Joseph A. Citro’s spooky novels are inarguably cinematic. His first, Shadow Child, was optioned by Miramax. Other books, including his nonfiction explorations of bizarre New England tales, have been transformed into scripts but never filmed. When director Tim Joy of Middlebury-based Projection Films asked to make a short based on Citro’s story “Soul Keeper,” the author gave the go-ahead on one condition. “In an effort to ensure the success of the project, I’ve kept as far away from it as possible,” says Citro.
Whether or not due to Citro’s distance, “Soul Keeper” has come to fruition; it will premiere locally on Saturday, October 22, at the Palace 9 Cinemas as part of the Vermont International Film Festival. Citro also credits Joy’s ingenuity. “Tim Joy, I’m convinced, is some kind of a genius. He actually constructed a little remote-control helicopter to make the spectacular aerial shots to get them on tape,” he says. “He’s doing it all from a drone.”
The fundraising clout and acting skills of Joy’s coproducers, and two of the movie’s stars, Tim Kavanagh and Andrew Butterfield, probably didn’t hurt, either. One hefty grant came from the John M. Bissell Foundation of Stowe, a nonprofit founded to promote Vermont filmmaking. “We had a pretty sizable budget to work with on this film,” says Butterfield.
Butterfield first encountered “Soul Keeper” when the film’s future cinematographer, Michael Fisher, lent him a copy of Citro’s collection Not Yet Dead. Citro originally self-published the book on his imprint, Bat Books, as a limited-edition treat for fans to purchase at his readings and appearances. Now he has made it available online, along with a $1.99 standalone download of the short-story “Soul Keeper,” and a pair of essays about the story’s journey to film and Citro’s lifelong passion for scary tales.
“Soul Keeper” follows Carl Congdon (Butterfield) as he descends into alcoholism, crashes his car and is captured by a brand-wielding old man (local stage veteran Paul Schnabel) who claims that Carl died in the accident and must repent to avoid hell. At a reading in February 2009, Joy, Butterfield and three other future crew members decided that the horror story set in the Northeast Kingdom would be their next film. Shooting began last spring. During a phone interview last week, Butterfield said that Joy was still working on the final edit, but that it will be ready in time for the premiere.
Citro will read from “Soul Keeper” before the first Burlington-area showing of the film. The evening will end with a Q&A session with Citro and the producers: The writer will offer his take on seeing his words finally hit the screen, and they’ll cover the process that got them there.
Butterfield says Joy is submitting “Soul Keeper” to all the major festivals, but he and the producers have bigger plans. The film’s running time is 24 minutes, the standard for half-hour episodic television, and the team hopes the short will serve as a calling card to the Syfy cable channel. Ideally, Butterfield envisions the channel bankrolling five more episodes of a miniseries based on the five other stories in Not Yet Dead.
Even if cable isn’t in the cards for “Soul Keeper,” Butterfield plans to explore DVD sales of the film, perhaps packaging it with some of Citro’s work. The author says he’d be proud for the film to join his oeuvre. “I’m really happy that [in] the first thing to reach the screen, they’re all Vermonters,” says Citro, a Chester native who lives in Burlington. He feels his works “really should take place in Vermont and be developed by Vermonters for the atmosphere and everything. I’m really thrilled with how it turned out.”
Vermont International Film Festival, Friday, October 21, to Sunday, October 30. For venues and schedule, see vtiff.org. $7-10; Vermont Filmmakers’ Showcase is free.