Towns rally in support of student’s rom-com, April Grace

, Beacon Staff/strong

A month out from shooting, senior visual and media arts major Andrew Hutcheson found himself in the director’s chair of his first feature film.

The project was emApril Grace/em, an Emerson-bred feature-length romantic comedy shot this past summer.

The prospects were daunting. A lot had to happen before boy could meet girl. There was storyboarding to be done, equipment to be acquired, and crew to be assembled. emApril Grace /emwas looking to be one heck of a ride — a beast that took a cadre of Emersonians, several professionals, and the collective enthusiasm of two New Jersey towns to tame.

The film started out as a gritty romance script entitled emApril Riley/em, written by senior visual and media arts major George Murray. Hutcheson said he first saw the coming-of-age screenplay — which would go on to the semifinals of the Final Draft 2010 Big Break Screenwriting Competition — in the Film 2 class he and Murray took in February 2010.

Not long after that, Shane Seibel, a junior visual and media arts major, signed on as cinematographer, and Hutcheson decided to take the project under the wing of Zandrak Productions, a company he runs with his longtime friend David Brickel  and senior animation and motion media major William A. Carlson .

Before shooting could start, a few things had to change. For one, a new title would be necessary — it turned out there’s a porn star named April Riley. And she has a website. So there went that domain name.

It quickly became clear the script’s original setting in Portland, Maine wouldn’t work, either.

“The only way we could house a crew there was to spend about $5,000 for a campground, have everybody sleep in tents, have one shower, and sh** in the woods,” said Hutcheson. “It didn’t really sound appealing.”

An easy fix: They’d film in Hutcheson’s homestate of New Jersey.

After retooling the “punk rock” vibe of the original script into a John Hughes-esque romantic comedy, changing the title to emApril Grace/em, and convincing Hutcheson’s parents to house cast and crew in their basement, they were ready to make a movie.

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But movies don’t get made in a bubble. They require a vast network of support, resources, and manpower to keep the film rolling, the lights shining, and the actors acting. After two major crew shakeups — the dismissal of the second director attached to the project, and the firing of a hired producer who Seibel described as “pure evil” — things were looking dicey.

“We found ourselves up against a huge task in which rungs in a ladder that we thought were secure just broke through,” said Hutcheson. “But we found a lot of hands to pull ourselves up.”

Said hands came in countless forms — old friends, generous shop owners, Emerson alumni, and even an entire town’s fire department.

Through the New Jersey Film Commission, Hutcheson’s hometown, Washington, and the nearby Blairstown were secured as shooting locations. Now it came down to earning the good will of the community.

“In Boston, it’s like pulling teeth to get to film somewhere,” said Hutcheson. “Everyone [in New Jersey] just opened their doors and their arms to us.”

An early ally of the project was Herman Shoemaker. The 74-year-old has owned and operated BookNest, a Main Street staple in Blairstown, for 11 years now. When Hutcheson approached him about using the literary joint as a filming location, Shoemaker, an active member in the Blairstown community, wanted to offer more than just his store.

“I thought, ‘I really want to help them,’” said Shoemaker in a phone interview. “They seem like solid citizens, they’ve got their feet on the ground, and they’re very serious about what they’re doing. That’s good. You don’t run into people like that anymore.”

Shoemaker, who makes his acting debut as a grocer in the film’s opening scene — “I was never even in a school play” — introduced the Zandrak crew to local business owners, municipal groups, and the Township Committee.

This wasn’t the first time the streets of Blairstown would be committed to film. Director Sean Cunningham chose to set his 1980 slasher classic, emFriday the 13th/em, in this sleepy rural hamlet. Nonetheless, Hutcheson said Blairstown is pretty quiet, and even the production of a scrappy little indie had people talking.

Jon Silva, a 2010 Emerson graduate now living in Brooklyn, came down to do grip and gaff work on emApril Grace/em.  He said he was blown away by the community support for the film. “They really gave as much effort toward the film as we did,” he said.

Blairstown Hose Company 1, the local volunteer fire department, pulled a few all-nighters with the crew, providing thousands of gallons of water for wet downs — a technique in which wet pavement is used to achieve greater illumination when filming nighttime exterior shots.

Residents who couldn’t offer equipment, locations, or food contributed something else entirely: themselves.

Near the end of scheduled production, three nights were booked to shoot a big party scene at Hutcheson’s house. Over 60 extras would be needed to get the right feel, so an invitation was extended to the teens of Washington. They happily accepted.

“For those three days in Washington,” Hutcheson said, “you’d see on Facebook: ‘Are you going to the movie tonight?’”

Production ended up running 10 days longer than the projected 24, forcing pickups — filming done outside the set schedule — to be shot with a skeleton crew.

emApril Grace/em wrapped shooting on Sept. 1, but there’s still a ways to go. Post-production, promotion — it’s not yet over for Hutcheson and crew. But Hutcheson said the benevolence shown toward the crew during production has already made the entire process worth it.

“For a film that’s about coming of age and realizing your potential, it was probably the greatest transformative experience of my entire life.”

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emMiller can be reached at steven_miller@emerson.edu. Follow him on Twitter @steve_r_miller./em

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