The genre of the TV Christmas movie means many things. No, wait, it means exactly the same thing, every time. See if this sounds familiar:
Successful but unsatisfied (blonde) woman from the BIG CITY is sent on a semi-nefarious mission to co-opt, buy out or otherwise despoil an idyllic SMALL TOWN. There, she meets a hunky, down-to-earth, blandly handsome guy who invariably works with his hands (and is usually associated with the SMALL TOWN business the heroine is coming to destroy). The pair fall in love, mainly because the BIG CITY gal learns some SMALL TOWN values. The local business is saved, the BIG CITY woman abandons her career to settle down in the SMALL TOWN, where she and her rugged new love presumably spend their days crafting ornaments out of driftwood and pine cones, or some such.
(As someone noted online, all these Hallmark movie women had better ask where their new small town boyfriends were on Jan. 6.)
With all that in mind, why should I be excited that Portland filmmaker Luigi Scarcelli has made the Maine-based Christmas movie “A Downeast Christmas?” Well, listen to Luigi.
“’A Downeast Christmas’ is one part Hallmark and one part Coen Brothers, with even a slight dash of ‘Twin Peaks’ as well,” Scarcelli explained of his hour-plus film, which will be broadcast on Portland Media Center’s Channel 5 on Christmas Eve. The plot of the film, which stars local actors Bailey Hall, Blake Wright and Cody Alexander Curtis, is right out of the Hallmark playbook, as Hall’s high-powered executive is sent by her unscrupulous mogul boss (“a Donald Trump/Bob Barker type,” according to the writer/director) to force holdout Christmas tree farmer Wright to sell his family business so her boss can put up a giant, Christmas-themed casino on the land. As to whether Wright learns the true meaning of Christmas, love and small town values in the burly arms of sap-scented Wright – well, c’mon.
Luckily, Scarcelli, currently a filmmaker and producer at Channel 5, has some offbeat twists in store for viewers of this decidedly Maine-flavored holiday tale, as well as a cast of dedicated local pros who can play things as straight, or as zany, as Scarcelli’s script calls for. “If you look at these movies, they’re all very populist, and a little to the right,” said Scarcelli. “‘A Downeast Christmas’ is definitely not like those movies, which are all schmaltz, and not at all self-referential. We’re keeping the blueprint, but I’m adding my own oddball things, just throwing stuff out there and seeing what happens.”
Scarcelli’s experience both as a low-budget filmmaker and at Channel 5 served him well in the film’s breakneck, two-week shoot. “It was run and gun,” he said. “Shooting with wireless mics and two or three cameras to get all the coverage right then and there. It saves a lot of time, and allows the actors to save it all for one scene. And everyone was so great at nailing their scenes.”
Micro-budgeted movies shot in Maine (especially around the holidays) have a great advantage, in that Maine is, well, Maine. Scarcelli notes that his film’s fictitious small town (nicknamed “Crab Trap, Maine” by the cast), couples Portland interiors with Bar Harbor’s picturesque exteriors, with a little stolen scenery from Ogunquit’s lavishly Christmas-y downtown. “On only a few weeks, we shot in 10 different locations, with backgrounds consisting of up to 50 people,” Scarcelli said, proudly.
“A Downeast Christmas” represents just the tip of the filmmaking iceberg for Portland native Scarcelli, whose own filmmaking journey has seen him strike out for L.A., Boston and Chicago, before returning to Maine in 2010. All that experience has taught the filmmaker plenty about the filmmaking process, all of which he’s excited to share and explore with the Maine film community. “Channel 5 could be a real hub for filmmaking here in Maine,” said Scarcelli, whose future plans include everything from a live Maine New Years Eve countdown special, to a game show, to an “American Idol”-esque karaoke competition, to an “Office”-style sitcom set – where else? – at a small, underfunded local cable access channel.
“There’s a media element in Portland that’s still in the Stone Age,” he said. “It’s dominated by dinosaur media types who don’t want to do anything that creative. At Portland Media Center, we’ve got great equipment and studio space just waiting for young, hungry creative types to produce original programming.” Scarcelli, who also hosts the weekly, Maine-centric talk show “Friday PM” every Friday at 9 p.m. on Channel 5, is effusive that this sort of homegrown entertainment is the way forward for the state’s always-hustling film and TV industry.
“We have to show that we can do it ourselves and not wait for the Hollywood cavalry to come in and, in most cases, hire a few Maine professionals to get them a cup of coffee or something,” said Scarcelli, who has also lobbied hard for Maine tax incentives for filming and for improvements to local cable access technology. Looking around at all the talent in Maine, I thought, ‘Why not just start doing stuff?’ It’s about putting things out there and showing that we can do this, too. At Channel 5, we have great cameras, and there are a lot of Maine actors who want to do more film stuff, so I spent a couple of months writing, finding actors, finding locations. Sometimes, having a deadline gets people excited, so Christmas Eve was it.”
And, while Scarcelli and crew were still grabbing the last few shots and editing as they went last week, ‘A Downeast Christmas’ will, indeed, be ready to broadcast on Channel 5 on Dec. 24. Scarcelli is looking at getting affiliates in Bangor and Augusta on board, and will simultaneously drop the film on YouTube so that the whole wide internet can see just what a slightly off-kilter Maine holiday movie will be like.
For more information about Maine-made holiday movie “A Downeast Christmas,” check out Luigi Scarcelli’s Facebook page and watch the film on PMC’s Channel 5 on your cable package.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.
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