Vinalhaven always has been a memorable place for Thomas Hildreth.
Now, through an independent film in which he stars and co-wrote, the Maine native hopes to make others aware of it as well.
“Islander,” co-written by Hildreth and director Ian McCrudden, opens the Maine International Film Festival with a 7 p.m. screening today at the Waterville Opera House. The M.I.F.F. will show nearly 100 films over its 10 days. Also, at 6:15 p.m. Sunday, July 16, the festival will honor screenwriter-director-producer Walter Hill with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hildreth vacationed regularly on Vinalhaven in his youth. His grandfather, Horace Hildreth, is a former Maine governor and the owner of Maine’s first TV station, WABI (Channel 5) in Bangor. Most of his family still lives in southern Maine.
“I’m the rogue family member,” joked Hildreth in a phone interview from his home in Hollywood. “I’m the only one who lives out of state, so far away.”
So coming home with his new film is really special for the 42-year-old Hildreth.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “It’s really significant. I’m proud that we told a good story.”
Connections that Hildreth has made an as actor helped “Islander” to come to fruition. He played one of the lead roles in the stage and film versions of McCrudden’s “Mr. Smith Gets a Hustler.”
When the pair were developing another project to work on together, Hildreth suggested Vinalhaven as a location.
“I said, ‘Ian, there’s this place that’s really special to me, and it would make a great backdrop for a drama,’” he said.
Vinalhaven jibed well with an idea that McCrudden has been mulling.
“My uncle and my brother were commercial fishermen in Alaska,” the filmmaker said. “I always wanted to write about that lifestyle because it’s so unique and this island was the perfect platform to do that.”
“Islander” tells of the emotional journey taken by Eben Cole, played by Hildreth. In the film, Eben has continued his family’s tradition of harvesting lobsters from the waters surrounding the island, but the catch is getting smaller each year because of the encroachment of mainlanders on the islanders’ territory.
He takes matters into his own hands, firing a warning shot at the mainlander he finds fishing in his territory. A resulting death earns Eben a five-year prison term for manslaughter. After he returns home upon his release, Eben finds himself a pariah who must redeem himself in the eyes of the islanders, including his ex-wife and his daughter.
Through his theater work, Hildreth was able to land veteran character actors Philip Baker Hall, Ron Canada and Larry Pine for the film. At the same time, local novice actors Emma Ford and Zach Batchelder also were selected for the cast.
“We wrote the film both for the island and for the people we were casting,” Hildreth explained.
Despite Vinalhaven residents having had little exposure to filmmaking, the shoot went smoothly, Hildreth said.
“We were able to get in there and do our business,” he said. “They treated us well, and we treated them well. They were very helpful and cooperative and excited to be a part of it.”
“Islander” has garnered critical praise during its West Coast showings. The Hollywood Reporter called it “an intelligent and compelling drama,” while Variety praised its “powerfully atmospheric sense of place.”
The M.I.F.F. screening will be the first of four showings this weekend in Maine. A benefit showing for the Island Institute will be held at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Strand Theatre in Rockland. Also screenings are set for 6 and 8 p.m. Sunday at Vinalhaven High School.
Hildreth said that he and McCrudden had a simple goal for “Islander.”
“We wanted to write the best story we could,” he said.
For more information on the Maine International Film Festival, visit www.miff.org.