“So few screenplays get made,” says Maine native, actress and casting professional Debra Lord Cooke. “They can just get dropped, and there are so many hurdles and pitfalls when making a feature film. It’s a miracle to even finish it.”
And that’s even without a global pandemic, the company backing your film suddenly going out of business, and the hardest of hard deadlines of a once-in-a-lifetime natural phenomenon to deal with. Such is the Maine (and Nebraska) story of “In the Moon’s Shadow,” the independent film starring Cooke whose 2019 production date on the Internet Movie Database hides a harrowingly familiar story to any Maine filmmakers looking to realize a vision on limited resources.
The film, a drama about two estranged sisters (Cooke and Elissa Piszel) who embark upon an eventful road trip to witness the first total eclipse of the sun from the prime viewing grounds of Nebraska’s Sand Hills, is, according to Cooke, “a movie that will hit the heartstrings,” and has been garnering good reviews and word-of-mouth from those few who’ve been fortunate enough to see it so far. With a haunting soundtrack by Maine’s own Lady Lamb, the film, like so many hopeful indie projects, was preparing to enter the make-or-break film festival circuit when COVID-19 hit, scuttling even that arduous and uncertain plan to secure distribution, and a wider viewership.
But, as Belgrade native Cooke states, “In the Moon’s Shadow” is “the little engine that could.” Managing to “squeeze into the Hell’s Kitchen NYC Festival” in January 2019, and invited to our own Maine International Film Festival as a (well-received) work in progress, “In the Moon’s Shadow” has managed to impress enough of the right people to have distributors calling, with Green Apple Entertainment finally being chosen by the filmmakers. Now, the film is on track for its Oct. 5 rollout, a journey more or less as grueling and emotional as that of the film’s beleaguered sisters.
Explaining that the film’s director, Alvin Case, got the shocking news about the film’s loss of funding while he was booking hotel rooms and scouting locations for the all-important Nebraska climax, Cooke (a veteran of New York theater and films like “The Congressman” and “Café Society”) took the heartbreak in stride. And then got to work. She and Piszel decided to fund the film themselves, forming the women-owned Moon Shadow Pictures LLC, and doing everything from performing staged readings of the script at the Belgrade Public Library to soliciting help from local Maine businesses to make up the shortfall.
“We managed to get as much production quality as possible with that tiny budget,” said Cooke, who opened the doors of her lakeside Belgrade home (along with that of her late father) to the film’s cast and crew. Shooting the film’s Maine segments on locations she knows and loves so well was a true asset, and the Belgrade area’s varied environs “made it look like more locations than it actually was.” (The promised eclipse helped, too, of course, with Case able to wrangle competing Nebraska weather forecasts to find just the right, cloud-free spot to capture some spectacular footage.)
That Maine can spruce up any movie is no surprise to Maine filmmakers (or, indeed, anyone with eyes), as our state offers up plenty of what the industry calls “production value,” with its camera-ready lakes, mountains, forests, beaches, cities and picturesque small towns. Cooke, who’s been a board member of the Maine Film Commission since 2002, has long lobbied for Maine lawmakers to open their eyes to the possibilities of turning our state into a much-desired filming hub through filmmaking tax incentives, something she sees as essential for the Maine film community. Calling the current, gaining-momentum push for such incentives, “a great, well-written piece of legislation that has addressed some of the concerns of the past and totally focuses on hiring Maine people,” the well-versed Cooke is optimistic.
“I’d love for Maine to support it,” said Cooke. “People are going to be surprised how much it improves working conditions, keeps our young people here rather than seeing them move away, and fosters the Maine film community.” Cooke, who is also an experienced casting person for such Maine-based films as “The Man Without A Face” and “In the Bedroom” and HBO’s “Empire Falls,” also notes the green nature of such bills as a plus, and says that such a welcoming governmental attitude toward visiting (and cash-spending) productions would only mirror the individual generosity she witnessed first hand during “In the Moon’s Shadow’s” making.
“I have really deep roots here,” said Cooke, calling the Great Pond home where “In the Moon’s Shadow” filmed “a little corner of heaven that you can’t get anywhere else.” Pulling from her decades of show business experience and the triumphant underdog story that is “In the Moon’s Shadow,” Cooke stresses that it’s beyond time for the world to see what she sees in her home state.
“We are ready to do this,” Cooke said. “We can continue to develop the infrastructure of trained crew and actors right here in Maine.”
Speaking of her long-delayed relief that a film of which she’s especially proud will, at long last, see the light of (we hope) reopened movie screens, Cooke expresses the gratitude and pride of someone who’s put her all into something she truly believes in – right from the heart of Maine.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.