The Ghosts of New Hampshire

Part I: The First Day of Spring

(This is the first of a two-part series about the making of Tim Hunter's new film.)

Eric Isen looked up with a start. Alone in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, he was preparing to record some background noises for a film called "Prophetic Pictures."

But suddenly he had heard some strange sounds--sounds that could not possibly exist in this empty room. He heard people walking. He knew he heard people walking, for he could feel their presence in the room. You know when you are not alone.

So he looked up from his microphone and equipment and tried to see who these intruders were. He saw no one, just some areas of what looked like yellow-tinged solid space. He was scared. He picked up his tape recorder and ran into the snow.

Eric had reason to believe he had seen a ghost, and no one among the other people working on this film in New Hampshire would be able to doubt him. For "Prophetic Pictures" was being filmed around an abandoned granite quarry, and local legend had it that the quarry, now deserted, was haunted. Everyone in the film unit had heard the story: between two and ten of the quarry's workers had fallen off its walls to mysterious and bloody deaths.

It was no wonder that the line between life and death had become blurred for these five people trying to make a film. They could not escape the ghosts. They could no longer tell with certainty who among their ranks was alive. Or dead. Or had merely touched death and come back to haunt the rest.

ON a Friday late in March, a few days after Eric's experience in the cabin, the mist in New Hampshire was thick. So thick that its whiteness made it impossible to distinguish the snow-covered ground from the sky. Towering black trees, everything, disappeared into the haze.

A Volkswagen was driving north from Cambridge towards the town of Milford, New Hampshire. In the car were three people: Tim Hunter, Eric Isen and myself. We were off for the final weekend of New England location-shooting of Prophetic Pictures, which Hunter is directing. For Tim, who graduated from Harvard last June, Pictures will be his fourth film since he came to Cambridge from New York five years ago. (The other three were Sinister Madonna, 1967, the first student film made at Harvard in 18 years; Desire in the Fire, 1967; and 3 Sisters, 1968, like the new film, made under the sponsorship of WGBH-TV.)

Pictures, which is in color and will have a length of 90 minutes, is actually two separate films packaged under one title. The title segment, filmed in February, is based on a Hawthorne story about a young couple that finds its destiny linked to its enigmatically grim wedding portrait.

Now Tim was finishing up the second segment, Eleanora, which is based on a Poe story.

Looking out the windshield from my cramped position in the back seat, I could see little of what lay ahead on the nearly empty highway. Sometimes, out of the window next to me, I'd catch fragments of the passing landscape--usually just mist-surrounded trees or burnt red barns.

As we drove, Eric and Tim talked quietly to each other, with long periods of silence forming the boundaries between the various topics of conversation. Hardly talkative to begin with, they said whatever they needed as tersely as possible. Even when Tim was filming later on, he never raised his voice. I wondered whether he was merely tired after six weeks of shooting. Or whether his low-key approach to a project as emotionally charged as the making of Eleanora was an indication of something else--possibly some hidden turmoil, even some fear, that he could not let erupt.

Eric (Harvard '66) is married and has a three-month old child. He knew Tim as an undergraduate, and since that time has worked for WGBH as a cameraman-soundman. They first worked together on 3 sisters, and Tim had insisted to the station management that Eric do sound and lighting on the new film.

ABOUT 3 p.m., we pulled into town, Milford is one of those small New England villages (population 5200) whose picturesque colonial atmosphere has succumbed to the 20th century. Many of the old wooden structures (even a colonial church) have been transformed into grimy liquor stores, Western Auto discount stores, small grocery stores. The center of town is surround by gas stations. And in the dead center of the main square is a deserted and forlorn bandstand, its white wooden sides smudged with dirt and exhaust, its green platform sagging at the middle.

The cabin is a couple of miles outside of Milford. We turned off the highway and up an unpaved road, driving past a working granite quarry. When we reached the vicinity of the abandoned quarry past that, we parked the car. I got out and fond myself standing in a puddle of mud about four inches deep. I did not see the cabin.