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.
Two young men are on a boat which is, in reality, tied to a dock, but seems to be underway, accompanied by the music of mournful bagpipes. Willey has a sharp focus on the hard-knock face of Donny, a shaggy-haired guy, who is shadowed with a play of light on his neck, seen left of the frame’s center.
“It’s a big moon,” Donny tells Kyle, who is seen in half profile in softer focus. “Okay? It’s big enough to see even during the light of day. And a moon like that controls the water.”
A newspaper is thrown on a table, flashing the headline, “State officials to regulate lobster traps.” Crickets chirp. Church bells ring a portent.
Kyle walks down a trail through a field, looking thoughtful, hands in pockets, his movement tracked by a camera on a dolly. He stops and gazes down at the harbor. The frame slowly fills with a shot of only his eyes, as the dolly pushes in toward him.
A coil of fishing line on a lobsterboat’s deck snarls a boy – a young Maine actor – and pulls him, screaming, overboard. The camera crew lies on the deck to work the camera, which is propped on a sandbag. An unseen stuntman, positioned on the far side of the deck, pulls the rope that is tied to the ankles of the screaming boy, who wears protective kneepads hidden under his rubber raingear to prevent injury.
In a church, the art department has cut off the striking side of a matchbox and fixed it to the doorframe. Donny, in shadow, a grim expression on his face, strikes a match, seemingly against the doorframe itself. The camera goes in for an extreme close-up to catch the way half his face lights up with the flaring match.
Down below on the lobsterboat, 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 firetrucks 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.
“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.”
He and the camera operator are joined at the hip. Often, the focus is on the “lowest number on the call sheet,” which is usually the star.
“So if you’re shooting a scene and there are two or three actors in it and you’re not sure who should be in focus, go for the biggest name, a mentor, camera assistant Doug Hart, always told me,” Willey says. “But that’s just a failsafe. It’s the director of photography’s choice.”
For Anatomy, Willey kept continual tabs on the wishes of his DP, Daniel Stephens.
“We were shooting a bar scene; there was not a lot of light,” he says. “They were playing pool. The camera was handheld. We were just getting bits and pieces of what we could get. That was a case where a monitor on the camera was good because I could see what he was framing. Our eyes would meld together and I would know where to go with the focus, whether I wanted to go deep or go shallow.”
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 much 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.
As a low-budget film, Anatomy used just one camera, so the crew did multiple perspectives multiple times. More money on bigger studio films means two and sometimes three cameras. There might be both a first and second unit, the first dealing with the actors, the second shooting stuff like landscapes, cutaways, a hand opening a door.
The director of photography has a gaffer, who’s in charge of the electricians, who position the lights. The DP is also in charge of the camera crew – the camera operator, first assistant cameraman/focus-puller, and second assistant cameraman. The first AC is never more than arm’s length from the camera – “another Doug Hartism,” says Willey. The second AC delivers fresh film magazines, deals with the paperwork of how much film was shot and what the scene was, claps the sticks – the iconic clapperboard essential in helping to synchronize picture and sound, gives the marks, moves support equipment as the camera moves, and hauls cases of lenses.
“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 promised to never take Kyle out on the boat…” the actor, James Colby, says. “Here we go again.”
“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.”
Moviegoers may not realize that they’re being encouraged to focus on one character versus another.
“Oh, start looking,” says Willey. “You watch any TV right now, you’ll see the focus shift all the time.”
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.
The viewer might not even notice the pendulum.
“The shots they used have the clock and the gears moving, so the pendulum is not the focal point,” he says.
In film school, Willey had seen Raising Arizona, the Coen Brothers’ second major film. The cult hit is about a criminal recidivist who, with his policewoman wife, kidnaps one of the “Arizona quintuplets,” infant sons of a magnate. Blackmail, robbery, anti-theft dye cannisters, and football stardom ensue.
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 pleasant and workaday, stashing returns according to their genre, ringing up rentals. Usually there’s a poster on his counter about the latest projects of the town’s junior firefighters. 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.
Willey lives up a narrow side road that leads past the old masonry business started by his grandfather, Guilford B. Willey, in the 1940s. His father, Shirley “Shirl” Willey, and uncle Bert Willey took it over while his mother, Alberta ran a sewing shop downtown. His father died in 2010, his uncle retired, and the cement block building is now a centerpiece for weeds and junked equipment.
On a recent evening during a downpour, after picking up his teenage daughter Cara from her summer job, Willey heads home and pulls out some old newspaper clippings of his childhood exploits. In 1981, he’s a seventh-grader, wearing thick glasses, who has won the award at his school’s science fair for his exhibit on animated films, which he made when he went to check out a commercial that was being filmed at Noel Paul Stookey’s animation studio in Blue Hill.
“Willey displayed the step-by-step film-making process and showed a short moon landing cartoon he had animated,” the clipping says.
In 1993, he is one of two local filmmakers profiled on Maine Public Television’s Wide Angle: Maine Film and Video. The photo shows a young, skinny man with big eyes, posing with the sticks. By that time, he’d worked on the Stephen King movies Pet Sematary II and Graveyard Shift, and on The Hudsucker Proxy.
There are several fat albums, stuffed with behind-the-scenes photos and memorabilia. The cover of the fear fiction magazine GoreZone features a splatter zombie with rotting teeth, but also announces Pet Sematary II: “Ghouls’ night out!” A storyboard is full of sketches, divided into comic book-like segments, 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 (“Rockford pieces together Danny’s investment with Acropolis Pictures); then the exterior of the coffee shop (Rockford parks car, grabs Angel, and demands “Who killed Danny?”)
A poster of Stephen King’s The Langoliers tells viewers to fasten their seat belt. A photograph from the Gulf War film Courage Under Fire shows a crashed helicopter shrouded in smoke. A photograph of Southwest Harbor shows Main Street covered in potato flakes, the stand-in for snow, and filled with filmmaking gear, trailers, traffic cones, and tarpaulins under a lowering sky, for King’s Storm of the Century.
There’s a photo of a 1:24 scale model set of New York City skyscrapers for Hudsucker. A sign used on the airplane for Langoliers instructs “Tie curtain open during taxi, takeoff, and landing.” A flyer announces a wrap party, at Los Bandidos De Carlos and Mickey’s in El Paso, Texas, with music, food and spirits, to celebrate the completion of Courage. The cover of TV Guide features a photo of Colm Feore as the evil Andre Linoge from Storm in the Feb. 13-19, 1999 issue, announcing “Exclusive! The fright master on his terrifying new miniseries. Plus: The stars, scares and secrets.” Photographs show the camera department’s trailer decked with strings of holiday lights and décor; tall towers that spin out fake rain; and the remote-controlled model of the Oscar Meyer Weiner mobile, which Willey helped shoot for a commercial in Monument Valley.
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.
“When an abandoned textile mill is reopened,” says Wikipedia, “several employees meet mysterious deaths. The link between the killings: all occurred between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. – the Graveyard Shift.”
Unimaginable horror comes 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, ‘Okay.’”
The movie was under the direction of Ralph Singleton, who had Willey doing production assistant stuff such as clapping the sticks and keeping up with the mountain of paperwork behind each scene.
“I learned more in three weeks on a major feature film set than I did in four years of film school,” he says. “I knew why I was going for a polarizer and I knew how the mechanics worked, but the process of making a motion picture is completely its own entity.”
A year later, he was reading the Hollywood Reporter and discovered that Singleton was down in Georgia, producing Pet Sematary II, the 1992 sequel to the 1989 horror adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name.
Wikipedia: Jeff and his father, Chase, are at their summer house. Jeff learns about family murders and a cursed burial ground. Zowie the dog is shot, buried at the burial ground, and returns from the dead. Zowie kills. Gus returns to life as a sadistic zombie. Jeff’s mother returns to life and kills. Jeff and Chase move to Los Angeles to start a new life.
Willey called the production office in Georgia to apply for a job as camera assistant. The lady on the phone said there were already plenty of camera 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?’”
Willey found out that some of the Graveyard guys were on the Pet II shoot. The others heard Willey was in the building; they all circled the corridors and found each other. Willey volunteered to work for a week, just to get more experience. He was given the job of assistant to the second assistant cameraman for the second unit, which was special effects and animals and stunt drivers and cars and accidents. Then the second AC headed off to Los Angeles to film aerials. So 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, a special effects coordinator, producer, and second unit director of major Hollywood films. One day in Georgia, Willey peeked over Chesney’s shoulder at some paperwork he was doing, and noticed that it referred to a boat he was storing at Jarvis Newman’s boat shop in Southwest Harbor. Chesney went off to work at the Coen Brothers’ 1994 film, The Hudsucker Proxy, in North Carolina.
Wikipedia: Innocent Norville Barnes works in the mailroom at Hudsucker Industries. Nice Waring Hudsucker throws himself out a window. Evil Sidney Mussburger promotes Norville to president. Brassy reporter Amy Archer searches for clues. Moses operates the clock tower. Norville invents the hula hoop. Mussburger’s plan fails. Norville slips from a window ledge. Moses stops the clock. Time freezes. Hudsucker appears as an angel and saves the day.
Willey figured he could use the Maine connection with Chesney to get a job on Hudsucker, but he didn’t have Chesney’s number. So 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, ready to work but also fine with just visiting friends he’d met on various sets.
“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 that summer.
Wikipedia: On a cross-country red-eye, passengers awaken to find that the crew and fellow passengers have disappeared. The plane lands at an empty airport. Have they flown through a time rip? Craig goes insane, stabs Dinah and kills Don. Dinah telepathically communicates with Craig. Hundreds of creatures head for the plane, consuming everything in their path. Bob says the Langoliers are the timekeepers of eternity. The plane flies back through the time rip. Bob realizes they should be asleep to survive. Nick volunteers to fly the plane, knowing he will die. Nick vanishes. The plane lands. A flash hits the passengers and they are in the present.
Part of The Langoliers set is still at the airport – a plane that arrived in pieces from Arizona on eight tractor-trailer trucks.
“We assembled them in one of the hangars,” Willey says. “And then we cut them up, so they could be pulled apart and put together if we wanted to shoot a certain angle. I think they use them for fire training now.”
The director of photography on Langoliers was Paul Maibaum, who has worked on nearly 100 films, and who is now shooting Sons of Anarchy, a TV show about a biker gang. Maibaum’s first assistant, Doug Adam Jr., is a stickler for accuracy, and Adam pushed Willey. Apparently, Willey impressed. After Langoliers, Adam invited Willey to Los Angeles to help shoot a Rockford Files reunion movie, A Blessing In Disguise, for television.
Wikipedia: Eight Rockford TV movies were made from 1994 to 1999, reuniting most of the cast from the show, which ran from 1974 to January 1980 and featured James Garner as Los Angeles-based private investigator Jim Rockford, who had a famous evasive maneuver that involved speeding backwards in his gold Pontiac Firebird, sharply turning, spinning 180, and shifting to speed forward.
During the filming of the movie, Garner’s vision was partly obscured, while he was driving the famous Firebird, by two cameras mounted on the hood.
“He ran into a guy,” Willey recalls. The guy “flipped right up over the hood of the car. Shut down production for the day. Made national news, I think.”
The guy was okay.
“He turned out to be an illegal. The scuttlebutt around the crew was he did it on purpose – the guy, not James Garner.”
A year later, Willey was driving cross-country when he stopped at a production office in Austin, Texas, where a TV movie called Tornado was underway.
Wikipedia: “Whoa! It’s like a tornado out here!”
The script was basically the same as the Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton storm-chasing blockbuster, Twister. The production studio was eager to get Tornado on TV before Twister came out, Willey recalls.
“I walked through the door, said, ‘Hey, I’m looking for work,’” he says. “They said, ‘Well, the director of photography is in the other room. Do you want to meet him?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ They went and got him and out pops Paul Maibaum. He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m looking for work.’ I said, ‘Did I find any?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you did.’”
Willey continued on west to El Paso, where a film crew needed an assistant for the movie Courage Under Fire.
Wikipedia: In one of the first films to depict the 1991 Gulf War, Serling is involved in a friendly fire incident. Boylar’s parents are told their son was killed by enemy fire. Later, Serling must determine if Walden should posthumously receive the Medal of Honor. Ilario praises Walden. Monfriez calls Walden a coward. Monfriez lied to rescuers, telling them Walden was dead. A-10s napalm the wreckage. Serling leaks the story to prevent another cover-up. Monfriez commits suicide. Ilario goes AWOL. Serling tearfully tells the Boylars the truth.
“They needed someone to help on video assist, just to move the monitor around. After that was done, I went to camera,” Willey says. “That shoot was so remote because it had to look like Iraq. We’d get up at 4:30 or 5, travel 45 minutes to the set, and set up camera equipment. There were stuntmen everywhere, and firearms, and helicopters flying over shooting rockets, and cameras on cranes. At one point, we had 12 cameras going for a shot that’s supposed to be a napalm run from a jet. The effects guys filled four-inch PVC pipe full of gasoline and wrapped it in primacord. We had two or three cameras on helicopters, and other cameras on the ground, and we were running around trying to turn on all the cameras. It was a trick to get everything on in time, before they touched it off. They touched off this giant explosion of fire and flame. It was quite incredible.”
The crew and actors would finish a day’s shoot and head back to the hotel long after hours.
“We’d be lucky if we found anything to eat,” he says. “We’d have a drink in the bar, go to sleep and then get up and do it all over again.”
A few times at the hotel, Willey got to ride in the elevator with Meg Ryan down to the bus. One day he wrapped early enough to go back in the cast van, and found himself talking with Matt Damon.
“I had no idea who he was,” Willey says. “He and Ben Affleck had only done a few things at the time. I was trying to work movies more than watch them, at the time.”
The crew was usually treated to the sight of Lou Diamond Phillips, in the cast van, mooning the larger crew bus every morning.
“I’d be sitting there half-awake, and they’d say, ‘Oh, here he comes again.’ And the van came by with Lou Diamond Phillips’ butt in the window, stuck there, every day.”
After some commercials and a Suzanne Somers cable movie, Willey got his next big job in 1999, when the Stephen King moviemaking cabal dropped the horror TV miniseries Storm of the Century right in his hometown.
Wikipedia: A blizzard hits Little Tall Island. All access is blocked. Linoge brutally murders a resident, knows everyone’s darkest secrets, enchants the small children, desires an heir, reveals his true form as a dying man, and says he needs someone to carry on his work. The townspeople agree. Parents draw from Linoge’s sack of “weirding stones.” One parent draws the black stone and her child is taken. Linoge flies off with his protégé. Some Little Tall folk commit suicide.
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, which meant seven months of work at home.
“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 firetrucks 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.”
Willey has an idea he’d like to take King out for lunch one day, just to thank him for all the paychecks that have come his way as a result of the author’s various enterprises.
“Graveyard Shift was responsible for my first car,” he says. “Indirectly, Pet II helped start to build my house. Langoliers helped pay for more of the house and another car. And Storm of the Century helped me make my own documentary. For a while there, my resume was this big Stephen King horror show. People would say, ‘Is that all you do?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I live in Maine. Of course, that’s all I do.’ I always wanted to ask him, ‘Maybe I can just buy you a burger at Dysart’s. Just sit and tell you the stories I’ve seen, because of you.’”
Not far away, in Eastport, Willey went to work on one of the first reality TV shows, Murder In Small Town X.
Wikipedia: Contestants converge to be amateur investigators and solve fictional murders. One investigator discovers clues and the other is “murdered” from the show, in the manner of classic slasher films. Ángel Juarbe, Jr., a Bronx firefighter, was the last surviving investigator.
The crew was not allowed to talk with the “investigators,” Willey says. But he recalls striking up a conversation with Juarbe, because they were both firefighters.
“That was 2000. He was kind of a celebrity,” he says.
“Then they said it was a larger aircraft, and by the time I was past Bangor, the radio went dead,” he recalls. “Angel was in the Marriott Hotel when the second tower went down. They found him in December. He was the way a firefighter would be; he looked invincible. He was helping to save lives.”
The Southwest Harbor Volunteer Fire Department’s new ladder truck was numbered 112 in honor of Juarbe’s unit, Ladder 12. Juarbe had given Willey a T-shirt.
“I wear that shirt one day a year, every Sept. 11,” he says.
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.
Wikipedia: Dan is a newspaper columnist, widower, and controlling father. There’s a family get-together. His daughter Cara doesn’t want to go. He makes her. Dan and Marie feel a connection, but her boyfriend is his brother, Mitch. Cara’s boyfriend shows up. Dan kicks him out. Dan serenades Marie in front of Mitch. Marie and Dan kiss. Mitch punches Dan. Dan gets Marie. Dan’s column is chosen for national syndication. The film opened in 2007 and ranked number two.
Willey got the call in the middle of Southwest Harbor’s haunted hayride, which he was helping to run as one of the fire department’s community events.
“I had to bail,” he says. “I was there the night of the hayride, but had to leave the next morning, so I couldn’t help with the cleanup.”
Most of Willey’s jobs come through the back door. Dan was no exception.
“The industry is so word-of-mouth. ‘We need someone to fill this camera position. Who do you know? Who’s good?’” Willey says. “They called people in Rhode Island, but everyone was busy. So he obtained a list from the camera union. He got my name from the list, found out I knew Doug, and talked with him about me.”
On the 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.”
Early on, he realized how happy he was behind the camera.
“We were shooting Pet II in Georgia,” he says. “We had two cameras mounted on top of this truck, and we were flying down an industrial parkway at about 60 miles per hour, two stuntmen in front of us, one in a truck, one in a station wagon, banging against each other, trying to drive each other off the road. And I started to grin. I looked over my shoulder, and the first AC said, ‘It’s hit you, hasn’t it?’ I couldn’t even say anything. All I could do was shake my head and smile from ear to ear, because we were actually doing that. How often do you get to do something like that? How often do you get to meet some of these people? How often do you get to shoot in these locations with these actors, and find yourself in the most interesting of situations?”
And early on, he realized that his family in Maine was more important than a career elsewhere.
His roots are deep. His ancestor Ichabod Willey founded Cherryfield in the 1700s.
“I tell everyone he had a little incident upstate New York at Halloween. He disappeared, came to Maine, and changed his name,” Willey says.
His grandfather moved from Cherryfield to Southwest Harbor in the 1920s.
Other ancestors lived in Crawford Notch, in New Hampshire. That’s where a rockslide killed the Samuel Willey family in 1826. The family fled their home during the storm to a prepared shelter but were buried by the slide and died in a mass of stone and rubble. Their home was untouched. Mount Willey is named in their memory.
“I’m still researching this, this but I think it’s where the term ‘It gave me the willies’ came from. You think about this landslide going around the house, and if they’d only stayed in the house, they’d be alive. I could be barking up the wrong tree, but it’s still a good story.”
Willey married and started to build his house on family land. He bought the video store in 2003 to get an income stream going in-between shoots, and he and his wife adopted two daughters.
“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 write or direct. In 1998, he did write and produce his own film, a 30-minute documentary about Richard Estes, one of the world’s foremost photo-realists, who has a home in Northeast Harbor.
Willey arrived at the idea when he was on the roof of Estes’ house.
“I was with my dad, the stonemason,” he says. “The chimney blew over in a big storm. So we were standing on the roof in the rain and I said, ‘Has anybody ever made a documentary about you?’ Nope. ‘Would you like somebody to?’ He was curious about the process. So we took a day and did an interview on 16-millimeter film.”
The film describes Estes’ influences and techniques, his boyhood home in Illinois and his life as an artist in New York and Maine, and how he creates his urban landscapes and other works. The film was aired on PBS, but Willey aims to shoot more footage one day.
But as far as production work goes, 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.”