True Love, Affairs, New Orleans and Hurricanes: An Interview with Tom Anton and Sandi Russell
By U.J. Lessing
Posted 10/24/05 05:41:25
Tom Anton and Sandi Russell are beaming with pride. After eleven years of hard work, putting their finances on the line, major script revisions and a tremendous amount of drive, their new film, At Last, starring Kelly Lynch and Martin Donovan is opening in theaters. Anton and Russell shared their experiences as a couple and as filmmakers on the week of the debut of their new and very personal film.
“I Want to make independent films.”
Filmmaking has been a lifelong dream for Tom. “This was something I wanted to do since I was a little kid,” he said, “I always wanted to be a filmmaker: Director, producer, actor, writer, whatever. I always wanted to do that. Didn’t.
“So my profession was I was an energy consultant and environmentalist for 18 years. Worked for myself, so it gave me the freedom, and I directed plays, and would do seminars in acting, writing, directing, producing, for years, for 20 years, as a hobby. Wrote scripts, never showed them to anybody. Just my little outlet, and then when I turned 40, twelve years ago, I said, ‘I have to do this. I want to make independent films.’”
Tom explained that at that time, his marriage was unhappy, because he was married to an unsupportive woman. “I put her through 16 years of graduate school, and when I basically went to her and said… ‘I put you through 16 years of graduate school. I’m selling my business, and I’m going to go after my dream to make independent films.’ She said, ‘No.’”
“This would make a great film.”
Tom’s dreams seemed far beyond his reach, when his mother sent him an old box of unopened letters. Some were in his handwriting and some were from his childhood sweetheart, Sandi Russell. Separated by distance after a move when they were kids, Tom and Sandi had maintained a close relationship through letters, and then suddenly the letters had stopped.
Seeing these old letters, Tom realized that his mother had intercepted their letters in an attempt to end the long-distance romance. He contacted his fist love, Sandi, and explaining to her what had happened. The two formed a close friendship, and fell in love again.
This rekindling did have a price. Both Tom and Sandi were married to other people, and they both had kids. Both of them made the choice to leave their respective spouses for each other.
Tom said, “…when our story developed I thought, ‘This would make a great film.’ Every seminar I was going to said, ‘Make your first film on a subject matter you’re passionate about and you know.’ Well, I know this. It’s us, and I was passionate about it.”
“If you’re in a box on the side of the street, make sure there’s room for two.”
Tom sold his business and Sandi and he spent the next ten years creating from scratch At Last, a movie based on the couple’s reconnection and the effects it had on their previous families.
Tom said, “We just wanted to show life goes on after divorce. Whether it’s good, whether it’s bad, there’s so much divorce today. It’s okay. It can work out.”
Both of them knew the risks. Tom remembered, “Finally at one point I told Sandi, ‘Look, we may lose everything. Are you sure you want to do this?’ She said, ‘If you’re in a box on the side of the street, make sure there’s room for two.’ So I knew I found my soul mate after that!
“I couldn’t have done it without Sandi. When our friendship was developing, she gave me permission. Be a filmmaker. Nobody had ever done that to me. My parents, my wife, my friends. Sandi’s like, ‘You have to do this.’ That permission just did something to me. It really did.”
Sandi felt it was a risk worth taking. She said, “I think I knew Tom well enough, because we had developed a friendship that was always first between us, and so in order to have friendship you have to have trust there, and I knew that he would listen too… And that’s exactly what he did.
“And I think a lot of times trust is allowing somebody just a little bit of space and a little bit of time to come to whatever that decision and whatever that idea.”
“Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life?”
Tom and Sandi worked hard to try to make At Last capture the essence of what happened. Tom explained, “It’s inspired by a true story so the majority of the story is true… This film has been a really good example of, ‘Does life imitate art or does art imitate life?’ We worked on this over 11 years, and as things in our lives happened, we would rewrite the script. My father died in Africa. We rewrote it. Family secrets coming out. We rewrote it. All these different things, we incorporated into the film.”
Tom and Sandi did deviate from the real events for the sake of strengthening the film, Anton said, “We did take liberties with making some changes. As an example, Sandi in real life, has three children, but we made it one child in the film.
“We felt we had too many people. In real life, I have a younger brother and my best friend is a Cajun artist, Earl who lives across the street from me…We felt, ‘we’ve got too many people.’ So I decided, ‘Let’s combine my best friend, Earl, into my older brother. So we did things like that.”
Sandi added, “The timeframe too of Tom and I coming together again after the 25 years was a long time. We talked on the phone and we wrote letters back and forth for about 9 months before I saw him, but that didn’t translate to film. There’s like a friendship that developed into a love and we really couldn’t [show] that much time passing in the film.”
“…you can’t show all this, so we had to have a deal breaker.”
Both Sandi and Tom were faced with the task of reconstructing their spouses on the screen. Sandi and Tom admit that in the screenplay their spouses do iniquitous things that they never did in real life.
Sandi stated, “My ex-husband was an alcoholic. He’s since sobered up and remarried and everything’s good with him.
In the film, he slaps his daughter in anger, an event that never really occurred. Sandi explained, “He never hit my daughter, but we had to have a deal breaker. There had to be something that people went, ‘Well, she’s just had it, and that’s it,’ because you know, my husband was an alcoholic for ten years before I actually left him, and we went through the counseling and we tried to make it work, and he tried to quit or whatever.
“Finally, in the end, I said, ‘I got to cut my losses. I don’t want my kids around this forever,’ but you can’t show all this so we had to have a deal breaker. So we have him slap the daughter, and he never did that.”
For Tom’s wife, events were also fictionalized. Sandi explained, “With his ex-wife as well, the deal breaker was she had this abortion and didn’t tell him. She never had an abortion, but the whole idea was that the relationship wasn’t honest with one another. It just wasn’t. She was actually worse than we made the character out to be.
“But we also didn’t want it to be so easy and so cut and dry. The whole point is that hopefully there’s not completely [a] bad-guy/good-guy kind of concept, because everybody’s wrong on some level. What he did, the affair, it’s dishonest. There are lots of issues and nobody’s 100% right or 100% wrong.”
“We lost maybe about a third of our locations.”
Tom and Sandi live together in New Orleans, a city that was close to their hearts while they were filming. Tom said, “We really wanted to show New Orleans as a character in the film. It was really important for us to do that. When we wrote the script we didn’t even know Katrina was going to happen, but we wanted to show a side of New Orleans that hadn’t been done in a lot of films: the romantic side, the artist living in New Orleans, the Garden District…”
Anton went on to describe the events that occurred before Katrina, “… the last 12 years we’ve had a place in the French quarter… We left there, not knowing [Hurricane Katrina] would hit. We were going to North Louisiana for some business meetings and then we were going to go back to New Orleans and we saw this hurricane coming and we were like, ‘Well, we’re not going back.’ And then it hit.”
In addition to being displaced from their home, Tom and Sandi had to face watching areas they had celebrated in New Orleans getting wiped out by Katrina, Tom explained, “We lost maybe about a third of our locations. We shot mostly in the French Quarter, the Garden District. There were some incidental locations that we shot outside. At the end of the movie, the yacht club: gone. There’s not a boat there. If you remember, when they saw this big thing burning right after the hurricane. That was the yacht club that burned to the ground.”
"I believe in soul mates."
Despite the devastation, Tom Anton and Sandi Russell continue traveling to film festivals, promoting At Last, and working on their latest film projects together. Tom explained, “I guess true love is being able to be with someone 24/7, and never getting tired and knowing you are with your best friend.
“Obviously from the film, I believe in soul mates. I believe there is the right person that you’re supposed to be with out there, and a lot of people may not have it, and we were fortunate enough to get a second chance and find each other.”
The author with Russell and Anton