Late last summer in Toronto, after a festival screening of Maris Curran's Five Nights in Maine, the film's star, David Oyelowo, stood on the stage and told the audience how he came across Curran's screenplay.
"It was at the premiere of Middle of Nowhere at Sundance," he said, referring to the acclaimed 2012 movie he had made with Ava DuVernay. "And Maris walked up to me with this envelope with a script in it, and said, 'I wrote this for you.'
"And I literally walked away going, 'I think Cameron Diaz just offered me a script.'
"But then I went to my hotel room, read it, and was blown away."
Curran, who looks maybe a tiny, tiny bit like Diaz, laughed when she was reminded a few days later of Oyelowo's anecdote. The actor, who starred as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in DuVernay's Selma, was clearly using some thespianic license. Curran and Oyelowo were not complete strangers, anyway - they had already been introduced by a mutual friend, DuVernay.
The "blown away" part, however, was absolutely true.
Five Nights in Maine, which opens Friday at the Roxy Theater and in other markets around the country, is the finely turned, keenly observed story of a grieving widower (Oyelowo) who ventures to the Pine Tree State to try to make peace with his estranged, bereaved mother-in-law (Dianne Wiest). Rosie Perez also stars, as a caregiver for Wiest's Lucinda - battered by cancer, shattered by the loss of her daughter.
Curran, who grew up in Philadelphia's Northern Liberties neighborhood and who attended Friends Select School straight through from kindergarten (high school class of '98 - "I'm a product of Quaker education through and through" - has crafted what Oyelowo described as something more akin to a European film. Intimate, close up, digging into deep places. Sofian El Fani, who shot Blue is the Warmest Color, was Curran's cinematographer.
"One of the reasons I wanted to do the film," Oyelowo told the crowd, "is because I think, especially in American cinema, it's very rare to go to this place, this emotional space. . . . And I also just felt the juxtaposition of an African American man and an older white woman is something I didn't feel I had seen in this way."
His character is an African American man in Maine - not the most diverse of states, especially in the small coastal community where Curran's film takes place. Race, in subtlety manifested ways, is definitely a part of the conversation.
"Race is not the No. 1 theme of the film, but it's woven into the fabric," says Curran. "Foremost, for me, the film is about the nature of these relationships, it's about what does life feel like for this character? How is he experiencing the world?
"But there are those moments - like when he is stared at as he's walking down a country road. He's in Maine, and it's a question: Are they staring at him because he's walking on the side of the road, a stranger without a car? Are they staring at him because he's black? Are they staring at him because his wife just died and it's a small town and everybody knows who his wife was?
"It's these kind of very uncomfortable circumstances, where he feels isolated even more. And he's already in an isolating climate."
For audiences who know Oyelowo only through his portrayal of the historic civil rights figure in Selma, or as the dogged D.A. in A Most Violent Year, the British actor's work in Curran's movie is revelatory: muted, mournful, wholly committed.
"I was looking for a powerful actor who has the rare quality of being both interior and magnetic - someone who grabs you and pulls you into the film while simultaneously transmitting a great deal in stillness," Curran said this week via email in a follow-up to last year's interview. "Something that strikes me every time I watch David in the film is the fragility and tenderness he conveys in grief. It is so human, delicate, and heartbreakingly true."
In her Philadelphia days, Curran lived among artists and creative types - her mother is the painter Joan Wadleigh Curran. But it wasn't until she was at Smith College that she thought about filmmaking as a possibility.
"Growing up, most of the adults who I knew at that time didn't have kids and were making art," Curran recalled. "And I would make art with them and with my mom, and I also was an obsessive reader. And I wrote a lot. I was always making, reading, writing. I loved movies, too, but I didn't make that connection - between people making them and watching them. I was a cinephile without knowing the word."
But Curran talked her way into an advanced production course at Smith ("I had never even touched a camera"), and that was it. She moved on to the Whitney Independent Study Program, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received a Princess Grace Award for her MFA thesis film. Curran landed a Fulbright Fellowship, and lived and worked in Mexico City for a while. She has made short films and video, worked in various capacities in production, traveled the world.
She lives in Los Angeles now, and hopes to start her next movie early next year. "It's about a character who goes from speaking to mute," she said via email. "It is a coming-of-age story of a woman in her early 40s who has to learn to communicate nonverbally. I'm ready to dive in."
In Toronto last year, Perez, standing alongside Oyelowo at that post-screening Q&A, had her own observations about Curran.
"There's something about Maris," the actress said. "Once I stepped on that set, what you see up there is what I felt. It was intimate . . . and, going all-in, I totally forgot about everything. And it was just - it was beautiful. . . .
"This is one to watch, this young lady."