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by Gregor Smith
Since the dawn of civilization, the moon has inspired authors, artists, and composers. Now, fifty years to the day after Neil Armstrong made his "one small step" onto the lunar surface, a new film, inspired by a total solar eclipse, in which the moon completely blocks the sun's light for a few minutes, will have its world première at the 22nd annual Maine International Film Festival.
Co-starring Belgrade actress Debra Lord ("Dee") Cooke and partly shot in that town, In the Moon's Shadow will debut at 12:30 on Saturday, July 20, in Railroad Square Cinema's 150-seat Cinema 1. The film will be shown again the next day at 3:30 in the same room. Co-stars Dee Cooke and Elissa Piszel and director Alvin Case will attend both screenings and will take questions from the audience.
The film had its genesis in August 2016, when Cooke and Case were sitting on her dock on Great Pond in Belgrade brainstorming storylines. They had worked together before, when Case cast Cooke as the lead in his 2015 sci-fi film Analogue.
Case then talked to his brother Edward, a nuclear physicist by day and screenwriter by night. The two brothers hatched the idea of writing a story centered around the solar eclipse that would occur on August 21, 2017. The plan was to shoot for several days around the eclipse in Nebraska, where the eclipse would be total and the skies would likely be clear, and shoot additional scenes in Belgrade.
Indeed, "[t]he first third of the film is set in Belgrade," Cooke explained, in the first of a series of emails. It was shot at Cooke's family's camp on Great Pond, on a camp road through a field, and at Castle Island Camps. The film's ending also takes place on the shore of Great Pond.
In the film, Cooke plays hard-charging, workaholic, fifty-something Lisa, who comes to the Belgrade home of her younger, more laid back, but recently widowed sister, Karen, played by Elissa Piszel. The two sisters have long been estranged, but they take a road trip to Nebraska to view the eclipse and try to work out their differences.
Edward Case wrote the first draft of the screenplay in a mere eleven days, an incredibly fast turnaround. Cooke then began to consider casting. She worked in casting before, choosing local extras for several major films that were shot in Maine, including The Man Without A Face (1993), In The Bedroom (2001), and Empire Falls (2005): "I thought of Elissa, who I had met while working on the Woody Allen feature, Café Society. I introduced her to Alvin, and he thought our dynamics would work well with these characters."
By February, Alvin Case had lined up an enthusiastic investor that would pay for the filming. He organized a film crew and booked hotel rooms in Nebraska. Everything seemed to be on track until early May, when the investor abruptly pulled out. (The filmmakers learned later that the investor had gone out of business.)
"We were devastated," Cooke wrote. "After planning our summer of shooting in July and August, it was over."
But it wasn't. A week later, Cooke and Piszel decided to raise the money themselves. "We didn't have much time," Cooke wrote. "We were in touch with Friends of the Belgrade Library and did a staged reading of the script, and the ticket price was donated to the Friends." That reading took place on July 2, 2017.
"We did make a program/playbill and took donations advertising in it. This gave us initial operating capital," Cooke continued. "My friend, Thomas Kesolits approached us and wanted to help. The three of us became producers, with Tom being the financial producer, Elissa being artistic producer in charge of crowdfunding and social media, and me as managing producer handling accounting, negotiations, and scheduling. We've made quite a team. An unpaid team, but a team none the less."
"There were countless times we were on the verge of full funding and then at the last minute it would fall through," Cooke added. "We were having huge ups and downs emotionally with all of this. It seems we were not make our deadline of raising enough to at least shoot the eclipse scenes."
Kesolits then gave a "sizable amount," which, when added to the money that they had already raised, would suffice for shooting the eclipse scenes. Still, they had to make some changes due to their reduced budget: they eliminated the role of the sisters' father, who was to be played by a Golden-Globe-winning actor, in favor of new role, a step-daughter for Piszel's character, who would be played by Jules Hartley, a Los Angeles actress who has appeared on Black-ish, Law and Order: SVU, and The Young and the Restless. They also cut the crew for the Nebraska shoot to a bare minimum — just a sound man, a unit production manager, and an intern — and reduced the number of shooting days from five to three.
Soon after getting the money to shoot in Nebraska, they raised enough to shoot the Belgrade scenes as well. They had a larger crew, seven in all, but still limited the Maine shooting to three, long days in September 2017.
By the following March, director Alvin Case had a very rough cut of the film. "The material was good," Cooke opined, "but we felt there was something missing. We wanted to see more location visuals, movement, and action. We came up with scenes that could be inserted into the material we had and wrote a script of about 25 pages that skipped and jumped throughout the story." They worked out a budget to shoot those scenes and shot them in a single day in June 2018. "Now we had a story that we thought was even better," Cooke concluded.
In early 2019, Ken Eisen, festival programmer for MIFF, asked Alvin Case, if he could see the film. After viewing an early version, he agreed to include the movie in this year's festival, if Case could have a nearly final version by the end of May. The race was on to finish the film in time!
The last thing to fall into place was the music: the filmmakers were pleased to get Aly Spaltro, a singer/songwriter who grew up in Portsmouth, NH and Brunswick, ME and who performs under the name Lady Lamb, to write and record the film's sound track. This was completed in late June.
Even after the film's debut at Railroad Square, it will continue to evolve. As Cooke's co-producer and co-star Elissa Piszel noted, "Yes we do anticipate making tweaks after the festival, because you have to see how an audience responds to the first screening." As an example, she cited National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) with Chevy Chase, when a new ending was shot after the initial screening: "In the first cut the family didn't go to Walley World and the audience was let down. So, they went back and reshot that whole ending with John Candy and Walley World and the movie was a hit." Still, the Moon's Shadow filmmakers do not anticipate reshooting the ending or adding more scenes.
To date, three, post-MIFF screenings have been scheduled. The film will be included in MIFF in the Mountains, in which eight of the best films from this year's MIFF will be shown during a mini-festival in Rangeley,
Despite having an almost finished product, the filmmakers still need to raise money. Cooke writes, "We had a hopeful budget of $120,000 but ended up finishing the film for under $60,000 with the producers being unpaid." (As members of the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Cooke and Piszel were paid for acting in the film but not for producing it.) They are still raising money to submit the film to festivals, develop a website, and cover legal expenses. One can make a tax-deductible donation through New York Women in Film & Television.
The filmmakers thank their local sponsors: Got Cake?, Visions Flowers and Bridal, and Belgrade Lakes Seafood & Dairy Bar for donating a cake, flowers, and fried clams, respectively, for use on camera; Hammond Lumber, Sadie's Restaurant, Day's Store, Christy's Store, Paul Hanna Plumbing, Belgrade Lakes Carpentry, Anchor Marketing, Comford Chiropractic, and many individuals for giving money; and Mary Cahill and Castle Island Camps for allowing the filmmakers to shoot scenes on their property. Cooke affirmed, "This film would have not happened without their support."