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Local film pro leads blockbuster life

September 19, 2012
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Thom Willey of Southwest Harbor is aboard Ryan Post's lobsterboat, Instigator, for Anatomy of the Tide. Thom Willey of Southwest Harbor is aboard Ryan Post's lobsterboat, Instigator, for Anatomy of the Tide.

SOUTHWEST HARBOR Somewhere on the Maine coast, a middle-aged man, Rusty, shouts, 'It was a freak accident, Maynard! When are you going to get over that?!'

Maynard, seen in the film's frame from behind, grabs Rusty.

'You'll never know what it's like to see your only son's baseball cap float away with the tide, will ya?' he says, as Thom Willey, the production's first assistant cameraman, shifts the focus from Maynard to Rusty's face, which now dominates the frame and whose expression responds to Maynard's anguish.

Down below on the lobster boat, Willey, director of photography Daniel Stephens and sound guy Rob Sylvain are all squeezed into bunks and corners as two actors play out a traumatic scene practically nose-to-nose. There's no room for the camera crew to maneuver. The dark cabin is lit only by the daylight that filters through the hatch, making it tough to know if the shots were properly focused.

'We'd wing it,' Willey says. 'And then these guys acted their hearts out. They'd go and collect themselves or give us a minute. And I'd grab the camera and I'd get my eye up to the eyepiece and I'd play back the shot just to see it. There were one or two that were a little fuzzy, but most of them we were able to get.'

Willey is a highly experienced professional in the art of 'pulling focus,' a continually shifting and highly nuanced aspect of any film. The film is 'Anatomy of the Tide,' the latest production Willey has been involved in over more than 20 years in the industry. Most of the independent, made-in-Maine film was shot a year ago, although Willey was pulled in for a reshoot of one scene earlier this summer.

The movie, with a budget of $1 million, was written and directed by Joel Strunk, a tuna fisherman who fishes out of Rockland. The coming-of-age story tells about three island boys, in their final summer of adolescence, who play out hopes, dreams, dark secrets, tragedy and triumph.

Willey is the boyish-looking guy who owns Southwest Video, a video rental store in Southwest Harbor. He's also a lieutenant with the Southwest Harbor Volunteer Fire Department and has liked fire trucks since he was a kid. He was one of the firefighters who was nearly killed during the 2008 fire that destroyed three buildings in Northeast Harbor. He and others had just edged away from the flame when a massive explosion occurred from the rupture of a pressurized 250-pound, debris-covered propane tank, a situation called a 'boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion' or 'blevy.'

'We were quite close,' he says offhandedly.

As a focus-puller, Willey depends on his well-developed sense of distance estimation and pre-set marks from blocking rehearsals to accomplish the job, which is continually modified based on dialogue, actor movement, camera movement, the director of photography's directions and unforeseen circumstances. His main tools are tape measures and rangefinders. He must continually change the distance setting of the camera lens in correspondence to a moving subject's distance from the focal plane, while also keeping up with shifts from one subject to another within the frame. He checks his work through the camera's monitor, rather than directly through the viewfinder, which is the purview of the camera operator. He and the camera operator are joined at the hip.

'I don't like to really pull off the monitor. I like to look at the lens,' he says. 'If you pull off the monitor, you don't get a feel for the lens, and if it's soft on the monitor, it's already soft on your film or memory card.'

The key is the actor's eyes. In one scene, an actor walks away as Willey manipulates the focus while the camera is shooting over the shoulder of another. The scene is tightly shot and the focal plane is miniscule. Willey anticipates the timing as the first actor turns around and his eyes are seen again.

'I had to find him,' says Willey. 'It's a little soft. And then, Boom!'

His position is considered one of the most important jobs in the making of a movie. It must be precise. It can be affected by timing errors, missed marks, the considerations behind lens and aperture size and shot distances and minute details such as a bit of fluff stuck to the lens. The focus-puller is just as responsible for calling a scene to be reshot if some part of a take is 'soft' as the director or the actors are when the acting isn't the best.

'This is pulling focus,' says Willey, as he plays a scene from the trailer that shows two men talking on the beach. Seagulls squawk in the background. The camera is handheld and then cuts back to the dolly shot. 'I'm keeping him in focus. When he moves an inch forward, an inch back, half-foot forward, half-foot back, I have to adjust the lens to keep him in focus. You'll see this character make a turn, and he'll be shifting in focus.

'I had to look at the lens, realize the actor was moving and realize the camera was moving,' says Willey. 'So not only was it two feet away, but I had two planes moving, which I had to look at. Which is why the more depth of field you can get, the more things will be in focus, all without looking through the camera. That's when it gets technical. And there's a talent to it.'

Watching all the movies Willey has worked on is like watching a backlit shadow puppet screen with silhouettes of his life.

In the Coen Brothers' 1994 film 'The Hudsucker Proxy,' Willey is somewhere off to the side of the giant gear mechanism for the film's clock tower, an important visual motif, hauling on one of the ropes that swing the pendulum.

'It's in there. You'll never see us,' he says.

Willey was thrilled to be working for the Coens, no matter how minor his role on the crew.

'One time, I was pumping smoke into the set, and one of the Coen brothers peeked around the set. He just smiled at me and shook his head in approval and I thought, Well, what more could anyone ask?''

At his video store, Willey is workaday, stashing returns according to their genre, ringing up rentals. He has a way of forming his lower lip into a little V that makes him seem like he's on the verge of smiling. But he never really smiles, so customers might not be aware of the wildly happy grin that lights his face when he's on a film set. In the albums of memorabilia that he keeps at his house, countless buddy photos show him posed with behind-the-scenes personnel and famous actors, always smiling, his eyes dancing.

On a recent evening, Willey pulls out old newspaper clippings. In 1981, he's a seventh-grader who has won the award at his school's science fair for his exhibit on animated films. In 1993, he is one of two local filmmakers profiled on Maine Public Television's 'Wide Angle: Maine Film and Video.'

Albums full of memorabilia show the cover of the fear fiction magazine 'GoreZone' announcing 'Pet Sematary II: Ghouls' night out!' A storyboard is full of sketches that visually detail the shooting of a scene: 'Marjorie moves up the stairs,' 'Cut away to Marjorie's feet walking.'

A photo shows cameras, lights, an umbrella reflector, a couple of bounce boards, wires and the metal framework and strapping holding it all in place, atop heavy plywood on the hood of a red sports car for the Steve Carell comedy 'Dan in Real Life.' A Universal City Studios call sheet for a 'Rockford Files' reunion movie lists the sets, scenes and actors, including James Garner, needed for day 16 of the 1994 shoot: The interior of The Danish Coffee Shop must be completed.

There's a photo of a 1:24 scale model set of New York City skyscrapers for Hudsucker. A flyer announces a wrap party to celebrate the completion of 'Courage Under Fire.' The cover of 'TV Guide' features Colm Feore as the evil Andre Linoge from 'Storm of the Century' in 1999.

There's the image of a toy car that Willey and others mounted with a camera during their film school days at Ohio University. The school's master's degree program took three undergraduates each year; Willey was one of those undergrads.

'We didn't have a camera mount for the school cameras, so I took a bike rack and had a local boatyard build me a transit,' he says. 'We didn't tell them we were putting the camera on the side of the car. The film professors saw these shots and said, Wow, cool!' And then they asked us not to do it again. But we were guys who wanted to make movies and we knew what we had to do to get the shot.'

Completing his degree in 1990, Willey was headed back home to Southwest Harbor when he dropped off his resume at the production office of 'Graveyard Shift,' which was shooting in Bangor and was based on a Stephen King short story. Unimaginable horror was slated to come alive in the dead of night on locations that included the village of Harmony at the oldest woolen yarn mill in the United States, in Bangor at an abandoned waterworks and armory and near the Eastland woolen mill in Corinna, which subsequently became a Super Fund site.

'By the time I drove from Bangor to home, there was already a message on the machine,' Willey says. 'They were looking for a production assistant for the camera crew. So I went back the next day. The interview consisted of the director of photography just looking at me and going, OK.''

Director Ralph Singleton had Willey clapping the sticks and keeping up with the paperwork.

'I learned more in three weeks on a major feature film set than I did in four years of film school,' he says.

A year later, he was reading the Hollywood Reporter and discovered Singleton was down in Georgia, producing 'Pet Sematary II.' Willey called to apply for a job as camera assistant. The lady on the phone said there were already plenty of assistants in Atlanta.

'I thought, Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained,'' Willey says. 'So I bought a plane ticket, flew to Georgia from Maine, rented a car in Georgia, drove to the film studio and found the lady I talked to on the phone. She could have killed me. Her eyes just pierced me You crazy kid; what are you doing?''

Two and a half months worth of work landed in Willey's lap, 'because I bought the plane ticket, because I took the initiative,' he says.

Connections carry the industry. The director of second unit for 'Pet II' was Peter Chesney, who had a boat in Southwest Harbor. When Chesney flew off to work on Hudsucker, Willey figured he could use the Maine connection. He drove to North Carolina, got stopped at the Panavision lot, staked out the front gate one morning, and noticed that those who got in had red passes. Willey had an old red pass from Graveyard Shift, stuck that into his rearview mirror, and put on a hat that Chesney had given him that bore the name of the company Chesney worked for, Image Engineering.

'I waited for two cars to get in line, then I drove up,' he says. 'And when those cars went through, I just waved at the security guard and went right into the lot and parked. I just walked around until I found Image Engineering on the side of a truck and I walked in the truck and found Peter.'

In 1994, Willey drove off to Los Angeles.

'That's when I received the phone call that they were shooting a film in Maine,' he says. 'So I'd driven all the way across country looking for work, and I got the call for Langoliers,'' a two-part TV movie based on a Stephen King novel that was filming at the Bangor International Airport. Part of 'The Langoliers' set is still at the airport a plane that arrived in pieces from Arizona on eight tractor-trailer trucks.

Willey impressed his bosses, and was invited to L.A. to help shoot a 'Rockford Files' reunion movie for television. A year later, he stopped at a production office in Austin, Texas, where a TV movie called 'Tornado' was underway. The script was basically the same as the Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton storm-chasing blockbuster, 'Twister.' Again, Willey knew one of the directors. He was a shoo-in.

Willey got another big job in 1999, when the Stephen King moviemaking cabal dropped the horror TV miniseries 'Storm of the Century' right in his hometown.

The bulk of the shoot was in Canada, where tax incentives saved on production costs and where the look of the Maine coast was captured just as easily.

'Maine could do a little more to attract production to the state,' Willey says.

But many scenes were shot in Willey's backyard.

'I literally just walked out of my apartment, down the street and into the production office,' he says. As a local, he helped first with locations. When the camera crews arrived, he shifted jobs.

'It was a big, big, big deal,' he says of the production's arrival in town. Alterations were made to some of the buildings on Main Street, and a mock post office was built on the green. There wasn't enough snow, so enormous amounts of potato flakes were brought in, along with snow from parking lots in Ellsworth.

'It was funny. I had to scrape, like, three inches of potato flakes off my shoes. When I went back to the apartment, I could stand my coat up in the corner.'

Later, the crew moved to the shore road in Manset, where they were shooting toward the Moorings Restaurant.

'Being a member of the local fire department, I happened to have my pager on,' Willey recalls. 'We were shooting through a window, and smoke started coming out of the Moorings. The only reason I took notice of it was because they were the ones making our lunch for the shoot that day. So I said, Guys, that's a little too much smoke coming out of this restaurant.' And the fire pager goes off and yes, there's a fire in the kitchen at the Moorings Restaurant. I asked the director of photography, You know, we're just doing this one little shot. Maybe I could go save lunch.' He said, Yes, by all means.' So I ran down and waited for the fire trucks to show up, put on the fire gear, went in and we put out the fire. And I thought, This is an opportunity I cannot pass up.' So I walked back to the film set wearing my fire gear, the air bottle and everything, and walked up to the camera just like nothing had happened and started to pull focus for the shot. There were a couple of grip electrics there who had to get their photos taken with me. They just thought it was super funny.'

Not far away, in Eastport, Willey went to work on one of the first reality TV shows, 'Murder In Small Town X.' Subsequent years brought more TV movies and a TV series 'Frozen Impact,' 'Killer Flood: The Day the Dam Broke,' 'Bereft' and 'Landslide,' all shot in Vermont; and the film 'Finding Home,' shot on Deer Isle.

Willey was called to 'Finding Home,' which is about a family's troubled past on a remote island, when the project went over-schedule and the original crew had to take off for other films they had contracted for.

'They called me because their second AC was leaving, so I came,' he says.

Then the first AC had to leave as well, so Willey moved up. But that made him nervous, because he would be working under Doug Hart, one of the most respected figures in camera assisting/operating/cinematography circles. Willey had taken a class from Hart, who is a teacher at what was then called the International Film and Television Workshop, and is now the Maine Media Workshops, in Rockport.

'He literally wrote the book about being a camera assistant,' Willey says. 'I got really intimidated: Wait a minute, I'm going to be working for Doug Hart? You want me to work for the man who wrote the book?''

Hart showed up.

'I was super-stressed. I was trying to do the best job I could. We were down at the dock. It was the same house where Mel Gibson shot Man Without A Face' on Deer Isle, humping cases back and forth. And I hear this voice. Thom, sit down. You're making me tired.' The more we worked together, the more fun it became, and I realized how easy it was to work for him. We did three more movies together.'

The Steve Carell comedy 'Dan in Real Life,' underway in Rhode Island, came calling in 2006. On that set, Willey ran into a grip who looked familiar.

'We worked together for a few days, and we said, Where are you from?'' he recalls. 'I told him I lived in Southwest Harbor. You should have seen the guy's face. He pointed at me and said, You're that guy! I knew that I knew you!' And then he started telling the whole crew. Yeah, we were shooting this thing and the restaurant started to burn and Thom took off, went and put it out, and came back in all this fire gear!''

Willey could have chosen a different lifestyle. He could have moved to industry hotspots such as New York or Los Angeles, where he'd have full-time work in the profession. Or he could have been a nomad, traveling from one production to the next.

Early on, he got a taste of the nomadic life, as part of 'a very large small community, where everybody kind of knows everybody and that's when the calls start coming.'

And early on, he realized that his family in Maine was more important than a career elsewhere.

'I wanted to be close by,' he says. 'I literally chose family over industry. My career would be much different if I'd stayed in LA or New York. But do I want to stay in LA or New York? Yeah, you get the connections, but I wanted to be around as much as I could for my family. I met a director of photography at the workshops, and he literally got on his knees and bowed in front of me, because I didn't make the decision to take industry over family.'

Sometimes, he's asked if he'd like to direct or write. But camera assistant is fine, he says.

'I like being below the line, as it were, in the thick of production,' he says. 'It's interesting, it's fun, it's a lot of work, it's physically demanding but the rewards are usually worth it. I remember my dad, the first time he saw my name on the screen, that's all I needed. He was proud of his son. That's my son up there!' Dan in Real Life' premiered in Bangor and I took the family up to watch it. Proud dad was walking out of the movie theater and he told the usher, My son filmed the movie!' So this usher started yelling at us, Hey! Hey, you!' I turned around and he said, You filmed that movie?' I said, Yeah.' He said, Well, that's illegal. You can't do that. Where's your camera?' It took a few minutes of telling the guy that, no, I was part of the camera crew that helped shoot the movie. I didn't film it while we were watching it in the theater. I had to go and talk to proud dad and say, Dad, next time you mention that to somebody in the movie theater, you may just want to tell them that I was a member of the camera crew.'

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 September 2012 12:24

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