Behind The Mirror is a story I first envisioned in 2006 while writing an epistolary novel. In that novel, the two main characters, Victor and Xavier, were exchanging letters and emails, telling each other their news, sharing their thoughts, asking questions and telling stories. I wanted to expand that premise. I felt there was much to explore.
The premise grew into a concept that involved a back story. How these two characters came about and where they met needed to be answered. I began toying with the idea of writing another novel, chronicling Victor’s and Xavier’s earlier years.
It morphed into two separate story lines, two novels, one from each perspective. First we would visit Xavier and get to know him, hear how he dealt with life, then we would meet with Victor, see things from his perspective.
Time passed. The concept was growing, but it gradually moved away from the novel format. I started developing a movie idea for Xavier’s story. Behind The Mirror would be turned into a feature film, set and shot in upstate New York.
So upstate I went to do some research and make the dream a reality.
My destination was Athens, NY, a town west of the Hudson river, where my good friends Nando and Sally Del Castillo live.
Over The River…
Nando and Sally live in Sleepy Hollow community by the Sleepy Hollow Lake. The area is brimming with ghosts, say the locals. The ideal setting for a haunting identity story.
My visit was well timed. The temperatures were low, between -4 and -11 Celsius (25 to 12 Fahrenheit), with some snow on its way. Perfect. I needed to see the weather extremes to which the inhabitants of upstate NY were subjected.
The Catskills are not an easy place to live in. Once a destination for Dutch settlers, where farmers, loggers and seekers of fortune came to start a new life, the area now plays host to a number of small towns and communities. In the summer the weather is ideal for farming and life is good. But in the winter it is bleak, harsh and freezing cold. The place feels isolated. You see no one in the yards. Everyone is barricaded indoors, their house lights shining through the drawn curtains, day and night.
The people who first settled there must have valued their privacy and independence. Only individuals who did not mind the isolation could have headed there. People who were in tune with nature, and who didn’t mind the harsh weather. Life in Athens, or in the surrounding area, at the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, is an acquired taste.
It lends an aura of mystique to the land.
Yet, despite all this, the inhabitants of this land are tightly interwoven. Each village is a community that takes cares of itself, administering its own functions, coordinating the upkeep and development of its assigned area. Town meetings are held to review projects, monitor works, report problems, vote on ordinances, and in general manage local affairs. Everyone knows everyone else. No person is an island.
It is a paradox. A closely-knit community of privately-oriented people working close together is an intriguing situation. People talk about each other but don’t like being talked about. They know each other’s business but want to keep to themselves.
The result is a strangely charged atmosphere that crackles like an electric current in a wire casing. On the outside everything is smooth. Dig a little deeper and sparks begin to fly.
It is these sparks I came to explore. My movie takes place in a small town like Athens, upstate NY, where Xavier lives with his wife Sandra and their two children, Sindy and Tommy. Victor is nowhere to be seen. Letters from him arrive in the mail, setting in motion a chain of events that will change everyone’s lives. The community will never be the same again.
I needed to know how such events would unfold in a small upstate town. I had to see what makes people tick, what they talk about, how they relate to each other, how they think, what the politics are like, so that my story would be valid.
Nando and Sally made sure I found out what I was looking for. They arranged meetings with town officials and other locals, very polite and accommodating individuals, who were happy to speak to me about life in the area.
In one meeting, the chief of police explained to me how ‘things are dealt with fairly.’ When I asked what he meant by that, he pointed out that his aim was to ‘solve problems.’ When I asked how he could do that in a town where he knew almost everyone personally, he made me understand that his aim was not to make friends but to uphold law and order.
In another meeting, the mayor laid out for me the economics of the place. Small budgets, limited resources, complicated codes, state mandates, all coming together to pose a difficult task. Government at the local level may be grounded, but it is not simple, she explained. This is ‘where the rubber meets the road.’
It sure is. Rural reality in all its glory. No Hollywood glitz and glamour, no overplayed tragedy. Just life, demanding and unrelenting. When you are on the other side of the tracks, as Nando puts it – meaning the side of the river where the train does not run – things are tough. No railroad means less development and little money.
The land west of the Hudson faces many challenges indeed. I saw it with my own eyes. Scores of buildings were shut down, boarded up, abandoned. The reality of rural life was in plain sight.
Yet people were upbeat. They had a perkiness about them, speaking with gusto and reserved enthusiasm. A spirit of accomplishment permeated the scene. No doom and gloom, no whining. Just the willingness to deal with whatever lies in store.
It made sense. People able to brave the winters of the Northeast can be expected to deal with anything life throws at them
Now to find out how they do it. Goodness knows that a lot of places in the world could use a little of that tenacious spirit that makes you shake things off and get on with the job.
…And Back Again
Looking back, my trip was a great success. I saw a great many things that told me how people live there. I have a much better idea now on how the story on the other side of the tracks goes.
Did I mention it was not my first trip there? I have been gathering data for some time now.
I’ll share some of it with you, whilst writing the script.
Photos by Nicolas D. Sampson