The Austin Chronicle

Foraging for an Audience

By Alejandro Puyana, March 2, 2013, 2:30pm, Picture in Picture

“You find a mushroom under a tree, and … you know there’s a connection. It might be mutualistic, where the fungus breaks down organic matter … and shares the nutrients while the tree manufactures sugars for them both to grow strong. Or it might be parasitic, where the fungus settles in while the tree slowly dies ….” – Lucien Echevarría, Now, Forager

The relationship at the heart of the first feature-length film by co-directors Jason Cortlund and Julia HalperinNow, Forager – is tough to watch. It’s sad and compelling, and it screams truth. The Austin filmmakers present the slow disintegration of the marriage of Lucien (Cortlund) and Regina (Tiffany Esteb), who at the beginning of the film are eking out a living by foraging mushrooms and selling them to restaurants in New York City.

Lucien plays the parasitic mushroom to Regina’s unwilling tree: obsessive, passive-aggressive, uncompromising, but also passionate and morally unflinching. Regina pulls away, aware of what continuing the relationship would mean for her own dreams, which throws Lucien into a path that will necessarily lead to either self-discovery or self-destruction.

While the onscreen duo of Lucien and Regina demonstrates the parasitic relationship of Now, Forager’s main metaphor, the behind-the-screen partnership of Cortlund and Halperin couldn’t be more mutualistic. They met while they were both graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin – Cortlund focusing on screenwriting and Halperin on production – and they fell into an easy work relationship, fueled by similar tastes and compatible personalities. As in most successful duos, each half seems to bring something different but necessary to the table: Cortlund, the spark. Halperin, the motor.

But perhaps the most interesting part of Now, Forager's story is how the filmmakers have managed to build success without sticking to the usual American indie film formula. Instead of going the American festival route (where a finished film is a requirement), the directors entered Now, Forager (at that point unfinished) into US-in-Progress, a European backed festival that allows showings of works-in-progress. There, they managed to pick up a Special Jury Prize, as well as a co-producer and an international sales agent that donated time, money, and expertise to finish the film as well as distribute it to selected markets in Europe – all before any audience had seen it in the United States.

And then they got even smarter. The words “niche marketing” might seem just another buzz phrase that advertising suits like to use next to “key demographics” and “brand synergy,” but for a film like this, it can mean the difference between success and failure. Cortlund and Halperin worked together with the New York Mycological Society, Edible Communities (publisher of the Edible magazines), and several other food-centered organizations to make sure that foodies and fungi enthusiasts around the country knew about the film, building momentum and ultimately a bigger audience.

Fungi are the great decomposers of nature: They turn dead organic matter into essential nutrients that the ecosystem needs in order to grow and thrive. Now, Forager seems poised to serve the same purpose for this promising filmmaker team, laying the groundwork for better films to come.

Now, Forager is screening at the Violet Crown Cinema on Tuesday, March 5, at 7:00pm. Co-directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund will be in attendance. The screening is presented in partnership with the Texas Independent Film Network, a program of the Austin Film Society. To purchase tickets, visit the Violet Crown website.

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