BRISTOL — For many 20-somethings, moving to New York City to make it as actors and directors is a pipedream.
For siblings Brighton and Sarah Jean Luke, Bristol natives and members of the Mount Abraham Union High School class of 2007, that pipedream isn’t just their reality — it’s also the inspiration for their first film, “American Dreamsicle,” which is currently in production.
“American Dreamsicle,” written and directed by Brighton and starring Sarah, follows Josh, Grace and Troy, three disenchanted New York transplants that work dead-end jobs to pay rent, live with insufferable roommates, and are increasingly losing faith in the dreams that brought them to the city after college in the first place.
The three friends “think life can’t get much worse” until Mercer, another friend from college, comes to visit. With his positive energy and decisive actions, Mercer plays foil to Josh, Grace and Troy’s disillusionment and forces them to take a second look at themselves, their lost dreams and the city they’ve grown jaded about.
Sound like every other indie film you’ve ever heard of? It’s not. Mercer’s inspirational act is to murder several Fleet Week sailors who noisily take up with the trio’s insufferable roommates one night — and that bizarre, macabre backdrop may prove to be just the right antidote for what is otherwise a standard coming-of-age-in-the-Big-City story, albeit with a distinctly Millennial pitch.
In writing the screenplay, Brighton was inspired by friends of his and Sarah’s living in New York and experiencing similar frustrations.
“I see how talented these people I know are, and I see them not following the things they went down there for, so that’s kind of where I came from,” he said in a recent interview. “Some people are doing really well, and some people are really struggling a lot.”
Sarah Luke, who plays the female lead in the film, lives in New York, where she attended conservatory. Brighton, who began writing in earnest while a student at the University of Maine, lives with their parents, Nancy and Russell Luke, in Bristol but visits the city often. Their friends knew Brighton as a talented writer and suggested that he write a story about the struggles of artistic 20-somethings in New York — essentially, about them.
“At first I didn’t know how to make it exciting, not just depressing,” Brighton said. “But then I was down visiting and some crazy stuff happened while I was down there.”
The scene that became crucial to the plotline of “American Dreamsicle” was born out of a text message that Brighton sent Sarah and her boyfriend one night during that visit. Brighton was trying to get some sleep when his sister’s roommates turned up with a gaggle of Fleet Week sailors in tow. In typical New York fashion, the apartment had no real wall or separating barrier between the living area, where Brighton was sleeping, and the kitchen, where the roommates and the sailors were cavorting.
Referring to a popular television show about a serial killer, Brighton texted in frustration, “Can I pull a Dexter please?”
That episode, along with other experiences during the visit, like witnessing “a cabbie trying to assault someone,” gave Brighton the inspiration he needed to write the screenplay.
“Instead of actually doing something bad, I wrote a story about it,” Brighton said.
A good money-saver, Brighton had the funds to get production off the ground without relying too much on outside help. Sarah, also an alumna of the Addison Reparatory Theater program at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury, was able to tap into her circle of acting friends from conservatory.
One-third of the film was shot over two months earlier this year. Brighton, whose return to New York in November was delayed when Hurricane Sandy wiped out parts of the Lower Manhattan neighborhoods the Lukes were planning to film in, hopes that filming will wrap by August of next year.
While “American Dreamsicle” is his main project at the moment, Brighton, a voracious storyteller, is also at work on a novel. The piece, he said, is set on adifferent planet, ruled by a family that’s in power because their blood makes them immune to a disease that’s wreaking havoc throughout the world. The family doles out access to the treatment, derived from the blood, in order to control them.
“I’ve always been kind of off in my head, coming up with stories,” Brighton said. “And my dad was always saying ‘write ’em down, write ’em down.’ And I never did.”
In college, though, Brighton took a writing course that challenged him to really produce something — his final assignment was to complete a rough draft of a novel.
Both Brighton and Sarah credit the community in which they grew up with instilling the drive to succeed at their respective passions.
“Growing up in Vermont there are so many artists and passionate people that made it easy to want to pursue (acting or a life in the arts),” said Sarah, who made her acting debut as Charlotte in a local production of “Charlotte’s Web.”
“It’d be hard to live there and not want art to affect your life, it’s too natural and pretty there,” she wrote from New York.
“The community we grew up in, in Bristol and Lincoln, is full of so many supportive people who really encourage you to discover what you’re good at and what your passions are and to pursue them,” Brighton added. “There’s really this attitude here of work hard, problem solve, and believe and you can make things happen.”
That drive and positive attitude is reflected in the message that the Lukes hope to drive home in “American Dreamsicle.”
“Even though (Mercer) is kind of the bad guy, he actually ends up inspiring them throughout the story, because he’s off doing the stuff that he wanted to do,” Brighton said of his central character.
“(Mercer) actually got to do what he wanted to do. Whatever obstacles were in front of him like, you know, killing people, he still made sure to be able to do what he wanted to do. Which is kind of the message that I wanted to send — though not,” he added with a laugh, “in exactly that way.”