On a recent Sunday, snow drifts made it hard to open the back door of the Coach Barn at Shelburne Farms. Maybe that was for the best, since the Victorian stable’s interior, always a little gothic, had been transformed into something very gothic. Crucifixes dangled from hooks on a blood-red wall. A golden door bore arcane lettering. In a room equipped with shackles on the floor, dramatic lighting pierced the gloom.
This was the set of “Soul Keeper,” a short film adapted from a story by local folklore chronicler Joe Citro. Unlike much of Citro’s work, this one is pure fiction — the Misery-like tale of a young hell-raiser imprisoned by a mysterious man who tells him he’s dead and must atone to save himself from damnation.
In the roughly 20-minute cinematic version, directed by Tim Joy of Middlebury from a script by Ben Hardy and John Oliver, local actors Andy Butterfield and Paul Schnabel (of the Riot Group) play captive and captor, respectively. As other cinephiles got ready to watch the Oscars, this crew was wrapping up an intense weekend of shooting on the windswept Webb estate.
While director of photography Michael Fisher and other crew members worked on setting up the next shot, Butterfield got shackle marks painted on his ankle by Rebecca Reil of Burlington’s Triptych Creations. Then Reil and art director Daniel Sparling smeared dirt all over him.
Nearby, Citro himself watched the preparations, snapping photos. His works have been optioned for film many times, the white-bearded writer said, but “Soul Keeper” is the “first one likely to reach the screen, and I’m particularly pleased these guys are doing it.”
The crew was mostly young and local, but not novice or unprepared. According to Joy, the film’s shooting budget of “under $15,000” came largely from the Stowe-based John M. Bissell Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2009 to promote Vermont filmmaking. To get a cinematic look, Joy — whose shorts have been screened at the Vermont International Film Festival — was using the Canon 7D, which he described as “a still camera that happens to shoot amazing HD video, as well.”
After the crew tested its strobe light — “Watch your eyes!” — and started the smoke machine, Butterfield, clad only in briefs, stretched out on the hardwood floor. The camera rolled, the “lightning” flashed, and the prisoner groaned, threw off his open shackle and crawled toward the door.
To freedom? To heaven or hell? Locals will have to wait till the end of summer to find out, when Joy hopes to have a “big premiere” of “Soul Keeper” at the Majestic 10, then submit it to festivals. Watch this space for updates.
See a teaser at soulkeepermovie.com.