Thursday, July 25, 2013

Kickstarter, updates and a first look at SUMMER COLONY...

A few quick updates for readers of this blog, since it has been a number of weeks since I made my last post. I’m afraid that so many things have happened with the project since my last entry that it is difficult to keep track of them all! Each day Summer Colony inches further and further towards completion. This long odyssey of mine that began eight and a half years ago is almost over now, a realization that elicits feelings of both joy and sadness inside of me.

First and foremost, I have received so many requests from people eager to see footage from the documentary that I have decided to release three short excerpts for online viewing. The video clip that is playable below is the first of those, with the second clip to be released next week and the third clip to be released the week after that.

In this excerpt, my father Durlin Lunt remembers a series of fires in 1965 and 1966 (also discussed further here) that took down a number of structures at the north end of Northeast Harbor's Main Street. Of the many buildings lost in those blazes, it was the December '66 destruction of the local movie house (the Pastime Theater) that had the most dramatic effect on the business district, and to this day those villagers and summer residents old enough to remember the Pastime look back on the 1966 fire as a major loss for the community.

Secondly, for those readers who are not following the Summer Colony Facebook page, I am pleased to announce that we are in the middle of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for the film.  Many of you have probably heard of Kickstarter, and maybe a few of you have even pledged money to a project or two there. For those who are completely unfamiliar with Kickstarter, it is a very powerful tool for funding creative projects through the phenomenon known as "crowdsourcing". In the case of Kickstarter, anyone with a credit/debit card and an account can pledge towards the completion of a project. It's not charity, anyone who pledges is entitled to a prize in return. But I'm not very good at explaining these things, Kickstarter's official FAQs are much better.

Our goal is to raise $6500, and as of this morning we are 43% of the way there, with fourteen days still to go in the campaign. The reasons that we have turned to Kickstarter are many, but the most significant factors were the need to cover certain post-production expenses and to pay for the manufacturing of DVDs, which are tentatively scheduled to be released on November 26th of this year. Because it was shot over a period of eight and a half years, with many gaps in between, Summer Colony was funded largely on an ad hoc basis. That approach is no longer viable due to the fact that the post-production process is very capital-intensive. Besides the DVDs, the most pressing expenses are the licensing of stock footage, photographs and the clearing of music rights. The video below will provide more details.


I would like to close this short little post by thanking everybody who has become a backer in the Kickstarter project so far. Big or small, your contributions are truly appreciated by all of us involved in the film. We could not have gotten this far without you!

Lastly, a second video excerpt from Summer Colony will be released on Monday morning (July 29th). It will be posted here, as well as on the Facebook page. Stay tuned!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

After the Fire is Gone: Northeast Harbor's Future

I can still remember running my hand down the control board and feeling the texture of the innumerable buttons. Dozens and dozens of buttons. I never attempted to count them all. The photo at left only tells part of the story, for behind me, blocked from sight by my chair, were even more buttons. Buttons to connect to satellite feeds, buttons to connect to tape decks, buttons to route emergency warnings onto the screen and over the air.

My employer was WPFO-23, a Portland-based Fox affiliate. I was a master control operator, a studio engineer who had the responsibility for making sure every bit of scheduled programming, every new episode of House, every syndicated installment of The Bernie Mac Show, every commercial and infomercial, got onto the air at the right time. This was a monstrous responsibility at times, for my Thursday-to-Sunday workweek happened to fall during a number of high-profile sporting events where tens of thousands of dollars in revenue from local advertisers was usually at stake. In the past I had had jobs where there dozens of people looking over my shoulder. But I had never had a job where thousands of people were watching me work simultaneously, and anything I did, any mistake I made that affected the signal going out over the air, could be seen and noticed by anyone in southern or central Maine who happened to be watching the channel at the time.

And so I distinctly remember the night of February 3rd, 2008, when I had the responsibility for putting Super Bowl XLII on the air. This was the time when the New England Patriots had played a flawless regular season, winning every game against every opponent thrown at them, and expectations were running high among Maine NFL fans that night. Expectations were also running high among the managers at WPFO, who anticipated that this would be the single most profitable night in the station’s history. Nothing was left to chance, so much so that a fellow master control operator and former college classmate of mine - we’ll call him Benny - was paid overtime to come in and help me out. Benny would take care of all the little incidental details of the shift, they said. All I had to do was concentrate on making sure the game and all the advertising made it on the air.

Unfortunately, Benny also added to my level of distraction, and at 8 PM, barely a minute after the Pats scored their first touchdown of the night, I had to press a complicated series of buttons in order to superimpose a block of text identifying the station’s call letters, something that had to be done on the hour, every hour during a sporting event. I did this as Benny asked for a high-five in celebration of the touchdown, and so with my left hand I slapped his as I simultaneously pressed the right buttons – but in the wrong order – with my right hand. And to our horror we watched as the Super Bowl was replaced by a black screen on television sets all across WPFO’s hundreds of miles of broadcast terrain. From York to Augusta, viewers were unplugging their cable boxes and slapping their TV sets, trying to make sure they didn’t miss a minute of the historic game. It felt longer to us – soooooo much longer – but the black screen only lasted a few seconds before I was able to hit the glowing board button marked NET1, returning viewers to scenes of celebration among Patriots fans at the stadium in Phoenix. 

Neither Benny nor I got in trouble for this mistake. Oh sure, it was noticed by the WPFO managers, but since it occurred during a moment of game coverage there was no advertising revenue lost. And while many people at home noticed it, there were no actual complaints to the station, it seems. Presumably the local Patriots fans were too busy mourning their team’s 17-14 upset loss to care about a few disrupted seconds of viewing time (although I will tell you that for years afterwards my friends would jokingly accuse me of jinxing the team with my mistake). 

I relate this story because it was the moment from that job that sticks out the most in my mind all these years later. But there was a second moment that I remember almost as starkly, a moment that I experienced later that same year. That was the moment when I found out, through my employer’s own ten o’clock news broadcast, that a chunk of my hometown’s business district had burned down. WPFO did not produce its own in-house news broadcast, it contracted out with Portland’s CBS affiliate WGME on the other side of town, for a nightly half-hour program. I spent that half hour on speakerphone with WGME’s news producer, coordinating the commercial breaks. And on the night of July 29th, 2008, my jaw dropped when anchor Gregg Lagerquist spoke the following words: "A fire, followed by an explosion, leveled two buildings and damaged three more in Northeast Harbor this morning." What followed were daylight shots of the south end of Main Street showing fire crews at work, spraying down buildings with water. It was lucky for me that the story was not immediately followed by a commercial break, otherwise I might have been so distracted as to cause a mistake almost as embarrassing as the Super Bowl blunder. What was most frustrating was that the WGME news crew had not been able to get very close to the buildings that had been affected, making it impossible to see just how severe the damage had really been. 

As a matter of policy, master control operators at WPFO always recorded the ten o'clock news broadcast on Betacam videocassettes, and later on in my shift I played back the tape several times on an editing deck, trying to get a better glimpse of the aftermath. Later on I made a copy of the footage for myself, and several years later I went through the licensing process to use that very material in Summer Colony.

The year 2008 was a busy one for work on the documentary. Although I was living in Portland at the time I made regular visits to Mount Desert Island to shoot B-roll footage and interviews. But it wasn't until several weeks after the fire that I was able to make another trip home to film the aftermath of the blaze. The affected structures had by then been torn down, leaving empty lots or vacant basements. The Colonel's Deli, a longtime fixture of Main Street, and a place that I remembered with great fondness, was gone. In fact, it was a place where my late grandmother had worked for many summers. The Colonel's had the best pizza, the best chocolate chip cookies and the best doughnuts that I had ever tasted (although for me the doughnuts were always the yummiest when they were at least a day old, which as a bonus meant they were also marked down in price).
Also lost were the Wingspread Gallery and the Joy Block building, which housed several art galleries. When it was all said and done a good many people were put out of work, and since all of the lost buildings also housed apartment space, a number were also left temporarily homeless. In the case of the Colonel's, the apartment tenants were also employees, foreigners working there on seasonal visas, and many lost passports and immigration paperwork that had to be replaced. But nobody was killed and only one firefighter was injured.

Recently I have been thinking of the 2008 fire a lot, because we are now approaching the fifth anniversary of the blaze, and of the three lots that were made vacant, two of them are still unoccupied, with no new construction on the horizon. The Colonel's Deli was rebuilt with admirable speed (and their day-old doughnuts are just as good as ever), but nothing has replaced the Wingspread and Joy Block buildings. Now, those lots are not vacant from a lack of trying; finding something to replace them was one of the goals of the revitalization committee formed by the town. Yet they are vacant nonetheless, and it seems likely that they will continue to be vacant for some time yet to come.

During the years that I spent shooting Summer Colony, I ran into a lot of Northeast Harbor residents who were extremely unhappy with the fact that the village had so many seasonal art galleries on Main Street. While a few of these folks may have been closeted philistines, I suspect that for many of them their objection was not to the idea of art or of a seasonal art gallery itself, but to the fact that so many year-round businesses in the village had been replaced by seasonal businesses, with art galleries being the most prolific of the new enterprises. It would have been one thing to see a seasonal gift shop replaced with a seasonal art gallery (even in the "golden age" of forty or fifty years ago, parts of Main Street were only open on a seasonal basis), but to see a well-established, year-round shop like Don Hagberg's Mount Desert Apothecary (commonly known to locals simply as the drugstore) be replaced by a seasonal art gallery produces quite a different reaction.

This current post is now running overly long and is thus not the appropriate place to get into the art gallery controversy, although, as a way to start closing it out, I will mention that of the many people I talked to while working on Summer Colony, there was a palpable yearning for the old days of Northeast Harbor when there fewer art galleries or none at all. This yearning was not limited to the year-round population, there were summer residents who expressed the same desire, even though as a group it is the seasonal residents whom the galleries depend on for business infinitely more than they do the dwindling number of village locals. The first questions, the obvious questions for people dismayed by this process - controversially called "Nantucketization" by some - are when is it going to end and what can be done to end it? 

In my humble opinion, there is a happy answer to the former question, and it makes the latter question irrelevant. Nothing can be done to stop the process because it has already ended, having petered out in the natural course that all economic cycles experience. Those two vacant spaces are the proof of it. Had the 2008 fire taken place five or ten years earlier, I have no doubt in my mind that those two lots would have been rebuilt within a summer or two, and the businesses that would have moved into the new structures would probably have been art galleries (or if not that, boutiques or antique shops). While part of the reason for the lack of rebuilding no doubt stems from the financial crash and the Great Recession, that only goes to prove that even in a village as wealthy as Northeast Harbor the economics of summer have changed. The market has recognized that the village's remaining art galleries are sufficient to meet the demand but is at a loss to figure out what new enterprises should follow the ones that were lost. 

No doubt something will eventually be built in those two lots. The town of Mount Desert is continuing its efforts to revitalize the village (and will soon be hiring a part-time economic development specialist to assist in that task) and walkable downtown areas like those in Northeast Harbor are becoming increasingly valuable. Those two spaces will eventually tempt entrepreneurs into action, and we'll have a better idea of what the village's economic future holds once someone figures out successful enterprises to occupy them. In the meantime, Northeast Harbor is stuck in a transitional phase that could last a good many years. But it's future is now in two unassuming, empty lots at the south end of Main Street.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Conversations with the Past: Northeast Harbor in Home Movies

Of the many experiences that I had while making Summer Colony, there were few more fascinating than the long stretches spent sifting through hours of other people’s home movie footage in search of tidbits to include in the workprints that I assembled between 2010 and 2012. The ability to sit down with the footage, to absorb and study events long past provided a great diversion from the chore of searching through hours of my own footage in search of a coherent narrative.

Between Christmas of 1960 and the autumn of 1975, my father Durlin Lunt shot thousands of feet of color, silent 8mm footage. Years later he spliced the individual fifty-foot rolls of film onto five large reels, in rough chronological order, and in 2007 I hired a friend in Canada to transfer those reels onto digital video. The film had been stored in our attic for decades, where it was exposed to dangerously shifting temperatures, including many summers of hot, sticky heat. Despite these far from ideal conditions, the quality of the video transfer was surprisingly good. Some of the very early footage was shrunken and blurry. In other spots it was overly ragged and damaged, while in other places the color quality had shifted to extremes of blue, yellow or red. Yet where it looked nice it usually looked very nice, and many of the color problems could be remedied – or at least mitigated – through the application of modern video editing tools.

Not all of the material on those 8mm reels is likely to be of interest to persons who are not members or friends of the Lunt family. But mixed in between scenes of domestic life on Maple Lane and visits to the family’s cabin on Alamoosook Lake there were shots and scenes that will fascinate anybody with even a passing interest in the history of Mount Desert Island or Maine as a whole. We uncovered footage of summer naval visits to Bar Harbor, and lengthy scenes aboard the Maine Maritime Academy’s training vessel as it traversed the St. Lawrence River en route to the Expo 67 in Montreal. There were clips aboard the sailboat of TV star Garry Moore and glimpses of Boeing 747 pilots practicing takeoffs and landings at Bangor International Airport (which was a favored location for airlines to train new, green pilots due to its long runway and minimum of commercial traffic).

As to the material pertaining to Northeast Harbor itself, no segment was more dramatic than the minute and eight seconds filmed on the afternoon of August 5th, 1965, when a fire struck the DesIsles block on Main Street, burning the building to a shell that was later bulldozed. My father happened to have a roll of film already loaded into his camera that day and captured as much of the action as he could. The resulting footage shows volunteer firefighters climbing ladders, breaking windows and spraying water into the doomed structure as crowds of onlookers gather on the street. And luckily for me, the fire footage was in much better condition than much of the other material around it on the five reels, and it needed little restoration work. Much of it will appear in Summer Colony.

The 1965 fire was followed a second fire in December 1966, which destroyed the village’s only movie house, the Pastime Theater, along with half a dozen other structures. The 1966 fire still looms large in the memory of the villagers, so much so that the 1965 fire is often confused with it or forgotten entirely. Yet many believe that the 1966 blaze would have been even worse had it not been for the earlier fire, as the DesIsles block stood next to the structures that would burn the following year, and the lot that it had stood on was still vacant in December of 1966, very likely preventing an even larger chunk of Main Street from burning down. No footage of the 1966 fire is known to exist, although there are a handful of dramatic black and white photographs of the blaze in the archives of the Northeast Harbor Library.

My father’s home movies were not the only film and video footage I was able to draw on for Summer Colony, although they were the least expensive to utilize. I also had the pleasure of seeing Herbert Kenney’s Mount Desert home movies from the late twenties and early thirties. Kenney was a New England businessman who at one point owned both the Harbourside Inn and the Pastime Theater in Northeast Harbor. There is a hilarious, though possibly apocryphal, story that Kenney once got into a fight with his wife over going to the post office in Somesville, a chore that was necessary because the Pastime had just finished showing a movie and the film print needed to be shipped to the next theater that booked the feature, otherwise its audience would not have anything to watch, and for whatever reason the post office in Northeast Harbor was not suitable for this task. As the story goes, Kenney did not want to do it, but was eventually prodded (or bullied) into getting into his car and making the drive to the post office in Somesville. The other theater got its film print, but the Pastime lost its manger, because Kenney supposedly got back in his car and drove off the island entirely, walking out on both his spouse and his businesses!

From Northeast Historic Film's Herbert Kenney Collection
However Herbert Kenney finally left Northeast Harbor, his 16mm home movies are now preserved in the collections of Bucksport’s Northeast Historic Film, from which I was able to license a number of excerpts. Kenney shot footage of ice fishing on Somes Sound, ice cutting at Upper Hadlock, and even the staff of the Harbourside Inn goofing around for the camera. Perhaps most impressive, though, was the lengthy shot Kenney captured of the steamer J.T. Morse coming into port. Of all the steam vessels that made regular visits to Mount Desert Island, it is the J.T. Morse which is the most extensively documented from a visual standpoint. I cannot even begin to count how many postcards and photographs of this vessel that I’ve seen over the years. Yet this was the first time I or anyone I spoke to had seen any film footage of the ship!

Kenney’s collected home movies have a new shelf mate in the vault at Northeast Historic Film, because as of late last year my father’s 8mm films are now stored there as well. Most of the digital video footage shot for Summer Colony between 2004 and 2012 is also now a part of their collection, including hours of unused clips that couldn't quite make it into the final cut. Perhaps decades from now some future filmmaker, continuing to chart the evolution of the village or the island as a whole, will stumble across some tiny moment in those clips that will make the past flare to light in the same way that it did for me the first time that I watched the J.T. Morse lumber into port in glorious full motion.