The trailer for the new film “Downeast” opens with shots of fishing boat masts bobbing in Portland harbor, of lobster traps piled high on the waterfront and of the long, majestic 19th-century brick buildings lining Commercial Street.
As the camera pans, a voice is heard saying, “Every town is built on bad decisions,” and goes on to outline a story of heavy-handed organized crime, drug smuggling, violence and other seedier sides of life in a port town. But the experience of filming in Portland was pretty much the opposite.
The director, Joe Raffa, said Portland basically acts as another character in the film, and a crucial one. Lead actor Greg Finley and cinematographer and producer Edwin Stevens – two Maine natives who have worked in Hollywood and elsewhere – say using Portland as a backdrop gives the film an authenticity and a feel that can’t be matched anywhere.
“I’ve always wanted to shoot a movie here. I knew Portland would look unbelievable on film,” said Finley, a Scarborough native whose career has included a five-year run on the ABC Family Channel series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” “Everybody was so welcoming, which I knew would be the case, but that really helped us get it done.”
“Downeast” was filmed in Portland in early 2020 and will premiere online Saturday at 1:30 p.m. as part of New Jersey’s Garden State Film Festival. People from anywhere in the country can watch it that day. Information and tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets online at m.bpt.me. The movie will play at other film festivals later in the year.
The film tells the story of a young ex-boxer named Tommy (Finley) who is working on his father’s lobster boat. Everyone in Tommy’s world seems to be tied in someway to a local organized crime group seen hanging out in Portland locales – Ruski’s Tavern on Danforth Street and the Portland Boxing Club among them. The movie focuses on a dark secret from Tommy’s past and the city’s crime elements today bearing down on him and his family.
Portland is not just where the movie was filmed but is the setting for the story, with most of the action taking place in the Old Port, Stevens said. He said the title “Downeast” was chosen because the filmmakers thought it was catchy and snappy, and that “it’s mostly only Mainers who know the true location of the (Down East) region” as the state’s far eastern coast. Stevens said the filmmakers hoped that Mainers would take pride in seeing their state “come to life” in the film, but also hope it appeals to audiences all over the world.
For the movie, Finley joined forces with Stevens, who is a producer as well as cinematographer, and director Raffa. They were able to assemble a cast to come to Maine in the dead of winter that includes many Hollywood veterans and recognizable faces. The role of Tommy’s lobsterman father is played by Gareth Williams, who had a recurring role on the current Netflix crime thriller series “Mindhunter” and has appeared in a host of network TV shows.
Tommy’s fellow lobsterman Marty is played by Kirk Fox, who has had recurring and guest shots on network TV series for more than two decades, including NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” One of the film’s key bad guys is played by Joss Glennie-Smith, who in recent years has had guest spots the TV shows “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Criminal Minds.” Another of the bad guys is played by Portland actor Matthew Delamater, who is currently filming a movie called “The Tender Bar” in Boston, starring Ben Affleck and directed by George Clooney. The film’s budget was about $500,000, Stevens said.
Although Mainers might like to think it was the state’s scenic beauty that attracted a cast of veteran Hollywood actors, Finley says it was more about wanting to work and being attracted to the story.
“The acting gods were really looking down on us during our casting session in L.A., everybody was just so good,” said Finley, 36. “Actors want to keep working, and we got really lucky.”
FILMING DREAM FULFILLED
Making the film in Maine has been a dream of Finley’s for more than 15 years. It was something he started thinking about in his early years of working in Hollywood, struggling to get parts. Finley grew up in Scarborough, hoping to play college basketball and never giving a thought to acting. But during his first year of college at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, he developed a large abscess in his throat and had to have emergency surgery. Bedridden for months, he lost 60 pounds and also watched a lot of movies. He decided then he wanted to be an actor. When he got well enough to travel, he headed for Los Angeles around 2004. He was 19.
Besides his role in “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” Finley has acted steadily with roles and guest spots in various TV shows, including “The Flash” on CW, “Law & Order” and “Chicago PD” on NBC and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” on ABC. He had first starting writing the story he wanted to film in Maine, about a young ex-boxer, around 2006, just a couple years after he arrived in Hollywood.
But Finley wasn’t able to make his dream of filming in Maine a reality until he met Stevens, a Kennebunk native who went to Cheverus High School in Portland. Stevens has been working for years as a cinematographer and producer.
The two met a few years ago when Finley tried out for a role in the independent film “Dark Harbor,” which Stevens was producing and which eventually was filmed on Islesboro in 2018 and released a year later. Finley did not get the part he tried out for – a villain – but ended up having a productive talk with Stevens about how great it would be to make more movies in Maine and about Finley’s boxer story.
Finley gave Stevens his screenplay, and Stevens shared it with Raffa, Stevens’ frequent collaborator on films. Working with Finley, Raffa updated the story and added some of the seamy elements. Finley was a little concerned at first about setting a violent crime story in Maine.
“I didn’t want to make my home state look bad. But it’s a completely fictional story, and I think everybody understands that,” said Finley.
The film has gone through several name changes and was being called “Summer Someday” when the cast and crew came to Portland last year. Finley and the other filmmakers had a lot of local help in making the movie, including from Finley’s brother, Zach, a Portland police officer, and his fellow officer Kevin Haley. Haley was especially helpful in finding locations, including homes and businesses, because he knows so many people, Finley said.
Prominent city locations that show up in film include the interior of the Portland Boxing Club on Allen Avenue, Portland Observatory on Munjoy Hill, several sections of Commercial Street and adjacent wharves, and a Portland-based lobster boat called Wild Irish Rose. Some scenes were filmed on Old Orchard Beach, too, with amusement rides noticeable in the background.
Filming took place in January and February of 2020. The fact that it was winter in Maine helped with the look of the film and added to the mood of foreboding and danger. Some scenes include dirty, slushy snow. That’s something Mainers are used to seeing, but usually in films, snow is clean and pristine.
Also Stevens said the Maine winter sky was a great backdrop.
“The interesting thing about Maine is it can be so beautiful and so menacing. You can have beautiful new-fallen snow and then a really menacing sky the next day,” said Stevens. “Portland has so much history, and the look of it was perfect for this film.”
Stevens added that since he and Finley grew up in Maine, they were able to find people to help open doors for them.
“It’s still really special I think for people when a movie gets made here, and people are excited and welcoming,” said Stevens. “That’s not always the case in places that are inundated with film crews.”
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