There is something intoxicatingly nostalgic about the Adirondacks. Something majestic and haunting, dangerous and serene. And for filmmaker Ari Gold, childhood summers at Blue Mountain Lake were just a stretch of long days, rainy days, days that existed outside of time, playing Monopoly on the rug and dropping morsels of his grandmother’s Scottish shortbread on his tongue.
“It was magical because the memories blend together, more like a tapestry than a story,” he said.
“Spending summers in the Adirondacks as a kid, I was fascinated by this place ... On the lakes lived a declining American royalty,” said Gold, the writer and director of “The Song of Sway Lake,” a feature film shot on the uncertain and ever-changing shores of Blue Mountain Lake. “Along with their unfair privilege, its members were saddled with emotional paralysis. Still, I was jealous of those private lakes. For me, the real sway was always out of reach.”
Screened twice this weekend during the Adirondack Film Festival in Glens Falls, the “Song of Sway Lake’s” poignant treatment of clashing cultures and intimately held emotions and grief eventually erases time and the quest for perfection.
Filmed at Crane Point Lodge, owned by many branches of Gold’s family, Sway Lake opens in the 1940s with the big-band hit “Sway Lake.” And before long, viewers are wondering, “Where is Sway Lake and where can I buy the record?”
“The myth behind the film is that the song ‘Sway Lake’ was written and recorded in 1940, during the Sways’ wedding in the barn. The writer, Tweed McKay, was the only African-American up on the lake, and he was conflicted about entertaining the Sways and their guests,” said Gold. “Two years later, the song was whitewashed and re-recorded by the Eden Sisters (a stand-in for the Andrew Sisters), who made it into a huge wartime hit in 1942, while Tweed died penniless.”
Opening with the hit version, “Sway Lake” taunts vacationers to visit. But the untouched recording the film’s characters search for throughout the film is the long-lost “Tweed” version. And it is this quest that brings these disparate souls back decades later to the glorious house on the lake, sometimes painfully excavating the nooks and crannies of the past.
“In reality, of course, both versions were created by my composer, my twin brother, Ethan Gold, and they were arranged, recorded and produced with meticulous care to sound authentic,” Gold said. “Ethan used the melodies he wrote for the song in the orchestral score that plays in the film as well, so that by the time we discover the lost record, we almost feel like we’ve heard it before. We wanted to create the illusion of nostalgia and deja vu.”
One of a growing number of area-made films screened at the festival — “The Song of Sway Lake,” “About a Donkey,” “Radium Girls,” “Jacob,” “Does the Owl Fly,” “Safe House,” “Unattainable” — the cinematography of “Sway Lake” is as captivating as its musical score and complex themes.
“New York state films are booming in upstate New York thanks to efforts from film festivals like us,” said Jessica Levandoski, programming director for the Adirondack Film Festival. “I feel this area is on the cusp of something really cool regarding film … There’s just so much going on, which is why it was easy to pick so many of our (film fest) headliners from upstate New York productions. It looks like we’re on track for even more upstate films in the years to come. The Adirondack Film Fest is in the right place, at the right time, which is great for our local and regional filmmakers as well.”
According to Adirondack Film Commissioner Andrew Meader, several films just wrapped-up production in Warren and Washington counties this past week.
“We just finished up a sci-fi thriller originally planned for Colorado,” Meader said on Friday night, adding that some of the crew were still in town. “They agreed to make it in Warren County instead.”
The film, “Viscous,” written and directed by Braden Duemmler and starring award-winning Mena Suvari, was shot mostly in Bolton and Huletts Landing with a few scenes in Hudson Falls, Meader said.
Also wrapping up this week is a fly-fishing documentary by a UK production company and an episode of the HGTV series “My Lottery Luxury Home,” he added. “Many of these projects are sent to us through word of mouth or we hear about a project and ask, ‘Have you thought about Glens Falls?’ ”
Filmmakers each have their own reasons for choosing to make films in the region, but New York state film tax credits, a supportive environment and the region’s untouched beauty figure into the decision.
For Gold, it was his life thread connection that drew him back.
“I was linked to the three main characters not by biography, but by the struggle to let go of time. Charlie Sway (Mary Beth Peil), a glamorous matriarch in her seventies, seeks her own past; her burdened grandson, Ollie (Rory Culkin), seeks the past’s perfection only to destroy it; and the outsider, Nikolai (Robert Sheehan), wants to steal someone else’s past as his own,” Gold said. “When Elizabeth Bull and I embarked on the screenplay, we had our own kind of nostalgia for the intimate French and Swedish summer movies that made us want to write.”
Shot over four weeks and two days in the winter, Sway Lake’s breathtakingly gorgeous early morning scenes on the water did not come easily.
“Every single day of the shoot, I set my alarm for 5 a.m. to see if the morning mist would come … It was only on one of the last mornings of the filming, after the all-night shoot in the barn, that I saw the lake mist I’d dreamed of filming,” said Gold. “The cast and crew had only gone to bed about an hour before dawn, so I shot up in a panic about how to film it. I ran around the property, desperate to find a camera and lens before the mist disappeared as the sun rose. I managed to convince one of the camera operators to drag herself out of bed, and since I couldn’t find the actor, I got the digital-tech guy, who was still awake, to put on the actor’s costume and pretend to be that character rowing across the lake. It was a miraculous moment.”