What do you do when your big-city dreams of artistic expression get crushed one too many times? You come home to Maine. At least that’s the story behind the indie Christmas film “Holly Star,” in more ways than one.
The low-budget comedy follows an aspiring puppeteer named Sloan (Katlyn Carlson, “Master of None”) whose dream project is canceled, leaving her broke, depressed and reluctantly fleeing home to Maine. There, alongside her rambunctious, paintball-obsessed childhood friend (Teya Patt, “Fear the Walking Dead”) and energetic, tango-dancing grandma (former University of Southern Maine acting professor Pamela Chabora), she attempts to regroup, all while reconnecting with her childhood sweetheart (Brian Muller, HBO’s “The Deuce”). It’s still touch-and-go until a near-death experience leaves Sloan with the flash of a long-ago memory of a Christmastime event that might hold the clue to buried treasure, and the end of all her problems.
Filmed in the (brutal) winter of 2016 in Biddeford, Saco, Cape Elizabeth and other Maine locations, “Holly Star” has been picked up for distribution by reliably eclectic indie distributor The Orchard and hits Amazon, iTunes, various streaming services and Blu-ray/DVD on Tuesday. In addition, like its heroine, the Maine-shot “Holly Star” is coming home for Christmas, with a quartet of screenings at Biddeford’s lavish City Theater Dec. 20-22. The final showing, at 7 p.m. Dec. 22, will include a Q-and-A with what Brunswick-based producer Scott Taylor calls the film’s Maine contingent, including writer-director-producer Michael A. Nickles, co-producer and “Holly Star” actor Erik Van Wyck, actress Chabora and Taylor himself. And, as Taylor explains, for Nickles, the release of “Holly Star” represents the culmination of his own, hard-won, Sloan-style Maine-based quest.
Watch the “Holly Star” trailer:
“Mike has been trying to get this film made for over 20 years,” said Taylor, who has recently helped shepherd the similar Maine movie return of L.A.-based Maine native director Kyle Rankin, whose last two films, “Night of the Living Deb” and “The Witch Files,” were also shot in the state. Adds Van Wyck (who also plays the closest thing “Holly Star” has to a villain as the New York producer who kills Sloan’s Santa puppet project), “This is Mike’s baby all the way. He’s been the driving force for 20 years of the film getting close, then falling apart, again and again. We’d worked together on a couple of scripts, and when the opportunity came up to work on this film, Mike’s the sort of person you drop everything to work with.”
The film, which Taylor calls “slightly retro, slightly old-timey,” called upon the Biddeford-Saco region’s unique atmosphere – and people – to supply the Christmas magic the film required. “Once we had the idea of moving the movie to Maine, we started to reimagine things,” explained Taylor. “How we could make it smaller in Maine by gathering resources and gathering the community. The towns and people of Saco and Biddeford were absolutely critical – they provided anything we could have imagined. We were able to film at the Festival of Lights, able to shoot on the Downeaster. It all added a huge amount of value and interest.”
Filming in Maine meant incorporating a lot of local talent into the production of “Holly Star” as well, with Taylor estimating that some 60 percent of the film’s crew came from Maine’s film community. In addition, he’s proud that most of the production heads on the film were women, a complete reversal of the usual Hollywood ratio and something he says was vital to the creation of such a female-centered film.
Not that filming in December in Maine is a nice, smooth sledding ride. Van Wyck tells of having to constantly shift filming schedules thanks to 2016’s even-more-nasty-than-usual winter weather, something especially perilous when money and time are short. Still, he says that there was near-universal enthusiasm among the cast and crew, and that some unexpected events (like a picture-perfect snowfall in one crucial scene at a Christmas tree farm) were the sort of natural special effect only Maine could provide. “This was an awesome team, and I’m not just saying that,” enthused Van Wyck. “They made it work.”
For Taylor, producing duties meant driving a stubborn, ancient Rambler automobile needed for the shoot from Brunswick to Biddeford. In a snowstorm. On the turnpike. With no heat, a broken window and a top speed of about 45 miles an hour. Still, Taylor, too, agrees with Van Wyck that the benefits of filming in Maine far outweighed the challenges. Citing one can’t-reschedule scene at the Saco Drive-In, Taylor explains that an unexpected snowstorm looked ready to wipe out the day’s shooting – until the community rallied. “Someone called someone on the town council who owned a snowplow business. The whole shoot was like that, full of fun little surprises. But, at every point, someone stepped up and said, ‘I know how to solve that problem.’ ”
And that brings us back to “Holly Star” itself, whose Maine setting and production resulted from a serendipitous coming together of three guys with connections to Maine and its film community. Both Nickles and Van Wyck have had long careers acting in film and TV in Los Angeles before coming, separately, to live in Maine in recent years. Hooking up with Maine producer Taylor on other projects brought them together and eventually saw them looking to their new home as the solution to the myriad problems that have dogged the long gestation of “Holly Star,” something that Taylor and Van Wyck see as a fruitful continuing relationship with each other, and with Maine.
Taylor has long sought to help foster “a film community in Maine, and a film economy.” And Van Wyck explains that, in addition to his own longtime efforts to get the Maine Legislature to adopt the sort of financial incentives that have turned places like Atlanta and Boston into movie and TV destinations (look for more on that in this column in the months to come), he and Nickles are planning to continue their partnership with an upcoming, bigger-budgeted thriller – set and made in Maine. “In talking to people in the Maine Film Office and others,” said Van Wyck, explaining his push for filmmaking incentives, “if and when that is changed, it will completely blow the doors wide open in terms of people coming here.” Well, as the blustery but bountiful production of “Holly Star” showed, we’ve got plenty of winter wind.
Coming to local screens
Friday-Saturday: “1985.” In conjunction with World AIDS Day and co-presented with the Frannie Peabody Center, this touching, thoughtful drama sees a young man returning home to his Texas hometown from New York in the wake of a terrible tragedy, only to find his religious parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis) prove rigidly unwilling to listen.
Starts Friday: “The House That Jack Built.” Noted filmmaker and provocateur Lars Von Trier (“Antichrist,” “Nymphomaniac”) promises to make you squirm while you think once more as he takes on this tale of an artistic-minded serial killer (Matt Dillon).