With its Oct. 9 premiere at One Longfellow Square a rousing success, Maine-shot feature “The Witch Files” marks the second time Portland-born filmmaker Kyle Rankin has come home.
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His 2015 horror comedy “Night of the Living Deb” was filmed in and around Portland, while “The Witch Files” counted Bath, Brunswick and Mackworth Island among its locations, the choice to film in Maine a stubbornly loyal one by Rankin, who has been making mid- to low-budgeted genre films (“Infestation,” “Nuclear Family”) in Los Angeles for more than a decade.
“Natural beauty, a sense of history, amazing buildings and the look of the place – Maine provides instant character and visual interest,” Rankin said of his decision to bring his last two productions back to Maine. “Plus, you get all that enthusiasm from extras and local talent, and,” he confessed, “location fees are much more reasonable here than in L.A. There, I’m calling you from this 1950-ish diner, and if I wanted to shoot here, they’d immediately have a price that would be out of my range. It makes sense for people in California; they can say, ‘Well, “CSI” shot here last month and paid this much.’ ”
For Rankin, who made his indie film bones here in Portland alongside former filmmaking partners Efram Potelle and the late Shane Worcester, scrambling for money is old hat – even if it never seems to get much easier. Rankin credits his producer, Brunswick’s Scott Taylor, for helping secure the film’s approximately $200,000 budget, which along with the allure of Rankin’s script (about a cadre of high school witchcraft enthusiasts) was able to bring in some truly impressive talent, like “The Americans'” Holly Taylor, the always engaging Paget Brewster (“Community,” “Criminal Minds”) and “Northern Exposure’s” Valerie Mahaffey. Rankin also praises Taylor for helping find creative ways to circumvent Maine’s still-baffling lack of the filmmaking incentives that continually means the latest Maine-set Stephen King adaptation will be filmed in more financially welcoming places, like Georgia or Canada. Said Rankin, “If we can get $250-300,000 together, Maine is still my go-to place. In one sense, when you’re on this lower level budget, the incentives don’t really matter as much, although Scott was able to find a little money from an underused state program, which helped. If you can spend $250,000 and get back ($14,000), then that’s your sound mix right there.”
As for his California-based cast, Rankin says that filming a coast away can be either a hindrance or a perk, depending on the actor. “Paget, it turns out, has family in Maine, so I sort of struck gold with that. For some actors, a paid trip to Maine for 18 days is a real draw, too. Holly and all the five girls in the coven, they’d never been, and now they’re all fans. I was excited to take them to my favorite places around town, so we went to Street & Company, coffee at Bard, and I was like, ‘I have to get you a Sea Bag!’ Portland’s still the place I close my eyes and dream about, so it was great to show them around.”
Portlander though he is, Rankin is full of praise for the city of Bath, where much of “The Witch Files” was shot. “I was amazed at the support we got from the city of Bath and Morse High School,” he said. “They almost gave us the keys to the place. It was crazy – kids were coming in on Saturdays and Sundays to spend all day with us as extras. That sort of enthusiasm, you don’t get that in California any more.”
Rankin said that, due to the vagaries of DVD and streaming numbers, the relative success of “The Witch Files” won’t be known for a few months, although he’s encouraged by its distributors, Dark Sky Films. “They specialize in genre and horror things,” said Rankin. “They did ‘Deb’ as well, and they’re great. Still, it’s an exercise in zen waiting for the machinations of the distribution chain. But I heard from someone who was in the Philippines and told me that one day he had to choose between seeing our film (budget $250,000) or ‘Venom’ (budget around $200 million), so that was fun.”
Rankin is nothing if not busy, with his school-shooting thriller “Run Hide Fight” in pre-production, complete with a bigger budget (around $2 million), at least one big name – Thomas Jane – attached and up-and-coming indie producer Dallas Sonnier (“Bone Tomahawk,” “Brawl in Cell Block 99”) on board to provide some much-appreciated help on the financial side of things. Speaking of the film, Rankin said, “It’s going to be a little controversial, since the milieu involves a school shooting. I think it’s a really provocative look at the subject. I’m excited, even if my initial pitch to shoot it in Maine got shot down rather quickly. With a bigger budget like this, Maine’s lack of tax incentives makes a huge difference.”
“The Witch Files” is available for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray at Bull Moose Music and wherever fine films are sold. It’s also streaming on Google Play, YouTube Movies and elsewhere. And look for producer Scott Taylor at a hometown screening of “The Witch Files” at Frontier in Brunswick on Nov. 27.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Wednesday, Oct. 31: Damnationland. Come see the 2018 entry in this all-Maine, all-spooky short film anthology institution … if you dare.
Wednesday: “Nosferatu.” The Merrill’s Halloween Silent Film Night presents this enduringly creepy silent vampire classic, complete with a child and adult costume contest, and appropriately eerie organ music from James Kennerley.