PORTLAND, Maine — On Christmas morning, Jeff Day was not to be found carving the holiday ham or unwrapping presents. Instead, he was in downtown Portland with heavy camouflage and firearms, looking downright unhinged.
“We were on the front steps of the federal Custom House with ghillie suits and shotguns,” recalled Day.
Working on a shoestring budget, filmmaker Day and his husband-and-wife partners, Marc and Gina Bartholomew, can’t close off streets to the public to create a post-apocalyptic version of Portland, so they wait until the public voluntarily leaves those streets to shoot footage. The trio said they did check in with the police first to avoid any awkward yuletide run-ins.
“On Christmas morning, the city of Portland was deserted,” Day said.
The trio is now about 10 months and four episodes into “ Vacationlanders: The Unorganized Territories of Maine, c. 2015-2016,” a documentary-style Web series about how Pine Tree Staters handle being cut off from the rest of the United States as part of an emergency contraction of the country. In the fictional story, the public abruptly learns there’s less in Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves than previously believed and Congress jettisons several rural, outlying states to focus its energy responsibilities on a core cluster.
“It’s a lawless land,” Day said of the new Maine depicted in the series. “No infrastructure, no Internet, no law.”
The year of the oilpocalypse that blasts Mainers back into Colonial-style self-sufficiency? 2012. With prices at the gas pumps now expected to skyrocket even by contemporary standards, the premise comes off as prophetic.
“We always hear about oil prices and gas prices, and what if something broke in the system,” Marc Bartholomew said. “We were able to create a world showing what might happen.”
The “Vacationlanders” team learned last week their series has been nominated for Best Looking Show (cinematography), Best Ensemble Cast and Best Drama in the prominent Indie Intertube Awards. Fellow Maine-based series “ Ragged Isle” also received multiple nominations.
“In our story, a documentary film crew goes up to the Unorganized Territory of Maine to check in on how people are doing a few years [after the contraction],” Marc Bartholomew said.
But what starts as an effort by the faux documentarians to create a “how-to” flick on sustainable living ends up devolving into a raw mystery that draws to mind the spooky surprise 1999 hit “The Blair Witch Project.”
In short, there may be more to the isolated Mainers than just their fiddlehead recipes. And there may be more to the documentary makers than just a curiosity about roughing it. The series is made up of slow-burning 15- to 20-minute episodes — a total of six are slated for the inaugural season — which trickle out hints of secret backgrounds and agendas for both the filmmakers and their backwoods subjects.
“In a lot of TV shows it’s boom-boom-boom-boom,” Day said. “But we really wanted to ramp this up. We are very aware of expository storytelling. We’re very careful about that. We look for other ways to tell our stories, and sometimes they’re veiled.
“We all know a lot of filmmakers in Maine and they really respect what we’re doing,” he continued. “We’re using techniques that we think other filmmakers would appreciate.”
And as word of mouth spreads and the accolades begin to pile up, the trio thinks casual viewers will appreciate it as well.
“We knew we wanted to be political without being political, and we wanted to have fun with it,” Day said.