‘The Lighthouse Project’ Film Saga

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Erica Fae and Jane Applegate in front of Moose Peak Light on a recent scouting trip to Jonesport, ME. Photo credit: The Applegate Group.

Believe you can and you’re halfway there. —Theodore Roosevelt

Joining a protest march to the U.S. Capitol on a snowy day in March led me to producing a feature this summer, set on a tiny island off the coast of Jonesport, Maine.

That day, thousands of women were marking the 100th anniversary of suffrage. It was exhilarating—walking shoulder to shoulder with these women, some in period dress. Yet, I remember thinking: As a country we are woefully behind when it comes to equality between men and women. Women earn less money than men, and have a tougher time raising capital. And, we all know women direct fewer films. In fact, in 2013, women directed only 6 percent of the top 250 grossing films, according to industry reports.

A few weeks after the march in D.C., my dear friend Linda, who served on the board of the National Women’s History Museum, suggested I meet with Erica Fae, an accomplished actress, writer and director who teaches at the Yale Drama School and The New School. Fae’s acclaimed play, Take What Is Yours, tells the story of Alice Paul, an early American feminist who went on a hunger strike to protest against women being denied the right to vote. Since I produce both theater and film projects, I was open to a meeting.

Over two cups of hot chocolate, Fae and I discovered that we had one goal in common: to produce a beautiful film with a strong female heroine.

Before parting that afternoon, Fae promised to send me a script she’d written a few years before. I agreed to read it, expecting it would just be a mediocre script sent over by another writer hoping that I would produce their film.

I read The Lighthouse Project script in one sitting. I cried. The film unspooled in my mind. I told my husband, who is a playwright and an editor:

“This is my film. If Erica wants to work with me, I’m going to produce this.”

Then reality hit. I remembered a moment back in 2006, when I was invited to participate in Sundance’s first-time producers workshop. The big-shot panelists reminded us newbies that there were 15,000 to 20,000 independent films produced every year in the U.S. alone, and the chances of anyone seeing your film were slim.

But, it’s not all that bad. In 2013, almost 900 films were released in New York City—a mecca for film—according to The New York Times. In addition, 54 first-time filmmakers screened their work at Sundance this year—up from 44 in 2010. That cheered me up.

Undeterred by the naysayers and stats, Fae and I have devoted thousands of hours to producing this film. You don’t tell two feisty Sagittarians that they can’t do something. It just pisses us off.

Her determination to direct and play the lead was my biggest challenge. Serious potential investors and my veteran entertainment attorney told me flat out: She can direct or play the lead, but absolutely not do both. (I fired my former attorney immediately after he told Fae to her face that she was crazy to try to direct her first feature and play the lead.)

I knew we could make this film as soon as Fae found the other “leading lady"—a perfect lighthouse set on the edge of an island off the coast of Jonesport.

By May, we had everything in place but the money. Although I was frustrated by the lack of financial support, we never gave up hope that we would be shooting in August. And, despite pleas for Fae to step out, she refused. She will direct and appear as "Abbie Moore.”

Then, the universe shifted. Fae was cast in an HBO series (I can’t say which show, but it will be back in the fall). Fans who totally support her artistic vision stepped forward to fund the film—enough to shoot and get us to a rough cut. We still need more money, but I’m meeting with other potential investors who feel more comfortable now that the first check is in.

Investing in independent films is a bad idea. Less than 2 percent of investors ever recoup their money, according to Cultural Weekly. Yet, our friends and families and business associates are stepping up to support us. (We’re hosting a fundraiser on July 17 in NYC.)   

So, what lessons have I learned throughout this crazy experience? When you love your story, never, ever give up your celluloid (or digital video) dreams.

— JANE APPLEGATE

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