Losing Light in the Catskills

“Phoenicia gets dark!” an actor was telling me on the phone a week and a half ago. “The sun goes down over that mountain, and it gets dark!”

“She’s a real Copernicus,” I thought to myself. Of course it gets dark! And of course we had an eye on sunrise and sunset times, and knew what we were facing. I chalked the seriousness in her voice up to nerves. In the weeks before a film shoot, actors start thinking about how to make sense of the details of a script, and their pleas for clarification become more urgent. They are, after all, the ones who risk looking like fools. Very often bad writing or indecisive direction comes across like bad acting to a viewer.

We were planning a three-day shoot a half hour west of Woodstock, New York, around a string of towns along Route 28 and the Esopus Creek, including Phoenicia. When I wrote the first draft of the script back in March, I imagined a June shoot, with 14 hours of daylight, and crew delighted to be outdoors. I also imagined Washington County, the rolling hills and dairy country near the Vermont border.

The story required a sense of isolation and being up a big hill, out of cell phone range. For practical reasons we needed a place with cheap lodging nearby, and within a reasonable drive from New York City. The nearest place we found was around Phoenicia, which is just two and a half hours.

Chris Bolan, foreground, in the short film with the working title "Cell Phone Range."

Chris Bolan, foreground, in the short film with the working title “Cell Phone Range.”

It was gratifying to see my partners working so hard to get details of my script right, even incidental ones such as stone fences in the middle of the woods. The valleys that run into the Hudson are long-trodden places, full of the ruins of obsolete economies: old canal locks and railroad beds, pastures full of trees, ruined barn foundations and resorts, and water-powered mills in improbable places. It’s the first de-industrialized region in North America, and for that reason it feels haunted. Even when you’re alone there, you feel like you’ve gone to a place where generations before you have gone to be alone.

I’m proud to say my partners Teddy Schenck (director) and Matthew Wiesner (producer) and especially the photographer Marco Franzoni seemed to get that atmosphere right. It was a lucky accident that we shot our short there so late in the fall. Summer is the obvious choice, from a production standpoint, on account of those long days, and fall foliage season – though that was our general aim during pre-production – has a garish quality of its own.

Winter comes there about three weeks ahead of the city, and the trees had already lost most of their leaves, leaving a brown palate with rusty reds and golds on the bushes, while the moss and ferns were still a brilliant green. If the story is about a journalist who goes to find a Hollywood star who’s quit the hustle to hide and recharge herself, then we found the right background.

The problem, as I realized on my solo scouting day just three days before the shoot, was that the actor was right. It does get dark in Phoenicia! The Catskill Mountains around the Esopus make an unusually steep valley. The shadows start growing around 1pm, and just six weeks before the solstice the sun “sets” around 3:30, and the crew would start muttering “We’re losing light.”

Strictly speaking there’s a difference between a true sunset and a Phoenicia sunset. The sun didn’t fall past the horizon, it fell past the mountain, and this difference made our film possible. It left us another 90 minutes of twilight. Though we didn’t have the leisurely 14 hours of daylight I imagined when I wrote the first draft, we still had close to nine, and for most of our shoot, we were lucky to have cloud cover, which diffused the light and softened what would have been obvious differences in time.

After two days we realized we had to act like we were losing light while the sun was still rising. The crew responded with big hearts, and most stuck around for a few extra hours of shooting on Sunday morning.

Would some of the scenes, especially the performances, have benefitted from relaxing the schedule and getting more takes? Most definitely. Would I ever make another film in Phoenicia in November again? Only if the story takes place in an empty hotel at night. But this one is shot, thanks to dozens of supporters and the hard work of several artists, and sometime in 2016 it’s going to take viewers to a special place and time of year I love.

Comments

  1. Soham Mehta says:

    Congrats Charlie! It was already on the page, and now it’s in the can. Now on to the next phase, get it in the cut.

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