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In a funny, heartfelt 1970s-era period piece set in the still-unspoiled Hamptons area of Long Island, two generations of hard-living clam diggers try to maintain their way of life in the midst of the enormous changes swirling around them. Their fathers were clam diggers as well as their grandfathers before them. But as corporations gradually buy up local clam territory, their way of life is threatened. Starring Paul Rudd, Lauren Ambrose, Josh Hamilton, Sarah Paulson, Maura Tierney, Ron Eldard and Ken Marino (the film's screenwriter). Directed by Katherine Dieckmann (A Good Baby).
 

  Diggers

It’s the first ’70s film with un-ironic moustaches,” said my friend Bill after seeing a rough cut of Diggers. It’s always a challenge to make a period movie on a low budget, not to mention one with multiple scenes shot on old boats with ancient engines that sputter and die mid-take in the middle of a bay during a heat wave. But our greater dilemma was how to make a movie set in 1976 look and feel authentic with minimal means.

As both a director and a moviegoer, I’m a ferocious stickler for period accuracy. Nothing takes me out of a scene faster than a fleet of shiny, too-perfect vintage cars with no rust or scratches. A crisp, clean shirt that all too obviously was purchased from some cold stock warehouse makes me question whether a character ever eats, spills or does laundry. In movies set in the 1970s, these problems are compounded by bell bottoms, mutton chops, Farrah Fawcett-style hair feathering, and the trailing influence of Peter Max—all elements that don’t exactly lend themselves to stylistic subtlety.

When I first read Ken Marino’s script, which was based on his father’s experiences as a clamdigger on Long Island, I saw not just the opportunity to engage with extremely well-written characters and dialogue (and eventually a stellar group of actors, including Paul Rudd, Maura Tierney, Ron Eldard, Sarah Paulson, Josh Hamilton, Lauren Ambrose and Ken himself), but also to create a largely working-class world of the time, with a dash of stoner-dude décor on the side. I was a teenager in the ’70s, and in a pivotal act of rebellion for a professor’s daughter, took up with an acid-dropping plumber several years my senior. I based a lot of the look of Diggers on what I remember from the bars and dwellings I frequented with him. Real interiors are always a layering of old and new, and apart from one minor décor glitch (a contemporary burglar alarm is only half-hidden by an oven mitt behind Sarah Paulson’s head), we managed to create a remarkably consistent and believable world for our actors—which I’m convinced in turn informed the verisimilitude of their performances.

The key to actualizing a movie’s look is the relationship between the director of photography, production designer and costume designer. On Diggers, I was fortunate enough to find three like-minded souls who shared my vision and fought as hard as they could to support it. “But we can’t abandon the palette!,” was the fierce cry of Roshelle Berliner, my production designer. We’d collectively agreed on certain blues, browns, greens and oranges, and they were not to be defiled. Roshelle worked closely with costume designer Catherine George, who found period clothing that looked lived in. (And if it didn’t, she’d pound it with rocks, drag it through the dirt or crumple it into a little ball.) Catherine came up with very specific looks for each character and argued for them to the bitter end—even if I sometimes disagreed. The actors loved her for her sense of what was right for their characters, and her dedication to seeking it out.

The streets, rooms, objects and garments were then lit and framed to support a specific image of the 1970s. Cinematographer Michael McDonough and I both were huge fans of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore photographs from that time, and referenced them frequently. We looked at Fat City for down-and-out interiors, The Deer Hunter for shooting grimy bars, and Breaking Away for compositions of four buddies interacting in open spaces. Since we didn’t have a lot of money for period cars, we’d created more limited frames with a block of color (a bright red Chrysler on a dull-toned street). If a building had vinyl siding, we’d figure out a creative way to obscure it. Sometimes limitation is the key to ingenuity, and Michael found powerful ways of shooting by working around what couldn’t be shown.

A director always has to find co-workers as obsessive as him or herself, and in all the right ways. More than once on a location scout on Staten Island—where we primarily shot Diggers, since the ’70s are more in evidence there than on Long Island—Roshelle and I would sneak off to a thrift store to score the perfect avocado rotary dial phone for a buck or two. Basically, we all embraced the low-cost inventiveness required to make our movie as authentic as possible. A low-budget indie graced by un-ironic moustaches, and so much else that rings true, is the result of precisely that kind of collective commitment.