The quirky mystery movie “Blow the Man Down” is set in an isolated Maine fishing village. But that didn’t mean it would necessarily be filmed in one.

The producers first looked at locations in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Canada, all places that offer much richer tax incentives to film projects. But after getting some financial backers who believed in the value of filming it in a real Maine town, the producers headed to Portland and started driving up the coast.

At their first stop, Harpswell, they realized they had found something special.  The town is just 40 minutes from Portland, making it easy for crew and cast to get there. And with its 200 miles of coastline, islands and working harbors, it had every specific kind of location the filmmakers were looking for. They shot their film there in early 2018.

The makers of “Blow the Man Down” say Harpswell is a big part of why the film won accolades at film festivals around the country, got rave reviews and has been picked up by Amazon Studios. It began streaming on Amazon Prime on March 20. It features an experienced Hollywood cast and stunning Harpswell scenery, including the Giant’s Stairs on Bailey Island, the wharves and Holbrook’s General Store in Cundy’s Harbor and the Cribstone Bridge, linking Bailey and Orr’s islands. Dozens of local people – fishermen, teachers, kids, bartenders and librarians – were extras or small players in the film as well.

A scene from the mystery film “Blow the Man Down” shot all over Harpswell and now streaming on Amazon Prime. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

“When we got to Harpswell, we knew we had struck gold. There’s so many different types of locations in Harpswell that it makes the movie look and feel bigger,” said Drew Houpt, one of the film’s producers, whose credits include “Birdman” with Michael Keaton. “The town, and the people, just offered so much of what we needed.”

A FISHING TOWN NOIR

The film’s story is set in the fictional fishing town of Easter Cove, Maine, and features an experienced Hollywood cast. The story focuses on two college-age sisters, played by Morgan Saylor, known for Showtime’s “Homeland” TV series, and English-born actress Sophie Lowe. Their mother, a fish market owner, recently died and they find themselves embroiled in a dangerous situation and long-buried town secrets.

The film is buoyed by four veteran actresses who’ve appeared in major films and TV shows for decades, playing the town’s matriarchs: Annette O’Toole, who starred as Martha Kent in the CW Network show “Smallville” (2001 to 2011); June Squibb, nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for the 2013 film “Nebraska”; Marceline Hugot, whose recent TV appearances include the Fox series “Gotham” and AMC’s “Better Call Saul”; and Margo Martindale, who won two Primetime Emmy Awards, in 2015 and 2016, for her role on the FX series “The Americans” and who stars as activist and politician Bella Abzug in the upcoming FX series “Mrs. America.”

The movie opens with a rousing sea-shanty version of the tune “Blow the Man Down,” sung by fishermen on the rocky coast, along with images of fresh-caught fish being unloaded and cut up. The sea shanties and singing fishermen pop up throughout the movie, punctuating action and heightening tension.

The story begins at the funeral for Mary Margaret Connolly, mother of the two young women mentioned above. Depression over her mother’s death and mounting debts leads the younger sister, Mary Beth, to a reckless night in town. She’s seen leaving a home on Orr’s Island and then walking across the Cribstone Bridge and entering Morse’s Cribstone Grill on Bailey Island, which was used for the film’s bar scenes. What follows is a string of crimes and secrets that shows the quaint fishing village isn’t all that it seems.

Margo Martindale in Holbrook’s General Store in Cundy’s Harbor. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

It was written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, who met at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and have both worked in various film production jobs for the last decade. Cole grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts, and worked as a waitress in Bar Harbor after college. Krudy, from Cleveland, Ohio, visited the midcoast in her teens and has family from Maine. Both were fascinated with the idea of small, isolated Maine towns and the secrets they could keep and called the film’s story “a fishing town noir.” They also say they were inspired by the strong women in their lives, and the story of “Blow the Man Down” is about strong women, including some who scheme and control.

“The story was always going to be set in Maine, and we’re so lucky we got to film there,” said Cole. “Everything about filming there was authentic. Everyone in town was so good to us.”

TOWN LOOKS GOOD IN CLOSE-UPS

While a few locations outside of Harpswell were used, including the 1774 Inn in Phippsburg, most scenes were filmed within the town. The early funeral scenes were at the Orr’s Island Meeting House and a nearby private home. The movie was filmed in February and March of 2018 and production was shut down twice by nor’easters. So the extras in the funeral scenes were pretty cold as the meeting house has no heat.

“We worked on that scene for two days, and we had to stay in character and be very somber,” said Karen Schneider, 64, retired director of the Cundy’s Harbor Library. “I got spoken to because I was smiling sometimes. I have a hard time not smiling.”

Marceline Hugot in front of houses near the south end of Orr’s Island, in a scene from “Blow the Man Down.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Rachel Miller, 51, of Cundy’s Harbor, was also an extra in those scenes. She remembers that, during the funeral reception scene, the extras sat around so long that the food being used was no longer edible.

“They told us to put the food on our plates but not really eat it because it wasn’t good anymore,” said Miller, a substitute teacher. “The experience was really interesting. I enjoyed seeing how everything is done, it’s a lot of work.”

The Connolly family runs a fish market in the movie, portrayed by the white-washed Holbrook’s General Store in Cundy’s Harbor, said Miller, who is involved with the nonprofit Holbrook Community Foundation, which owns it.

Many of the scenes on docks or in boats were shot in Cundy’s Harbor as well, on wharves owned by the Watson family, near Watson’s General Store, said T.J. Watson. Watson, 33, and his family were among the first people the producers met while scouting Harpswell, and Watson became their go-to-guy for finding locations, boats and people. Watson, who grew up in town and runs a landscaping business, said the filming helped the town’s economy during the usually slow winter months. Dozens of crew members stayed in summer rental properties, went out to eat at local places and hired local people to do various kinds of work.

“They rented out just about every summer rental,” said Watson. “I know that filming in Maine isn’t the easiest thing, it costs more than other places, but it was a big help to the town.”

Morgan Saylor, Sophie Lowe and Margo Martindale in Holbrook’s General Store in Cundy’s Harbor. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Other places that have fishing villages and coastal towns can be considerably cheaper to film in because of government tax credits.  According to the film industry website CastandCrew.com, Nova Scotia offers film companies a rebate worth 25 percent of all spending as well as wages for resident labor, while Maine offers rebates of 10 and 12 percent on labor costs and a tax credit of 5 percent on spending.

The production started out as an independent film, meaning the producers had to find financing, Houpt said. If they hadn’t found a backer willing to spend the extra money needed to film in Maine, they would have likely gone somewhere else, he said.

The film played film festivals last year, where it was nominated for several awards. It won best screenplay at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. National Public Radio movie critic Scott Tobias compared the film to Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Fargo,” a dark and funny crime movie set in small-town Minnesota. And he praised the contribution of the Harpswell locations.

“(Directors) Cole and Krudy make the backdrop the star: a fishing village where the past informs a sinister present and women struggle to find their place in a brutal patriarchy, often taking it out on one another,” Tobias wrote.

Some of the film’s authenticity comes from the fact that is used real people as extras. Local fishermen played fishermen on the docks. Mary Coombs, who lives on Bailey Island and has worked as a bartender, got to play a bartender. She even got lines. In a pivotal scene, Martindale, who plays a forcefully driven business woman, is sitting in a near-empty bar, drinking away her troubles.

“I got to say, ‘I think that’s enough, Enid,’ and I shut her off,” said Coombs, 48.

Schneider, who was an extra in the funeral scenes, said she’s excited to see how Harpswell and its people look on film. She’s a little sad she won’t be watching the film with other locals – because of social distancing – but figures there are ways around that.

“Maybe we’ll all watch it separately and then talk about it on FaceTime,” Schneider said.

 


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