Academy Award winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow beware. The story of the 1873 Smuttynose Island ax murders, once again, is being made into a movie. But unlike Bigelow’s fictionalized version, “Weight of Water” (2001), creators Daniel Gaucher and Brendan Feeney are, at long last, telling the truth.
Based on Anita Shreve's bestselling novel of the same name, Bigelow’s movie turned historical facts upside down. "Weight of Water" pinned the gruesome double homicide on Maren Hontvet, the surviving victim. But all evidence proved beyond doubt that Maren was innocent. The murderer, a 28-year old Portsmouth fisherman named Louis Wagner, was quickly caught, convicted in a Maine courtroom, and hanged in 1875.
The new version being filmed on the Maine and New Hampshire Seacoast is unique. The 30- to 40-minute narrative, “Maren's Rock,” takes its title from a rock formation at the Isles of Shoals where Maren reportedly hid on the night of March 5, 1873, after her sister Karen and sister-in-law Anethe were killed. Creators Gaucher and Feeney are filming Maren's story in virtual reality (VR). Crew members and professional actors recently shot a number of scenes at Strawbery Banke Museum using a 360-degree camera. That means viewers wearing special goggles can experience the infamous 1873 crime up close and personal.
Daniel Gaucher was searching for a classic New England story. A television editor for Nova on PBS, Discovery, and National Geographic, he is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston. Currently on sabbatical, Gaucher is developing a college course in the futuristic field of VR filmmaking. At the moment, virtual reality is predominantly used to create an immersive world for computer gaming. Gaucher sees the budding 360-degree technology as a platform for narrative storytelling. "Maren's Rock" is a first step toward developing a cinematic VR program for students in the Visual & Media Arts Department at Emerson.
"I spoke with a local sailing friend of mine," Gaucher told me. He needed a dramatic tale that would best highlight the VR camera's panoramic sense of space and the ability to shoot in all directions simultaneously.
“What about the murder that happened out on the Isles of Shoals?” his friend suggested.
"I was taken aback," Gaucher says, "having been a New Englander nearly my whole life, and never having heard of the tragic event." Gaucher dove into the research. A controversial murder at night on a small deserted island surrounded by the sea? It was perfect for a low-budget experimental film.
I'm biased, of course. Having spent the last 15 summers as a steward of Smuttynose Island, and as an historian, the false fictional version of the murders makes my blood boil. It was Wagner, the cowardly killer, who tried to cheat the hangman by accusing Maren. In reality, Maren was able to identify Wagner when she heard her brother's wife cry "Louis, Louis, Louis" as she was felled by an ax.
But an 1876 newspaper article claimed that Maren had confessed to the murders on her deathbed. The article was a hoax, Maren was still alive, living in Portsmouth's South End at the time. The newspaper quickly printed a retraction and an apology, but the retraction was lost to history. Picking up on the false rumor, novelist Anita Shreve transformed an innocent victim into a vengeful butcher. Conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone bought the movie rights to the novel and filmmaker Bigelow adapted the fiction to the silver screen. But people think it is true.
In defense of Maren Hontvet, I spent two years studying the murders. The result was my book, “Mystery on the Isles of Shoals: Closing the Case on the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873.” I was happy to learn that the new VR film, in production through 2017, will set the record straight.
"I read your book. Yours was a very exacting and well-covered version of the events," Gaucher told me. "I highly recommend it as a clear account of the likely events."
Am I blushing? Not likely, but definitely pleased.
The VR challenge
Although the cast included actors Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley, "Weight of Water" tanked at the box office. Filmed near Halifax, Nova Scotia, in a detailed replica of the Hontvet house on Smuttynose (the original burned in 1908), the movie was a critical and financial bomb. Despite superb sets, costumes, and some fine acting, especially by Sarah Polley as Maren Hontvet, the $16 million Hollywood film returned a paltry $321,279 in the United States. It is currently available on compact disk and can be rented for $2.99 on a variety of online streaming services. The website Rotten Tomatoes gives Weight of Water a grade of 34 percent.
A classic true crime topic, the Smuttynose murders have been depicted in a folk ballad, a short film, a comic book, a ballet, and a number of small theatrical productions. Translating the story to VR presents fresh complications, says co-creator Brendan Feeney, owner of PKVR Media in Boston. A former student of Gaucher, Feeney is bullish on the future of this immersive new medium for cinematic storytelling.
"Right now," he says, "a user with the right equipment could consume all the narrative VR content available in a weekend." He and Gaucher plan to use the completed film as a training tool, but it may have commercial value as well, if VR continues to catch on. Portable headsets that plug into mobile phones are available for under $100. More sophisticated units cost about $600 and require an equal investment in computer hardware. VR use is increasing on PlayStation, he says, and Facebook is heavily invested in this future technology.
"It's a challenge," Brendan Feeney admits. Creating long-form movies with actors and live scenes, for example, requires stitching together the footage from multiple cameras to create a seamless panorama. Working through his own new Boston company, Feeney has been adapting existing software programs to the new medium.
"I feel that if you are open-minded and recognize VR as a new language and learn new things, the time spent balances out in relation to traditional filmmaking. It's like someone moving from painting to sculpture," he says.
VR has inherently less resolution than the high-definition (HD) images we are used to from television today, Feeney explains. It is therefore, a more forgiving format. While some VR shooters work with a device that incorporates seven to 10 cameras, Feeney is using a proprietary camera that includes two fisheye lenses.
Every frame in "Maren's Rock" that accidentally captures items not from 1873 – every car, every passing tourist, every wire, sign, trash can, and electric outlet – has to be altered using computer graphic (CGI) effects. Much of the exterior background, Feeney says, can be faded to black. He hopes to insert ocean scenes in the background. There are software programs that can add the moon, correct to its shape and position on March 5, 1873, then create the proper reflection on the digital ocean. Such post production work can be time consuming and potentially costly, Feeney says. Potentially students enrolled in Gaucher's VR class next semester will pitch in.
Shooting all around
The cast of "Maren's Rock," a mix of paid professional and amateur actors, recently shot a number of scenes at Strawbery Banke Museum. They transformed a servant's kitchen at the Goodwin Mansion into the kitchen of the "Red House" at Smuttynose Island. In another room Marci Diamond, as Maren Hontvet, and teenaged Ana Dinino, as the doomed Anethe Christensen, stood in their nightshirts reviewing their lines. Hours later as the sun set, Ana Dinino recoiled and slumped to the ground as Louis Wagner, played by Bavand Karim, struck her with a long-handled ax. The actress popped back up and they rehearsed the scene again and again. Before being arrested on film by Portsmouth deputy Marshal Thomas Entwistle, played by J.T. Turner, actor Karim spun his ax like a cheerleader and joked with the officer. They didn't know it, but they were standing within a few yards of where the real Louis Wagner rented a room from the Johnson family at Puddle Dock.
It isn't perfect. "Maren's Rock" is a grassroots project without the millions of dollars expended in the Bigelow film. Deputy Entwistle, for example, has on the wrong hat and badge. Wagner's beard is too trim and his clothes too new. Anethe had blonde hair, wrote Shoals' poet Celia Thaxter, so long that she could sit on it. Instead of snow, there are fall leaves in the background. But the script is refreshingly faithful to reality. The actors, as best we know, look and sound remarkably like the characters they portray.
The next shoot takes place at Biddeford Pool in Maine. Gaucher wants to create, as close as possible, a sense of a fisherman's life in 1873. Feeney plans to insert a CGI schooner in the background, maybe even film the cast aboard a digital ship using a green screen. With luck, they can catch some footage on Smuttynose Island in the spring.
The Isles of Shoals is still the perfect setting. Although only two wooden buildings survive, the 360-degree panorama from Smuttynose looks much as it did in the Victorian era. The jagged rocks are unmoved. The gulls still scream. This time, filmed in VR, as Maren crawls from beneath her frigid hiding place and the sun rises on the Isles of Shoals, we'll be standing right beside her. This time, as history reveals, Maren gets her revenge and Louis Wagner hangs.
To see 360-degree clips and photos, search for "Maren's Rock" on Facebook or visit PKVR.com.