Salty Creek,” says Greenwald. “And as we drove around and we looked at houses … I felt that it was waiting for us to discover it.”
They also found an equally accommodating community to boot. “The town was so welcoming and embraced us and we wanted to bring the town into our process,” says Greenwald. “We didn’t want to be those awful movie people. And we’re not. We’re not a big Hollywood movie. We’re independent filmmakers. We’re working on a modest budget, but it’s also part of our philosophy to connect with people. So people from the town were extras in the movie, the artwork in the film was created by local artists, and we hired local people to work in different capacities so I think it worked out really wonderfully for all of us.”
Set in the autumn of 1941 in Salty Creek, a willowy fishing village in South Carolina, the film tells the compelling story of two interracial lovers, Sophie, an artist who also fishes and sells crabs to the townfolk, the other an Asian gentleman, swept up in the tides of history. As World War II rages in Europe, Mr. Ohta, appears in the town badly beaten and under mysterious circumstances. Sophie, a native of Salty Creek, quickly becomes transfixed by Mr. Ohta and a friendship born of their mutual love of art blossoms into a delicate and forbidden courtship. As their secret relationship evolves the war escalates tragically. And when Pearl Harbor is bombed, a surge of misguided patriotism, bigotry and violence sweeps through the town, threatening Mr. Ohta's life. A trio of women, each with her own secrets - Sophie, along with the town matriarch and her housekeeper - rejects law and propriety, risking their lives with their actions.
Numerous scenes in the film take place in and around the houses of the female leads and it was imperative for Greenwald to find homes that truly reflected each character. “And then, there they were. The houses just waiting for us,” she says. “Two of them were empty and so they were waiting for us to move in. There was just that kind of magical quality about being there. We were being welcomed not just by the people but by the entire place.”
And a small place it is. The total area of McClellanville is 2.4 square miles, affording the cast and crew a unique opportunity — one they totally embraced. “I loved being able to walk to every location,” says Greenwald. “I’ve never been able to do that on a movie.”
And so, Greenwald is returning to the Lowcountry for the Charleston Terrace Film Festival. And though the film has already shown at several film festivals throughout the country, Greenwald says showing it to Charleston is going to even more meaningful.
“It’ll be coming home to show the movie to people who helped make it,” she says. “This is our chance to thank everybody and say, ‘here, look what you helped make.’ I don’t think anything will mean more to me.”