Fifteen-year-old Camilla Dickinson (Adelaide Clemens) has led a sheltered life on the Upper East Side with her architect father (Cary Elwes) and beautiful, but fragile mother (Samantha Mathis).
But when her parents’ marriage begins to fall apart, Camilla finds herself caught in the middle. Her mother doesn’t want her to grow up and treats her like a child, while her father is cold and forbidding. Camilla’s friendship with Luisa offers some escape from her stifling parents, but Luisa has problems with her own parents, both of whom are alcoholic. When Camilla meets Luisa’s older brother Frank, an unlikely friendship is formed, and she finds herself increasingly drawn to him. Rebellious, perhaps even a bit dangerous, and different from anyone she has ever known, Frank introduces Camilla to a world outside her sheltered apartment walls.
As their relationship deepens, Camilla and Frank realize that their parents can’t help them grow up, so they must help each other. Together they discover that the future is in their own hands.
About The Production
"When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. … To be alive is to be vulnerable."
— Madeleine L'Engle
Author Madeleine L'Engle was 33 years old when her novel Camilla was published in 1951. The novel is written in the voice of a tremulous and passionate 15-year-old girl, trying to find a path to adulthood in the midst of her parents' failing marriage. L'Engle often remarked that she relished her ability to recall feelings and moods from various stages of her life. "I am still every age that I have been," she said. "Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be." She also once told an interviewer: "I frequently write about myself because that's how I discover who I am."
Camilla, like several other L'Engle characters, shows up in subsequent novels. She reappears in A Live Coal in the Sea (1996) as a grandmother and astronomer, and also in The Last Innocent, a nearly complete novel that was never published.
L'Engle and her fictional creation Camilla share a number of similarities, starting with the fact that they were both only children. Both were born into well-to-do families, both grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and attended a number of private schools. But unlike Camilla, Madeleine actually graduated from Ashley Hall, the private girls' school in Charleston, South Carolina, named in the movie.
"I think Camilla Dickinson is semi-autobiographical, and clearly it comes from the heart," said Cary Elwes, who plays Camilla's formidable father Rafferty. "It's written by someone who was clearly wounded by this experience; but at the same time she learned from it, she grew from it."
"Camilla is a wonderful character to play," says Australian actress Adelaide Clemens, who was cast in the title role. "She's an incredibly vibrant girl with so much drive and passion and emotion bottled up inside of her — which is fantastic against this conservative 1940s setting in which she's stifled. She's just slowly uncracking and coming out of her shell and exploring what the world has to offer."
As the film opens, Camilla lives with an emotional wreck of a mother and a father described by L'Engle as a "glacier of a man." "Everyone in their life has that realization when they look at their parents and realize they're just regular people," Clemens says. "They're not the perfect idols that you grow up perceiving them to be. As a child you look up to your parents and they are infallible. But Camilla sees that her mother hasn't nurtured her in the ways that she would have liked to be nurtured."
"There is a conflict between the parents, who on the one hand want their child to grow up, certainly from Rafferty's standpoint, and then Rose still wants to play dolls and have tea time with her daughter," says Elwes. "Rose can't come to terms with the fact that her daughter is growing up. So this conflict is taking place where the parents want to keep her safe in the nest where they can keep an eye on her and control her."
Samantha Mathis stars as Camilla's delicate mother Rose. Mathis describes her character as a "cross between Blanche Dubois and my grandmother. Rose is referred to in the script and in the book as someone who is a child, who wants to live in this perfect world with romance and loveliness." Yet Rose is having a relationship with another man in front of her daughter. "To put her daughter in the position of being a confidante is so wildly selfish and inappropriate," Mathis says.
The once loving relationship between Rose and Rafferty has become distant and cold. "Rose desperately wants love and romance and affection, and Rafferty doesn't know how to give that to her anymore," says Mathis. "I think that the more she wants love from him and the more she wants love from Camilla the less inclined they are to give it to her."
Elwes agrees: "Rose has become this woman who is very much needing his love and affection and attention, and he's a man, who, if you strive for his attention and affection, that only pushes him away. And he's kind of blind to the fact that he's responsible for his family disintegrating."
Camilla escapes from her parents through her friendship with Luisa Rowan, played by New York actress Colby Minifie. Together the girls share their hopes and dreams for the future: Camilla longs to become an astronomer and Luisa a psychiatrist. Minifie researched her character's name and found that it means "guardian." "That really influenced my relationship with both my mother, Mona, and Camilla," she says. "Luisa's parents are both alcoholics and she has learned to cope with her hard life at home by taking care of Mona. Therefore, when Camilla's parents' relationship starts to deteriorate as well, Luisa attempts to protect and guide Camilla through this emotional time in her life."
For Minifie, the fact that Luisa wants to become a psychiatrist was also key to understanding her character. "She's constantly observing the people around her to pinpoint their flaws in an attempt to heal the people she cares about and try to better her environment," she says. "It seems as though the children of alcoholics are constantly trying to keep the peace throughout their lives."
The unlikely friendship between Camilla and Frank, Luisa's older brother, played by Gregg Sulkin, forms the heart of the story. Frank has a reputation as a troublemaker, and Camilla's parents disapprove of them spending time together. As their relationship deepens, Frank discovers that Camilla isn't like the other girls he's known, and Camilla discovers someone with whom she can talk about God and her dreams for a better future. Frank introduces her to a wider world.
"Frank is a rebellious kid who has been chucked out of Catholic school," says Sulkin. "Frank and Camilla's upbringings are completely different, rather like Romeo and Juliet. Frank's parents are alcoholics with no money, but Camilla's family are the polar opposite. However, both characters are facing similar family issues, resulting in the realization that their parents can't help them grow up."
In addition to the Dickinsons and Rowans, Camilla discovers a third set of "surrogate" parents, the Stephanowskis, played by Robert Picardo and Camryn Manheim.
The Stephanowskis own a music store where Frank and his friends like to hang out. They welcome the young people with open arms. Though they have lost both their sons, one to the war and one to a freak accident, the Stephanowskis live a tender and generous life of celebration.
"The two other married couples that are more principal in the movie have very dysfunctional relationships," says Robert Picardo, who plays Mr. Stephanowski. "The Stephanowskis have the hoped-for relationship between a man and a woman that I think the kids recognize right away as the best model."
"Even though Pamela Stephanowski has had so much tragedy, she's able to find the beautiful things in life," says Camryn Manheim. "She's suffered great losses, yet still somehow embraces what is beautiful about this world. She particularly finds the beauty in the faces and hearts and spirits of these young people."
"There's a real sense of mourning in the house, but because of their love for each other they have survived, mining every joy they can from their life together," adds Picardo. "And it's really to their credit, because their son died in Frank's arms, and I think they look to Frank as their last real connection to their son. Rather than being a painful reminder of their loss, having him around is a really important part of having their lost son's spirit around them."
"Madeleine's spirituality comes shining through in this film and in her books," says Manheim. "And you wonder how someone who has faced such adversity can rise above it, and you have to think that there's something very spiritual; something profound and deep and connected to the universe. It's very clear in the way she writes and the characters she creates. We say it in the theater all the time: 'Life is not a dress rehearsal.' And I think Pamela Stephanowski lives by this. We have a finite amount of time. Are you going to leave the world a better place through your heart, though your actions, through what you are, or are you just going to tread water and let all this negativity and all this adversity oppress you?"
"Maybe it isn't God who needs to be bigger. Maybe it's us." - Camilla Dickinson
Spirituality is a frequent theme in Madeleine L'Engle's work, and Camilla and Frank both express belief in God, but wrestle with what they see as the empty pieties of their elders. When Frank's headmaster preaches a sermon on how his friend's death is God's will, Frank storms out of chapel and slams the door. Frank tells Camilla: "The next day I was called to his office, and I told him he was trying to make God in his own image instead of the other way around."
L'Engle believed that salvation was not just for the chosen few but for, in her words for "All the strayed and stolen sheep. All the little lost ones."
"I happen to believe in the same philosophy actually," says Elwes. "And I know she came under fire for those beliefs while she was alive — even people from her own denomination."
Because of her radiantly-inclusive beliefs, and their prominence in her work, L'Engle's novels were frequently banned in Christian bookstores, as well as many schools and libraries. Yet others readers criticized her for being too religious.
"My training in physics has taught me that there is no such thing as coincidence."
- Madeleine L'Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many of the cast and crew connected deeply to the material, and though some might call the connections coincidental, some might not.
Samantha Mathis discovered that her apartment building in New York City is across the street from where L'Engle lived when she wrote Camilla. "How crazy is that?" asks Mathis. "I'm looking out the window of my apartment and I can see her old apartment building. It's kind of wild. And it made it all the more ironic that I was coming clear across the country to shoot a movie that takes place partly on my street."
Colby Minifie, who plays Luisa, discovered that her grandmother and Madeleine L'Engle, who were both born and died within a few months of each other, had once met, and that L'Engle went to her grandmother's church. "So it's pretty cool, the little things that I found out. When I told my dad that I was doing this film, he cheered, "Oh! Madeleine L'Engle!"
But the fact that Cornelia (Corrie) Duryée ended up writing and directing Camilla Dickinson is perhaps the greatest "coincidence" of all.
When Duryée was in college, she met the author at a book signing. She presented her with a copy of The Small Rain to sign — L'Engle's first novel that had been out of print for over 30 years. L'Engle was intrigued, and, after several subsequent conversations, invited Duryée to attend a graduate course she was teaching that summer at Mundelein College in Chicago. Duryée did attend, though an undergraduate, and a lasting friendship began, which eventually led Duryée to move to New York, at Madeleine’s invitation, to work for L'Engle as her personal secretary. L'Engle became Duryée's mentor, encouraging her not only to write, but to continue her training as an actor and director.
Duryée trained as an actor (as did L'Engle) and was a stage director for years. She met and married an actor, Terry Edward Duryée, moved away from New York and had two sons, Tallis and Theo Duryée, both named after L’Engle literary characters.. (L'Engle, who was the catalyst for their meeting, also married an actor.) But Duryée's deep friendship with L'Engle continued to grow and prosper. On one New York visit, Duryée was surprised when L'Engle handed her a stack of unpublished play manuscripts. "I asked her, 'What do you want me to do with these?' And Madeleine told me, 'Well, you're the only living playwright that I trust.' And so she asked me to adapt them and make them into plays and movies. The scripts had been just sitting there in her file cabinet since the 1940s. Among the scripts was Camilla Dickinson."
So Duryée adapted the novel, using the play manuscript as a launching-point. "In a novel you can hear what's going on in people's heads," she says. "It's mostly about thinking and talking, and a film is about seeing. It's a completely visual medium and entirely different from a novel."
"This film is in incredible hands," says Camryn Mannheim. "Madeleine knew that herself having spent so many years cultivating her relationship with Corrie. It makes absolute sense to me that Madeleine endowed her with this great gem because Corrie has what it takes to make this shine."
Seven years before filming Camilla Dickinson, Duryée attended a panel in Seattle on film finance, and introduced herself to producer Larry Estes, a man responsible for helping bring many of the touchstones of independent film over the last thirty years to the screen. Duryée met with Estes and told him about the L'Engle properties, and also about her original screenplay The Dark Horse. After reading the screenplay, Estes became the producer of The Dark Horse, which was completed in 2008. During the editing of that film, Duryée went to visit L'Engle in hospice, and it was while finishing the sound mix for The Dark Horse that Estes and Duryée heard about her death on the news.
Following the completion of The Dark Horse, Duryée and Estes agreed to move forward with Camilla Dickinson as their next project. In the summer of 2010, with financing in place, they began to seek out the period locations necessary for the film. Camilla Dickinson takes place in 1948 Manhattan, but, in partnership with North By Northwest Productions, Duryée and Estes found the pre-war buildings, streets, and parks, they needed to create New York in Spokane, Washington.
Casting the film proved to be easier than the filmmakers originally thought. When agents and managers got wind that the script was based on a Madeleine L'Engle novel, actors were eager to be considered. "Once we got the script in the hands of the casting people, agents were very open to it," says Estes. "People were very touched by the material, and whether they knew Madeleine or not, they wanted to be in it."
"People loved Madeleine's story," says director Duryée. "Her words, her vision, the rawness of this book, the beauty of it. It's a transformative book, and that's what attracted them."
The filmmakers cast an Australian, Adelaide Clemens, and a British actor, Gregg Sulkin, in the leads. Both speak "American" flawlessly in the film. While Clemens let her American accent go when the cameras stopped rolling, Sulkin stayed in character as Frank for the entire production, even speaking in an American accent to his parents when he phoned them back home in England. "When I get an American part, I feel it's much easier to stay in an American accent on and off set," says Sulkin. "It helped me kind of lose myself and feel like Frank Rowan."
Another Commonwealth actor, Cary Elwes, connected immediately with the material upon reading the screenplay. "I just loved how beautifully Corrie wrote the script," he says. "I loved the tenderness of it, the sweetness of it and I also loved the complexity of it. These are very complex people."
"I just inhaled Camilla Dickinson," said Mathis. "I thought her storytelling was so beautiful and her spiritual themes; Camilla's journey to becoming a young woman and trying to define herself separate from her parents and questioning the greater things in life. Really beautifully done."
"When I read Camilla I was blown away because it was a beautifully compact story," Clemens says. "There's so much satisfaction because it really does fully depict the journey of a character; how she starts and who she becomes. And the will of Camilla, that kind of inner fire that's burning her throughout the story is attractive."
"The cast of a film is one of the two or three most important elements in whether a film will be a success," Estes continues. "And I tend to be the kind of producer that if someone says, 'well, this person would be good,' I'll say, 'but this person might be better.' I try to exhaust the possibilities. The caliber of actors we got for this film was beyond my wildest dreams," says Estes.
Duryée wholeheartedly agrees: "Being given this crew and this cast — it's almost as if someone had given me Picasso's brush and paints and said 'now go and make a painting.'"