In fall 2009, a one-car garage in Milton blasted off, bound for Mars.
Well, not exactly. The garage, belonging to writer-star-composer-editor-producer Stephen J. Maas, played a starring role in Tin Can, a local feature film about an ill-fated Mars mission. It became the detailed spaceship set where Maas, director Logan Howe, and their small cast and crew shot most of the close-quarters psychological drama.
“Everything was lit up; there were wires everywhere,” recalls Howe. “It was the middle of the winter, absolutely freezing. Everyone bundled up, and there were space heaters running when the cameras weren’t rolling. That’s filmmaking in Vermont.”
Maas and Howe hope Tin Can will have viewers beyond Vermont, too. They’re wrapping up postproduction on the film, which took about two and a half years to complete, and have submitted it to the Toronto, Tulsa and Boston film festivals. The Vermont International Film Festival is next.
Tim Kavanagh, former host of local talk show “Late Night Saturday,” says some distributors showed interest after seeing the film’s initial trailer. Kavanagh — who has a celebrity cameo of sorts in Tin Can, along with his “LNS” set — plans to try to sell them on the finished product.
The movie sprang from a discussion between Maas and Howe about Mars-exploration advocate Robert Zubrin. From his work they drew ideas of what such a mission would entail, from a viable spaceship to terraforming equipment. “We were both fascinated,” says Howe. Maas wrote a script with a part for Howe as the ex-girlfriend who haunts one of the astronauts’ memories. Then he asked her to direct it.
Though Howe had studied film at Emerson College and directed shorts, Tin Can was her “debut for all intents and purposes,” says the 35-year-old mom, who lives in Shelburne. (She and her husband, John, recently purchased Williston’s Rocky’s Pizza.)
Tin Can has flashback scenes set outside the spaceship Cercopes, but most of it takes place in its namesake tin can — the tiny compartment where three astronauts fret, bicker and deal with escalating levels of equipment malfunction. Riley (Eric Clifford) is a loose cannon who torments the quieter, moody Kenneth (Jayson Argento). Bennett (Maas) seems to be stolidly keeping it together, but memories and visions plague him. Only gradually does the viewer piece the clues together and figure out why.
While the ultra-low-budget film isn’t quite on the same level as claustrophobic science-fiction flicks such as Duncan Jones’ Moon and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, it recalls them in its tense, low-key performances and convincing environment. Howe says she designed the set using Google SketchUp and “spent two weeks poring over the most realistic way to lay it out.” In a post on the film’s blog, Maas describes the ultraviolet “space shower” he cooked up to solve the problem of the astronauts’ personal hygiene.
Howe says at least half of the film’s approximately $5000 budget went into the set, which took 10 months to construct. The total cast and crew numbered 15 to 20, but only a few people were in the garage on a typical day of shooting. Using a Panasonic DVX 100a camera, Howe shot through vents on the walls of the set, so the viewer seems to be surveilling the astronauts. “I wanted it to be enclosed,” Howe says. Without a camera directly in front of them, the actors “could really put themselves in that physical and mental space.”
If the shooting process was drawn out — sometimes just one day a week — so was the editing. Howe and Maas cut the two-hour film significantly after an initial screening last October; in May they screened the new, 85-minute Tin Can for friends and family at the Majestic 10.
The reception was warm for this home-grown space odyssey. “Part of the great thing about filmmaking in Vermont,” says Howe, “is the great network of people. Everyone wants to help out, and everyone usually does.”