The sense of place in Lance Edmands’ feature film debut, “Bluebird,” is palpable. Within its first few moments, there are dialogue-free scenes of snow-covered logs in a mill yard, lifted by a crane, processed and turned into pulp; a little boy in a winter cap on a school bus, staring out a fogged-up window; simple homes with shoveled driveways in a quiet neighborhood.
It’s unmistakably a northern Maine mill town in the winter. Millinocket, to be exact, and the story that follows is a sad one, though not without glimmers of hope.
“Growing up in Maine, I always felt a little trapped. I felt the only way to [make movies] was to move to New York,” said Edmands, a Kennebunk native now based in New York. “But once I got there, I started to realize that I was always transporting myself, spiritually, back to Maine. The attitude, the landscape, the mythology, the world of Maine, was always with me. I was always revisiting it.”
“Bluebird” debuted to acclaim in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and will screen at 7 p.m. July 20, at the Maine International Film Festival, set for July 12-21 in Waterville. Edmands’ 2007 short film “Vacationland” also was shot in Maine, and he’s made a name for himself as an editor, with credits including Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” and working on the fourth season of HBO’s “The Wire.”
“Bluebird” took more than three years to write, finance and finally shoot, over the winter of 2012 on location in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Lincoln.
“I wanted to show a Maine people don’t see very often, that’s not all lobster boats and lighthouses,” said Edmands. “I lived up there for stretches of time, writing and meeting people and learning about logging and getting different perspectives … it was really important to me to have it be shot in Maine, and not someplace like upstate New York. It wouldn’t have felt right, otherwise.”
“Bluebird” begins when central character Lesley, a school bus driver played by Tony Award nominee Amy Morton, is distracted for a moment by the unexpected appearance of a bluebird in the dead of winter, and neglects to notice a little boy (eight-year-old Orono native Quinn Bard) sleeping on her bus. She goes home to her logger husband, Richard (John Slattery, of AMC’s “Mad Men”), and teenage daughter Paula (Emily Meade). The next morning she discovers the boy, nearly frozen to death and in a coma. The boy’s mother, Marla (Louise Krause), spends most of her time drinking, though her grandmother, Crystal (Margo Martindale, of FX’s “Justified”) tries to do the right thing.
The drama unfolds in a slow, stately manner, letting emotions build naturally and the bleak setting act as another character in the story. This is an economically depressed, isolated community — but it is also close-knit and proud of its heritage. The cinematography, shot with great sensitivity by Jody Lee Lipes (“Tiny Furniture,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” HBO’s “Girls”), creates a mood and feeling unique to the place and the story. Mt. Katahdin looms in the background in a few scenes like a watchful ancestor; small details like the Chinese restaurant where Marla works or the worn, unpretentious wall hangings at Lesley and Richard’s house give it authenticity. There are no bad Maine accents, just plain spoken, hardscrabble people living their lives in the best way they can.
“It’s based around a real community,” said Edmands. “I wanted to use the place specifically as a way to examine different lives and relationships. The community itself is a big creative inspiration.”
The Millinocket area wasn’t just a creative source, however, it was also a help in the actual filmmaking process. There’s almost no infrastructure in place in northern Maine for shooting a movie, so community members came out in droves to assist in any way they could.
“Everywhere we shot was the real deal. We used the real police station — the cops left and worked elsewhere so we could shoot there,” said Edmands. “They let us use real logging equipment, their actual school buses and the bus yard. It was a crazy amount of support and involvement. They made us lunch and lent us cars. The whole town was on board. We could not have made this movie without the people of East Millinocket, Millinocket and Lincoln.”
Shooting on location in Maine is never easy. The state does not provide the tax incentives other states, such as Louisiana, Michigan and New York, provide. In those places, filmmakers and producers can get up to 20 percent of the taxes paid back — a huge sum, especially for independent films.
“Shooting in Maine was something we had to fight for,” said Edmands. “We had to work hard and wait a long time. At one point I was ready to drive to Augusta and make an impassioned speech about why the state needs to support filmmakers … one of the state’s great resources is its natural beauty and its generous people, which are two things that could contribute to a vibrant film industry here. I think [having those tax incentives] would be an incredible asset for the state, even if it doesn’t look great on a budget sheet. It’s like spending a dollar to eventually make five.”
The hard work paid off, though, in the intimate, heartbreaking, beautiful film Edmands and company have created.
“We lucked out with the people we had in the movie, both on camera and off,” said Edmands. “They were willing to dive in and be immersive. They weren’t there for glamour or money. The isolation and the cold really helped the film — it made the characters feel very, very real. It was a transportative experience.”
In addition to the 7 p.m. July 20 screening at the Maine International Film Festival, “Bluebird” will be shown for free at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 19, at Stearns High School in Millinocket. Last week, it was awarded prizes for Best Actress and the Ecumenical Jury Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. It will also screen July 21, at the Cinema East Summer Series in Austin, Texas.
There are more than 90 films to be shown at this year’s MIFF, including a number of Maine-made features and shorts, such as “The Guide,” about an inexperienced hunter in a western Maine town, “Hermythology,” about the North Pond Hermit, and a dramatized retelling of the “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” story. There’s a retrospective series featuring the films of director Robert Altman, such as “Short Cuts,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Nashville,” the latter of which will coincidence with the annual awarding of MIFF’s Mid-Life Achievement Award to actor Keith Carradine. There’s also a retrospective of director Jonathan Demme’s music films, including “Stop Making Sense” featuring the Talking Heads, “Neil Young Trunk Show” and “Live from Wildwood Beach” about Kenny Chesney. For a complete schedule of screenings and information on festival passes, visit miff.org.