At the outset of researching for Beneath The Harvest Sky, directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly decided on the town of Van Buren, Maine as the setting for their film. The next step was to find a farm in town that could help in the research process. They came across LaJoie Growers, a fifth generation family farm run by the LaJoie family, and then began a valuable relationship for the filmmakers and for the film, Beneath The Harvest Sky. Aron and Gita tell the story of partnering with the LaJoies and the importance of the relationship with them early on in the research stage of the film.
Q: In setting out to find a farm in Van Buren to work with and learn from, what were you looking for in a farm that could be helpful in your research and in developing the story for Beneath The Harvest Sky?
GITA: To be honest, we weren’t quite sure what we wanted as we started looking at farms. The most important factor to us was finding farmers that we connected to, wanted to spend time with, and had interesting ways of surviving.
ARON: The LaJoie family farm is really special. As a fifth generation farm family, they’ve seen it all, faced a lot of struggles over the years, and have managed to survive it all. They continue to innovate and find ways to deliver the best Maine potatoes to the market place. And learning about their process of growing blue potatoes was fascinating to us. I mean, the film wouldn’t be called Beneath The Harvest Sky if it wasn’t for the LaJoie family and what they’re doing.
GITA: Yeah, the moment we met Jay, Gil, Dominic, Norm and Lucas LaJoie, we knew they were a special family. And as we made more trips up to Van Buren, Maine, we quickly realized they were equally becoming part of our family as well. Their extraordinary life lessons have inspired us–from the research phase all the way through production– we realized these hardworking, creative Mainers don’t give up. They’re incredible farmers and an incredible family!
Q: So how did you first find the LaJoies?
GITA: Well, during the early research phase for Beneath The Harvest Sky – our first trip to Van Buren actually – we went to the school to get a feel of what it was like. And when we were talking to the secretary there, and saying that we wanted to do something related to a potato harvest, she immediately said “You should go meet the LaJoies! My son is best friends with Jay LaJoie, and they grow these blue potatoes.” So we definitely wanted to know what the deal was here, with the blue potatoes, so we were planning on calling these LaJoies and tracking them down. But right before we were going to start looking for their farm, we made a quick stop at the town office.
ARON: Right, and when we pulled into the town office parking lot, we saw a truck outside that said “LaJoie Growers” on it. And when we went inside, we were waiting and we heard somebody say, “Ok Jay, see you later.” So we went over to this guy, and asked “Are you Jay LaJoie?” His response was “yeaaaah.” And we said, “Well, we’re looking for you!” [Laughter].
Q: What happened next? How did you get Jay and the LaJoies on board to work with you?
GITA: It must have been a totally awkward experience for him when we first approached him – because we surprised him basically with, “We’re filmmakers. We just came from the school. We are really interested in learning more about your farm. We’re trying to get a sense of a possible story here. Can we talk with you?” We definitely could tell that he wasn’t sure of what to make of us as he was trying to process everything we were saying. But then – to our surprise, and fortunately – instead of us scaring him away, he was actually really open to us stopping by the farm, and meeting the rest of the LaJoie family – Norm [Jay’s grandfather], Gil [Jay’s Dad], and Dominic [Jay’s uncle].
ARON: We only met them all very briefly, and got a sense of what their farm looked like a little bit. We decided that we would come back, and spend a little bit more time with them, if they were comfortable with it. We were trying to feel out if this potential story was good, and if we could actually work with this farm and family. But we definitely knew we wanted to come back and see them again. So we did, and eventually it was a no brainer to try and work with the LaJoies in our research.
Q: How important, for the development of the story, was knowing the LaJoies so early on?
ARON: It was really important knowing the LaJoies, because when we first went to Aroostook County, all we knew was that this was a coming of age story set during the fall potato harvest. So we really wanted to understand the process of growing potatoes and potato farming. There are no better farmers to learn about potato farming from than the LaJoies.
GITA: And I think that because Jay was so young, a young farmer – he’s only 27, I think – he was more willing to work with us. It would have been different if we had approached an older farmer who was already kind of set in his traditional ways, who might not have received us, these filmmaking strangers, so well. But Jay, Gil, and Dominic were already doing new and creative things with farming – like finding new ventures with the blue potatoes.
Q: Early on, how did the LaJoies help beyond the potato farming story research?
ARON: Well, Jay was young enough that he could also inform us even about some of the coming of age stuff. We could ask him about when he was in high school – what kids do for fun, or what kids do to get into trouble – that kind of stuff. And the LaJoies have a lot of family members in town of all ages. So even beyond the potato farming, Jay was able to put us in touch with his cousin Nic LaJoie and his brother, Sky, who were in high school in Van Buren. So much, even the coming of age stuff, was kind of an offshoot of knowing the LaJoies first. They were so important to the process.
GITA: Yeah, even early on, the LaJoies were helpful in so many ways – more than just with the research about potato farming, and more than just the research in general. As we would be talking to Jay about the struggles to get a film into production, for example, he would say something like “Did you think about this company to look at for sponsorships, or this farm company to talk to for funding?” – he actually became a pretty influential part of the process, because he helped us consider different avenues for creative funding to get our film made.
Q: What similarities did you find between yourselves as filmmakers and the LaJoie family farmers that made the relationship such a good fit right away?
GITA: We definitely felt like our method as filmmakers really matched Jay’s method and what the LaJoies were doing. We really instantly connected with them, and connected with what they were trying to do in finding new markets and developing this relationship with Terra Chips [LaJoie Growers is one of Terra Chips’ main suppliers for the company’s famous Terra Blues potato chips]. All of that really mirrored what we were trying to do as filmmakers.
ARON: There are so many parallels between what the LaJoies were doing growing blue potatoes and being an independent filmmaker, that it was really an appealing relationship to us. They were finding ways to sort of cut out the middle man in distributing their potatoes, and we had just gotten done doing the same thing with The Way We Get By – finding a way to distribute The Way We Get By was very much how they were finding new markets with their potatoes. And taking gambles on growing blue potatoes is almost like making an independent film. You know, they weren’t making a studio film, growing russet potatoes. They were taking this gamble and doing this really niche thing.
GITA: And something about the LaJoies that we admired early on was how each of the family members on the farm had a specific role. Gil’s talents, Jay’s talents, Dominic’s talents, Lucas’ talents – they are all specific and unique to each other, complimenting each other perfectly. And as we were thinking about how we wanted to represent the farmer in our film, we drew upon all of them for inspiration, and came up with a combination of all of them together. Being able to spend time with each of them and to see what they each brought to the table was really inspiring, but it also kind of showed us how both of our businesses operate similarly: you trust people who are talented and let them do what they’re really good at. And I think that was helpful in our process – you know, coming from a documentary film…it was such a small team. And with any fiction film, you have to have a much bigger team, and you have to find the right skill sets and talents, that compliment each other, to make up your team – just like the LaJoies.
ARON: We just really connected on that level, with all of the similarities between what they were doing in their business and what we were doing in our business.
GITA: And thanks to them, we were able to pull off something really special and rare with Beneath The Harvest Sky.