Movie Boston: Director Devin Adair on Filmmaking and Favorite Places

Devin Adair chats about deep connections to Boston and her locally filmed directorial debut "Grace."

Devin Adair first made a name for herself on the Charles River. When she joined the crew team as an undergrad at Harvard, a woman had never sat in the coxswain’s seat of a men’s ‘eight.’ By the time she graduated, her boat would be the most decorated in Harvard history. At 23 she published a book, “The Challenge,” about the experience, which launched her down a path of screenwriting and production on films including “Break Point” and “Betting on Zero.” After a career producing other people’s work, Adair decided it was time to make something all her own.

The result was 2018's “Grace,” starring Katie Cassidy and Tate Donovan, a movie she started writing at film school and finally brought to life here in Massachusetts. 

Katie Cassidy left and Devin Adair

How did you begin your career as a writer?

When I went to Harvard I found myself as the first female coxswain of the men’s crew team. Instead of writing a thesis during my senior year I began a book about my experience on the team: “The Challenge.” When I graduated I landed a job at The New York Times as a copy person, delivering clippings and coffees throughout the newsroom, but I continued working on “The Challenge” at nights and on the weekends. So I showed one of the editors at the Times what I’d written, and he loved it and had it published in the New York Times magazine as an excerpt of an ongoing work. That really launched my career; I landed a book deal and was given enough of an advance to write the book full time.

What happened next?

When “The Challenge” was published I received an offer to option the book into a movie. I was so done with the story, but the offer piqued my interest. At 23, I felt I wanted to be in a more collaborative business rather than live the hermit life of a writer, so I enrolled in Columbia film school. Between my first and second year at Columbia I started writing “Grace.” A professor of mine told me it was great and that I should use it as my thesis and move out to L.A. instead of finishing my third year in New York. I got an agent and a manager out there. I was working on it full time, and though the film almost got made a few times, eventually it fell through. The experience got me into the film world in Los Angeles.

Debby Ryan and Katie Cassidy

What’s “Grace” about?

It’s almost “Lady Bird” meets “Good Will Hunting.” It’s a female empowerment story. It’s about a young woman who has a big chip on her shoulder and in order to get on with her life she has to learn that if somebody’s going to treat you well you have to start by treating yourself well, and other people well, and that the narrative you give yourself is the one that imprisons you unless you change it up.

Why did you pick Massachusetts?

Well, for one, New England has a very distinct feel that really can’t be replicated anywhere else. Also the locations: The house we used is so distinct, it’d be very difficult to find one like it anywhere else. It was easy to get equipment and crew up from N.Y. Also, Massachusetts has a great tax rebate for filmmaking, that was such a help that made a huge difference.

Debby Ryan

What was it like making a movie in the place where you grew up?

It was super-weird for me. Even though I grew up here and went to Harvard it was so bizarre coming back here to shoot. Everywhere I went had childhood memories. The production company got me an apartment two minutes from the house I grew up in, and across the street from Longwood Cricket Club, where I used to run around and play tennis. The house we shot the movie in is in Weston, and to get there we followed the same route I used to drive with my mom to visit my cousins. We filmed in some coffee shops in Jamaica Plain and there are all the penny candy stores we used to go to as kids. It was like this ghost travelling with me everywhere we went to shoot.

Could you pick out a few personal Boston highlights for visitors to our city?

Sure. The Freedom Trail—that part of Boston is so old and you really feel it when you’re walking The Freedom Trail. It’s also kind of extraordinary to think about what it was like to live here. I love that the city is bisected by this incredibly beautiful winding river: The Charles. The Boston basin is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. When I was at Harvard I would always run around the river. Everybody should go to the Museum of Science and the “Salt and Pepper Bridge” aka the Longfellow Bridge. Also, I have a nephew who lives in London, and the first time he came to Boston I was rabid to get him on the Swan Boats because my grandmother always brought us there as a kid.

Swan Boats on the Public Garden Lagoon