Film recalls the shelter of high school years in Ridgefield

Actress Kristen Bell plays the lead role in Ridgefield High School graduate Liz Garcia’s new independent movie, The Lifeguard, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival two weekends ago. Ms. Garcia’s was a lifeguard at the Fox Hill condominiums’ pool during high school and college. —John B. Peters photo

Art doesn’t imitate life, it enhances it. The mumbled regrets and botched apologies of everyday existence become the zingy rejoinders and compelling confessions of books, movies, television.

Filmmaker and Ridgefield High School graduate Liz Garcia was clear about the difference as she spoke of her new movie, The Lifeguard, which debuted at the Sundance film Festival this month.

“The film is about a girl who returns home and gets back her high school job as a lifeguard at a pool. That’s based on the fact my high school job was working as a lifeguard at Fox Hill,” Ms. Garcia said.

“But none of the scandalous events which unfold in the film are autobiographical.

“Part of your job as a screenwriter, as a story teller, is recognizing the difference between what’s interesting to you in your life, and what’s interesting to other people in a film, and making that translation,” she said.

“The most interesting thing that ever happened to me as a lifeguard, the climax of my job there, is a very early plot point in the movie, but would never be worthy of being the climax of a movie.”

Ms. Garcia worked summers at the Fox Hill condominiums pool from about 1994 to 1997 — during high school and college. After graduating from RHS in 1995, she studied filmmaking at Wesleyan in Middletown.

Although the some of circumstances are borrowed from Ms. Garcia’s real life, she says she hasn’t been overtaken by the urge to abandon her adult life and move back to Ridgefield.

“But I psychologically have felt the pull of youth, and a more simple time and a more simple place,” she said.

Screenwriter Liz Garcia, a 1995 Ridgefield High School graduate, has debuted The Lifeguard, her first film as writer and director. —Joshua Harto photo

“I was really interested in the idea of a young woman who was from place like Ridgefield that’s beautiful and idyllic and sheltered, and who fantasizes that if she were to leave her adult life and return to that place, she’d be able to recapture some of her innocence and the freedom of her youth there.”

The theme has taken on some added meaning.

“We finished the movie just days before the Sandy Hook shooting, which affected me deeply, obviously, as someone who grew up right nearby,” she said.

“But, The Lifeguard is about someone  returning to an innocent place, and that innocent place in the movie is Fairfield County, Connecticut. And I just hope that sense of innocence and being sheltered, wasn’t lost for the kids that live in Ridgefield and Newtown now.”

The adult life Ms. Garcia has not been trying to escape includes a lot work in television. She has screenwriting credits for Dawson’s Creek, Wonderfalls and Cold Case, a show she’s also worked on as executive story editor and consulting producer.

She and her husband, actor Joshua Harto, worked together to create the TNT series Memphis Beat.

The Lifeguard, starring Kristen Bell, is her first attempt at being both writer and director.

“I’ve been working in television at writing and producing television for about seven years. This is the first thing I’ve ever directed,” she said.

“It’s very different. When you’re creating an independent film, the director,  it’s his or her vision. They’re the boss, they’re the manager,” she said.

“So you’re overseeing every aspect of production. You hire people who are great at the specific things that they do, but ultimately you’re the CEO of your movie. When you’re the writer, you’re just the writer of the movie.”

It’s a lot of work.

“We try to work 12-hour days, because anything over 12 hours you’re paying union overtime. And if you’re a little independent movie you don’t want to get into overtime. So, 12-hour days, plus travel time, and just setting up for the day.”

That meant living in Pittsburgh, Pa, where the film was shot, for most of the summer.

“Me, my husband, my one-year-old son, and his baby-sitter, all lived in a hotel for three months,” Ms. Garcia said.

“My husband is in it, and he produced it,” she said.

“My husband is my creative partner, so he’s my chief of staff, my adviser. So, when it comes to being on set, after I call ‘Cut!’ I look at him and ask ‘What do you think? Do you think we need to have another take?’ I consult with him creatively.

“We were married for four years, and we created our television show Memphis Beat together. It was on for two seasons.”

The Pittsburgh area stood in nicely for Fairfield County, to which the film’s main character retreats after her life in New York City goes off the rails.

“The suburbs of Pittsburgh are gorgeous,” Ms. Garcia said. “And we shot in a little town called Sewickley, which looks strikingly like Ridgefield.”

Because of the way the industry works, they try to always have a few projects going. “It’s just necessary to do more than one thing at once if you want make a living and be creatively satisfied,”  she said.

“We made the movie this summer, we shot it, and then this fall we edited the film. And we also were writing two TV pilots at the same time.”

One is a “restaurant drama” for NBC they’re working on with Gordon Ramsay, the celebrity chef. The other is a crime drama for CBS.

Having The Lifeguard debut at the Sundance film festival is exciting, and also has a business aspect.

“The definition of an independent production film is that you raise the money yourself to make the film, you then own the film. But you can’t put it in movie theaters yourself, you have to find a distributor who will buy it from you and put it in theaters. Sundance is a huge market for finding domestic distribution, meaning movie theaters within the U.S.”

Her parents, Claire and Baxter Garcia of Ridgefield, didn’t fly out for the debut, but they’ll see the movie soon when it’s shown with some others from the festival, at one of the ‘Sundance USA’ screenings the festival puts on at independent movie theaters — in this case, at Coolidge Corner Thearter Brookline Mass., Jan. 31.

She’s pretty happy with the experience, and the movie.

“I’m really proud of it,” she said. “And it was so much fun!”

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