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.
Soon Tim and Eric pointed the way. We would walk through a dead-looking forest slope of about 100 yards to reach our destination. As we started our trek I saw little except snow and mist. I took about two steps into the forest--and then discovered that the cold ground cover below was much different from the slush I had left behind in Cambridge. My left foot sunk below the surface, and I pitched forward, dropping my sleeping bags before me and sinking into about three feet of snow. No sooner did I collect myself and my bundles, than I fell again. By the time I reached the cabin--about five minutes later--I was thoroughly cold and wet.
There were two cabins: the small one where Eric had seen the ghost and in which no further shooting would take place; and a larger, modern structure next to it, where most of Eleanora's filming had taken place and where we would spend the weekend.
WE NOW entered this larger cabin, the summer retreat of a friend of Eric's. It was nearly as barren and devoid of warmth as the landscape. It had two rooms--a large living room with two walls of glass doors looking out on the abandoned quarry (now totally invisible), and a small bedroom. The floors were flagstone, the walls were granite the ceilings were low and wooden.
There was little in the way of furniture (a red couch in the big room, a large raised bed in the other), no heating, no lights, no plumbing. For warmth and light there was the one fireplace (in the living room) and the half-dozen or so tall standing lights to be used in the shooting. For a bathroom, there was the woods. For running water, there were the gas-station johns in town.
Tim took me from the main room, which was cluttered with left over food and props (the unit had been commuting between Cambridge and Milford for ten days), to the bedroom. Tonight was to be the first time anyone would spend the night in the cabin. "This is a great bed," he said, pointing at it. "Nora dies in this bed."
A few minutes later, we were outside and Tim was taking me for a ride on a ski-doo (a snowmobile), which had been rented for the purpose of hauling camera equipment between the cars and the cabin. I didn't know what kind of ride to expect from Tim, who was silent as always, and not one for excess. So, as the ski-doo started to roar, and Tim drove off wildly--almost hysterically--into the mist, the forest, the hills, I was scared. Trees appeared out of nowhere; the cold air slapped me in the face at every turn. Soon, after a bump that sent me a foot in the air, I lost my grip and fell into the snow. As Tim went zoomnig off without me, I sank into the ice. I tried to get up, and I tripped. Twenty or 30 yards later, he realized what had happened. I got up and stumbled towards him, shouting profuse embarrassed apologies. Tim waited, revving up the motor. His face was red and he was smiling, crookedly. "You'll have to do better than that, Rich," he yelled over the sound of the motor and then turned around. When we finally reached our destination, another hill overlooking the invisible, haunted quarry, I was sweating, sopping wet, panting and exhausted.
While we were out in the snow, the others arrived at the cabin: Phoebe Barnes, who was assisting Tim in the production work; Tommy Lee Jones, the male lead of Eleanora; and Nora Paley, who played the title role.
An hour later, Nora was standing near the edge of the same bluff Tim had taken me to on the ski-doo. Her back was facing the mist-engulfed quarry. About ten yards in front of her was Tim, looking through his camera, which was on a tripod balanced on the show. Between Tim and Nora was Eric, who had leather encased tape recorder strapped over his shoulder, a headset over his ears, and a long mike in his hand. Behind Tim and leaning on the ski-doo were Phoebe and myself. We were shooting the first take of the day.
Tim had written Eleanora for Nora, whom he has known for about five years. (She has been in one other Hunter film, Desire/Fire.) One day he had gone up to Franconia to ask her to do the film.
Nora explains, "I had gone to Franconia for a year, and now I was working ten hours a day as a chambermaid and waitress. I was sick of it. Then Tim came up in a shiny rented car and said, 'You know why I'm here.' I didn't, but then I came down anyway."
Tim would not have made the film without her. He wrote the lines to fit his actress' phrasing and speech patterns--not always a wise idea, but definitely so in the case of Nora, who has the unusual and perhaps slightly frightening ability to be herself in front of a camera. Ordinarily, even the most gifted actor cannot be himself on screen.
So here was Nora/Eleanora, wrapped in a yellow blanket, standing starkly against the white, in front of the deep pit I still had not seen. She was about to say the last line of the movie. At this point, at the end of the film, she is a ghost, but she isn't always.
Eleanora is a hitchhiker, who is picked up one afternoon by a jeep diving writer, Steven (played by Tommy). He takes her back to his cabin in the woods and they fall in love immediately. Eleanora is a girl who has no past, no roots. Her life has been a series of changes--shocks that caused her to reform her life's perspectives at every turn. (As Eleanora explains to Steven, "Change was something awful that happened when I didn't even know it. Like a punishment for living and everything. I'd wake up mornings and know all of a sudden that there were things I couldn't do anymore, or say or feel.")
One day, as she sits with her lover, overlooking the snow-filled quarry, she tells him that pretty soon she is going to die. Before she does, Steven promises her that he will never fall in love again. If he breaks this vow, she can return from heaven and turn him to ashes. (Eleanora: "I'll watch you, Steven. If I am permitted I'll return to you visibly in the watches of the night. . . . ") She dies, without Steven ever finding out her last name, and a year later Steven falls in love with another girl in New York. Back in the cabin, Steven is visited by Eleanora. She misses him, but her new existence beyond an earthly one has given her different "perception." She releases Steven from his promise.
WE WERE now filming thiso final speech, in which Steven is released "for reasons which will be made known in heaven." Nora looked at Phoebe, and Eric looked at both of them. They started to giggle; Tim looked up from the camera.
He was smiling. "Saboteurs! You're fired--all of you! You're through in this business! Next time I work with Tuesday Weld."
Everyone laughed, but soon the laughter subsided as quickly as it had begun. Nora's smile faded and she was now standing silently, her long red hair falling below her shoulders, her brown eyes cast downward, her mouth blank. Tim and Eric adjusted the equipment some more, working in their shirtsleeves. I was cold, in a heavy overcoat.
Conversation of all but an essential kind ceased. It was four and beginning to get dark. The oppressive silence was broken only by the sounds of geeese and wolves, and by Tim's one or two whoops to test out the echoes.
As the filming was about to begin, Nora spoke. She talked with an angelic softness, a softness that matched her beauty. But not exactly. There was a slight shakiness underlying the musical quality of her speech. As if, throughout her life, she had shuddered to the slammings of a thousand different doors and now had permanently assimilated a barely perceptible tremor into her very expression.
"Tim," she said.
"Do ghosts take themselves seriously?"
There was a breeze and, temporarily, some of the mist cleared. I could, at last, se the deep quarry. I could see the quarry wall opposite us, and the trees on the land above it. Looking to the newly revealed landscape on my left I found the cabin, perched on the brink of another wall of the enormous white pit. Smoke was coming our of the chimney. Tommy, who had stayed behind in the cabin, had started a fire.
PHOEBE smoked a cigarette. She is a smallish girl with long dark hair, bangs, blue eyes, freckles. She looked up and spoke to no one in particular.
"Today's the first day of spring."
"Is it really?" asked Tim.
"Yeah," said Phoebe.
It was night and we were in the cabin's living room trying to keep warm and getting ready to make our way through a back-breaking schedule set up for the evening. Outside the glass walls was sheer blackness, transforming the doors into mirrors of black glass. Reflected in them were the powerful lights, the fire, and the faces of those who were illuminated. Everyone had been sitting quietly on the couch by the fire, trying to dry their feet, trying to escape the cold of the rest of the room. ("AS least we have not succumbed to roasting marshmallows," said Tim.)
Nora was looking over lines. Tim was drawing out the night's shots with a felt-tip pen (He tries to draw out every shot in advance, and usually the actual takes look amazingly close to his scribbled sketches.) Phoebe sat quietly, smoking a cigarette. Tommy had driven into town to get some supplies: a deck of cards (which he ultimately forgot), a bottle of bourbon, pizza, and, for Nora, a pear. Eric fiddled with equipment for a bit, but mostly just stood, staring at the fire.
Soon the shooting began. Most of the first shots went well--particularly one filmed in the eerily lit bedroom, as Steven (Tommy) wakes up with a sudden jolt in the middle of the night (after which he goes to the living room and discovers the ghost of Eleanora). This was a grim take, but every once in a while, someone tried to lighten up the room of shadows with a smile or a joke.
Tim sang a song, "The Real American Folksong is a Rag," while Eric adjusted the lights. "Who wrote it?" he asked as he finished. No one knew.
"George and Ira fucking Gershwin, that's who!"
Tommy yawned from the bed. He was in just his underpants, and his exhaled breath was frosty.
"Making films is very boring," said Tim. "Hey, do you want to go back to football, Jones?"
Tommy, who is a Harvard senior, is a member of the football team and also an actor, having played a major role in 3 Sisters and Coriolanus in last year's Loeb production. But he is a jock and not an actor when he is not working at it.
Later, around nine, when we started filming in the living room, he became merely another shadow in the cold room. We were doing takes of the lines he speaks to the ghost of Eleanora after he had discovered her. He stood by the fire, waiting for Tim's directions in stone silence. Only occasionally when he was off-camera did a smile take over his face (Nora says,
"There's nothing like a Tommy grin.") and the loud vocal mannerisms of Texas (Where he grew up) infect his speech.
But he--like the other four--let no humor find its way into the filming, once the real work had begun. Often, between takes, he reached for the bottle of burbon, took a gulp, gargled with it and then swallowed it down: all without comment from him or anyone else. (The bourbon was cheap and awful; Prophetic Pictures' production budget is $2000 -- most of which goes for minimal salaries and prop rentals--so there is little room for extravagant extra expenses.) While Tommy worked, drank, worked, looked over his script, drank, no one spoke. Eric and Tim might say something about technical matters, but mostly: nothing. The rest of us sat around, separate from each other, smoking and gazing, sitting in the periphery of the lighted area around the fireplace--half in light, half in shadows; half in warmth, half in chill.
PHOEBE quietly recorded the details of the filming on the log, to be used in the editing later on. She also held her clapboard in front of the camera before each take and announced the scene and the number of the take. Then she sat down again on the sidelines and smoked--or stared at the fire. Sometimes, but not consistently, those not involved with the shooting looked at the actor being filmed.
It can take a long time to get a scene right. The week before one speech had been done 21 times before a take worked. (Hunter shoots on a professional ratio; from about 30,000 feet of film shot, the picture will be edited to 3000 feet.)
Almost anything can kill a take: Eric's mike can get in the way of the shot; an actor can muff a line, or not perform it to Tim's satisfaction; something can go wrong with the tape recorder or the camera; the lighting can be off a bit.
Now, Friday night, one speech, less than a minute long and delivered by Tommy at the fireplace, was filmed over and over again--from just before ten to just before midnight. The amazing thing was that, as Tommy did his speech over and over again, no frustration--not even any slap-happiness--crept into the atmosphere. Rather, this sad speech ("Eleanora. I promised you all my life and it only lasted a year. Why did it go away? IT wasn't supposed to go away."), chanted over and over again in this island of black and white and shadows and bourbon, became a presence in itself, the first identifiable ghost. Steven's words merged with the blackness behind the glass doors; they touched everyone and everything in the cabin.
TIM plodded on and on (Nora said, "You're always in the land of your sordid little story."), calm and assured. Not pleasant, but rarely irritated or upset either. When he finally got around to the shooting involving Nora (her first lines after her appearance from the dead), he discovered that her costume was stained, the lighting for the scene was going to be difficult to arrange, and Nora herself looked exhausted. He decided to put that shooting off until the next night, after returning from the day's exterior filming, some difficult shots that would require Tim to shoot from the hood of a moving jeep.
With the night's shooting over, Tim seemed somewhat relaxed. He sang "Duke of Earl" and Tommy backed him up with the chorus. The group talked quietly about the sleeping arrangements for the night. No one was enthusiastic about sleeping over in the cold cabin for the first time, but it was important to get an early start if the filming was to be completed the following day. It was decided that Nora and Phoebe should share the large bed, with the rest of us stretching out in sleeping bags by the fire.
Nora did not like the idea at all. Standing in the shadows at the side of the fire, she turned towards me. Her large dark eyes betrayed momentarily a bit of the tremor that creeps into her gentle voice. "How would you like to die in that bed," she asked, "and then sleep in it?"
Steven's speech, chanted over and over again in this island of black and white and shadows and bourbon, became a presence in itself, the first identifiable ghost.