Horror flick has Middlebury College connections
MIDDLEBURY — Alexander Draper is comfortable in a classroom, but he thrives in a pressure cooker.
So after bidding his graduating students goodbye this past May, Draper — an associate professor of theater at Middlebury College — screamed over to the macabre set of his latest acting assignment: A feature-length horror movie called “The Witch in the Window” that will have its world premier on Monday, July 23, at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival.
“Witch” was filmed almost exclusively in the Middlebury area during a two-week period on a shoestring budget — a sum roughly on par with the catering allowance for some Hollywood blockbusters. But Draper and Andy Mitton, a Middlebury College alum (class of 2001) who wrote and directed “Witch,” are predicting big things for the scary film, in which some Addison County residents and landmarks played a role.
Fourteen students from the college’s theater and film/media culture departments assisted the professional crew that shot “Witch” in what Draper believes was a perfect setting for chills and thrills: The college-owned Blair House on South Street Extension. A drive-by glance at the exterior of the Victorian-style home sends the imagination into overdrive, conjuring images of a bony finger parting a tattered window curtain in a ghoul’s surreptitious search for prey.
“When you look at the Blair House, you say to yourself ‘There’s a 100-percent chance that place is haunted,” chuckled Draper, who as the film’s star became very familiar with the home’s sinister aura that Mitton sought to capture for his latest scare-fest.
Mitton never got around to checking out the Blair House as a Middlebury student, but he concurred with Draper’s choice.
“I asked if he knew of any creepy houses in Vermont we might get access too, and if so then I’d write a haunted house movie with a lead role for him and we’d get some students a chance to work on a set without having to leave school,” he said. “Usually you write a script and have no idea where you’ll end up actually shooting it, but this time I knew every room and corridor, and I could pace about in there and let the story pieces come to me.”
And because of student participation in the project, the college charged nothing for use of the Blair House.
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE ASSOCIATE Professor of Theater Alex Draper, right, and child actor Charlie Tacker, center, work on the feature-length horror movie “The Witch in the Window.”
Mitton, according to Draper, initially toyed with the idea of having the house itself cast as the destructive force against those who dared enter.
“(That idea) was super intriguing, but hard to do,” Draper said. “Then the story shifted to more of a ghost story.”
And Mitton wrote his story to fit the Blair House. He and his crew thoroughly cased the old home, then used its decor, architecture and ambiance to maximum effect in conveying fear and suspense to viewers.
Here’s a synopsis of “Witch,” as provided by Draper: “A divorced dad named Simon (Draper) brings his 12-year-old son Finn (Charlie Tacker) to Vermont to help him renovate an old house he recently purchased. They soon discover they’re not alone in the house, and every repair they make emboldens the malicious spirit of the previous owner.”
“It’s a personal film in that it’s really about my fears of being a dad in a world that feels increasingly unsafe and unpredictable — and it’s always rewarding to discover that fear’s actually pretty universal, and it can resonate,” Mitton said.
Alex Draper was already a seasoned actor when Mitton offered him the lead in “Witch in the Window.” He has more than a dozen feature film credits to his name, in addition to scores of theater and television roles. The Independent profiled Draper this past January, prior to the airing of an episode of the NBC network’s TV action drama “Taken,” in which he played the role of a key witness in a murder investigation.
“Witch” is actually the second Mitton-Draper collaboration. Mitton — a successful playwright, writer, composer, director and designer — featured Draper in his 2010 horror film “YellowBrickRoad.” Draper enjoyed the experience immensely, in large part because the actors and staff placed their egos in check and were all committed to producing the best possible film.
No prima donnas ensconced in luxury trailers demanding chilled Evian water and 17 pink roses before they’d return to the set.
“None of us were famous, but we were all good actors and all worked together almost like an old-fashioned theater company,” Draper said of the “YellowBrickRoad” experience, which included around a month of filming in some lonely New Hampshire woods. The film follows a group of people searching for clues in the 70-year-old disappearance of the entire population of the fictional town of Friar, N.H.
“It was great, and ended up as a model of how (working together) can pay off,” he said of the project.
So when Mitton asked Draper to play the lead role in “Witch” — and in his own back yard, no less — Draper quickly said, “yes. I was all-in.”
Middlebury film and theater students got some valuable hands-on experience working on a movie. They assisted Mitton’s seasoned staff with lighting, costumes, cinematography, production and other essential aspects of filmmaking.
“It was a great collaboration with students from the theater and film departments,” Draper said.
Key roles in “Witch” went to professional actors, but Mitton did award some cameos to some local folks. Those who see the film will enjoy quick glimpses of area residents Ethan Murphy, Jim Dougherty, Zach Jette, Frankie Dunleavy, Dave Donahue, and Lorenzo Gori-Montanelli, according to Draper.
Dunleavy is best known for her real-life role as a top-notch language teacher at the high school and college levels. She retired from Middlebury Union High School in 2011 after a 32-year career teaching French, Spanish and Latin.
Dunleavy is married to playwright Dana Yeaton, an assistant professor of theater at Middlebury College. Mitton was one of Yeaton’s students and now occasionally collaborates with his former teacher on various artistic projects. Dunleavy and Mitton have maintained a great friendship over the years, which in part led to the latter offering Dunleavy a cameo in “Witch.” She can be seen briefly as a customer during a scene at Green Peppers Restaurant.
“Don’t blink your eyes, you might miss me,” she warned with a laugh.
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE ASSOCIATE Professor of Theater Alex Draper, right, and child actor Charlie Tacker film a scene in Green Peppers Restaurant in Middlebury this past May. The film, “The Witch in the Window,” is premiering this summer at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.
While brief, the experience allowed her to help a good friend and also get an up-close view of the filmmaking process.
“You really get to see how much time, effort and organization goes into shooting a film,” Dunleavy said.
“It takes a family to make a film.”
The actors, director and crew had to make maximum use of every minute during the accelerated, two-week shooting schedule.
“It’s definitely hard; it’s a real skill,” Draper said. “But that’s really where the professionalism comes in … You want to make sure you have a good sense of what you’re trying to do and how you’re going to do it, while also being flexible to changing things if you run up against problems. Andy’s mojo is, he wants to work with people who ‘really get it,’ in all positions.”
Being a small-budget film, there’s virtually no computer-generated special effects or pyrotechnics in “Witch” — and that’s not a bad thing. It forces the actors and Mitton to create suspense and tension through body language, sound effects and timing.
Mitton enjoyed being back in the area to use some of the skills he learned at Middlebury College.
“It’s always great being back,” he said during a recent email exchange. “Part of the reason I wanted to shoot in Middlebury was that it’s my safe place. I’ve always been happy there, both as a student and the few times I’ve been lucky enough to visit as a staff member with the theater department. They pretty much had to drag me out when I graduated.”
After spending several years in Los Angeles, Mitton and his wife moved to Connecticut around four years ago.
He’d love to shoot another film soon in Northern New England.
“There’s that old school gothic horror sensibility, and the sort of Stephen King-ness, it’s all a flavor I grew up on and love very much,” Mitton said. “So the more Vermont the better, as far as I’m concerned.”
Looking into next year, Mitton’s work will be on display next May when the Flynn Theater stages a family musical titled “Me…Jane: The Dreams and Adventures of Young Jane Goodall.” Mitton wrote the music and lyrics for the production, which premiered last year at the Kennedy Center Family Theater.
Mitton acknowledged the stark incongruity of his most recent creative projects.
“It’s strange, I know, that I’m doing horror movies and family musicals, but believe me it makes total sense to my friends and family, for better or worse,” he quipped.
“The Witch in the Window” is being booked for additional film festivals following its Fantasia debut. It’s slated to be available through the Shudder streaming service beginning in October, with a DVD/Blu-ray due out next year.
“Happily, festival programmers and buyers have liked the film in the early going, and happily we get to enter the festival circuit knowing that we’re going to reach a lot of people around the world with this story,” Mitton said. “I really hope they like it.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.
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