Sparseness and isolation are pervasive characteristics of the Island in the leafless months, often spurring residents to take excursions across the Sound for a bit of atmospheric relief. But last April those same lonely qualities had a magnetic effect on a team of filmmakers who, a year on, plan to return to Martha’s Vineyard early this April to continue shooting “Off Season,” a horror-laced thriller.
Thus far, two up-Island farms have been settings for the Blind Nomad Pictures production. “Our primary shooting location was Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury,” said Academy Award nominee Sara Nesson (“Poster Girl”), a producer on the film.
The other farm was Nip ‘n’ Tuck, which, in addition to its rustic ambience, harbored certain livestock elements the producers had been hoping to fold into the film. “It was the perfect location for a couple of scenes involving pigs,” Ms. Nesson said.
“Freddy [Fisher, farm owner] was real generous with his pigs. He left for the day and let us get the best of Nip ‘n’ Tuck,” recalled Erik Lieblein, creator and lead producer of the film, who had assumed the animals would remained penned. “Around midday there were 25 piglets running around. I freaked out, didn’t know they were allowed to roam about. I called Freddy and he assured me it was all just fine.”
Islanders past and present pepper the cast and crew of “Off Season” including in part: Leah Bassett, Braedyn Clark, Shawn Barber, Phil Kane, Treather Gassmann, Lee Fierro, Nour Sulaiman, Ian Chickering, Anthony Esposito, Adam Petkus, Gabrielle Whitcombe, Melissa McCormick, and the aforementioned producers Sara Nesson and Erik Lieblein.
“Everyone involved worked extremely hard,” Ms. Nesson said. “We had 14- to 16-hour shooting days and it was very cold in April. Islanders had responsibilities ranging from hair and makeup to art and set design to rigging equipment and props. Our PA’s did everything from transporting cast, running errands, picking up food, to cleaning sets. On location they were shooting production stills, operating the slate and logging takes and shot descriptions. Everyone was wearing many hats, doing whatever was needed to support the production.”
Former Charter School instructor Treather Gassmann was brought onboard to help recruit Island acting talent. Among many people she helped secure for the film was a young actress who deeply impressed the producers with her spunk and innate capability. “Braedyn Clark, who plays Sadie, completely blew us away with her natural ability,” said Ms. Nesson. “Everyone fell in love with her.”
“Erik was originally thinking older, but when he looked at a few of the girls I sent him we realized that he was looking for a strong younger girl who seemed old for her age,” Ms. Gassmann said. “She had to be independent and unafraid. He didn’t want a child ‘actor’ type, but a real, no-frills, almost tomboyish girl who wasn’t afraid to speak to adults. I knew Braedyn and thought of her immediately.”
“Treather showed me some pics on her phone and Braedyn popped up. That was it: game over. I had to meet her. I forwarded the pic to Bobby [director Robert Cole]and knew we had our ‘Sadie,’” said Mr. Lieblein, who swiftly auditioned and cast her.
Ms. Gassmann also suggested casting Island Theatre Workshop director Lee Fierro, but Lieblein was ahead of her, having been at work toward that goal for a while. Along with a number of other Islanders fortunate enough to have been recruited for “Jaws,” Ms. Fierro’s film credits include Steven Spielberg’s 70s blockbuster, a favorite of Mr. Lieblein’s. Being such an admirer of her and her portrayal of Amity Islander Mrs. Kintner, Mr. Lieblein actually crafted a role for her prior to her ever agreeing to be cast in “Off Season.”
After Ms. Fierro invited him to tea, Mr. Lieblein was able to give her a decent synopsis of the story and leave a script for her to consider. “She wasn’t all in at first, by any means,” Mr. Lieblein said. “She had very good questions, questions that we later answered.” Ultimately she accepted his offer and brought to bear not only her acting skills but her adeptness as a storyteller.
“She had a major impact on the writing of the ending,” Mr. Lieblein said.
In addition to Braedyn and Ms. Fierro, Ms. Gassmann suggested tapping Shawn Barber for the film.
“Shawn ‘Bones’ Barber and I met a couple of years back shingling for Mikey Hands in West Chop,” recalled Mr. Lieblein. “When I explained the role of ‘Walter’ to Treather, she brought up Bones. I laughed, in a good way, and said, ‘Can he act like he does in bars?’ He was a natural.”
Mr. Barber said there’s a lot to the character he identifies with. “Walter has a bit of a reputation as a bad guy, but you kind of end up liking him in the end,” he said. “He’s a spirited guy, but he’s also someone whose bravado and theater put a lot of people on edge, so he’s always got someone watching over his shoulder and acting as a buffer. I think we both understand a little theater goes a long way, until it doesn’t.”
Throughout the production, one Vineyarder’s knack for salty comedy proved as much of an asset as his dramatic abilities. Director Robert Cole found that by allowing Adam Petkus, the dispenser of that comedy, to improvise from time to time, the results were often better than could be anticipated. One such instance occurred during a shoot involving a landscapers’ party.
“After we got through the scripted material,” said Mr. Cole, “we kept the cameras on and had the actors go off book and do some ad-libbing. The character of Jimbo is cocky, overflowing with confidence, to the point where he hurts people without meaning to. Adam stayed in character almost as soon as he stepped on set and the verbal jabs and raunchy jokes he tossed at the other characters in the scene, particularly the main character, played by Jessica Osborne, were absolutely hysterical…totally priceless. Adam had us cracked up all night.”
Two Islanders who worked the production from behind the lights and cameras were Leah Bassett and Phil Kane. Aquinnah native Ms. Bassett applied her hairstyling, makeup, and fashion skills to the production. Ms. Nesson describes her as “one of the most lovely and underused talents on the Island.”
Mr. Kane, a Vineyard Havener, served as a jack of all trades on the film, doing everything from running extension cord to hunting for props to building all sorts of things. “The most technical was building a camera mount for a truck window so they could get a shot through the driver’s window while on the road,” he said.
Two off-Island actors have lent traditional Hollywood weight to the cast. Fans of the HBO series “Generation Kill” and the Netflix series “House of Cards” may recognize Chance Kelly, who plays Kellen, one of the lead characters in “Off Season.” Mr. Kelly is a versatile character actor and a veteran of several motion pictures, in addition to his television roles. Sosie Bacon, who the Hollywood Foreign Press Association named this year’s Miss Golden Globe, makes her thriller début in “Off Season,” playing the role of Cassie. The daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, she is described as “a total pro” by producer Dennis Rainaldi, who marveled at her steadfastness in the face of freezing rain, mud, and repeated pig swarms.
Zach Clark, who watched his daughter Braedyn working on various sets, sums up what an education the film has been: “It’s been an amazing experience for both of us. I’ve learned so much about the composition of producing a movie just from being around the crew, as has Braedyn. A perfect example, we were watching “The Great Outdoors,” the scene where John Candy and his son are sitting in the rowboat under the moon, just talking with each other, and Braedyn asks me, ‘Where’s the camera?’ She, just after a few weeks of being around the production of a movie, was analyzing another production, trying to understand how it was done.”
Once they capture the exteriors and pick-up shots they’re aiming for on the Vineyard, the filmmakers will fold those into an ongoing rough edit. “This will take place over the next several months,” Mr. Lieblein said, and added, “Blind Nomad Pictures is excited to return this spring.”
A complete motion picture is expected in the autumn.
To learn more about “Off Season,” visit offseasonthemovie.com, where access to the trailer (which includes a cameo of those West Tisbury pigs), a story brief, and specific film facts can be found.