Scroll through some of the recent work from Vagrants, a Boston-based film production company, and you’ll find a number of commercial spots produced for the likes of Truly, Constant Contact, Boston Dynamics, and New Balance.
A ski film didn’t seem to be the next move.
Released earlier this year, “Made Back East” follows a group of New England-based skiers to the Adirondacks, searching for elusive powder. In this year’s follow-up, “Wild White Mountains,” Shaun Terhune, a wildlife photographer from Littleton, N.H., gives viewers a tour of the mountains he calls home.
You can watch both films at www.vagrants.com. We caught up with the director for both films, Jack Lemay.
New England Ski Journal: “Wild White Mountains” begins with the credits noting that it is presented by “Made Back East.” Has that film become its own sort of brand?
Jack Lemay: Originally, “Made Back East” was a film idea. But I think once we did the first film, saw the response, and kept sort of spitballing for feature film ideas, we were thinking, we feel like this name has some currency to it and is something we believe in. It can be like kind of an anchor point for a number of projects. A lot of adventure sports, and a lot of our focus on the outdoors, tends to be out west in the Rockies and West Coast. But there’s so much spirit, heart, and grit here in the Northeast. So each Made Back East film wants to focus on a different aspect of that sort of made back East spirit.
NESJ: You’re a native of Chicago. When was it that you started to feel a deeper appreciation for the landscape in the Northeast?
Lemay: I came out there when I was 18 for college (Tufts University). I didn’t really get into the White Mountains until I was like 25. I had driven there maybe once for a retreat or something. I started more frequently going on the weekends to the Whites and started to hike some of the 4,000-footers. I was kind of taken away with it. I thought, I don’t know why I haven’t been coming here my whole life. It was being introduced to a world I had always seen more through cinematic portrayals. The mountains, and knowing my parents grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in the south, and kind of realizing just how spectacular they were in New Hampshire — all that exposed granite — really took me.
NESJ: How did you decide that New Hampshire was going to be the followup to “Made Back East?”
Lemay: I, personally, just had an attachment to the White Mountains. So I had a little bit of a preference for if we could find something there. I really wanted to speak to just how spectacular those mountains are. But we kind of searched around. Shawn really, really stood out as kind of a unique guy making this quirky life in a small town, making art in the mountains. It just felt like a good fit. So as soon as I met Shawn I was like, ‘OK, how do we frame this place and use Shawn as the gateway into the mountains?’
NESJ: How did you get started in your film career?
Lemay: In college I was getting into experimental film and taking different courses in film, realizing how much of a passion I had for it. Previous to that, I was thinking that’s not really a career that someone can have unless they’re one of those few lucky people that goes out to Hollywood and makes a bunch of magic happen. Then, with some professors giving me encouragement like, ‘hey, you might have a knack for this. Look for how you can pursue this.’
After school, I did a documentary with Tufts on John Artis, this guy who was wrongfully incarcerated. From there, I just tried to get my foot in the door in commercial editing. My mom and dad had a commercial business, so it sort of became like maybe that’s a way into filmmaking.
NESJ: When it comes to telling the story in the White Mountains, how do you decide what to focus on? How do you determine the strengths and important pieces of a story to be told in a dictated amount of time?
Lemay: Sometimes we go in with a really strong sense of the story arc beforehand. Certainly, with this film, we knew we were going to give a bit of a tease of being deep in the woods, then we were going to bring it back to Littleton, show Shawn and his quirky store. That small town flavor really rooted in New England. Then we want to go out and do a bear photography scene, and we want to do a mountain photography scene. That was sort of the extent of the outline before we really got into it.
I think, in some ways, the film started to take shape in the process of capturing it. I know Shawn and some other people are like, why isn’t it longer? There are people that want it to be like 15 minutes because they just have an appetite for New Hampshire heritage. They want to see more. I think we try to think about, how does this appeal to the broader audience? Even though part of me has the heart for a longer cut, I really think, as an editor, with what we got and what Shawn said, I really feel like 7-8 minutes is a sweet spot here.
NESJ: “Made Back East” was the first film for Vagrants. How did that decision to go in a different direction come about, and how has it opened the door for what’s coming next?
Lemay: It definitely took our team a little bit of time to wrap our heads around, how do we make filmmaking make sense as a typically commercial production company that’s used to these higher-budget shoots with brands doing way more dialed-in 30-second, 60-second commercials. But we all wanted a more unrestricted format where we can be more creative and find stories that are meaningful to us.
At first it was, well, let’s just do it because it’s a passion project. We might never make any money on it, and it’s never going to be that lucrative. We want to go into it with passion first and not the idea of, let’s just try and sell to the highest bidder and do whatever they say. We want to be able to establish Made Back East as a brand where brands come to us and want to give some sponsorship money. Because they like what we’re already doing and they want to be able to share in that story on their platform. But not so much that they want to dictate to us how to do it. We’re trying to navigate that world now of using the world that we made. It brings conversations to us. A lot of brands reach out.
NESJ: There’s a point in “Made Back East” when the drone you’re filming with hits a tree. Did that sort of encapsulate the challenges you faced during your first venture on different terrain?
Lemay: Yes, it’s become the taboo drone crash scene. Which, originally, I included because we had to acknowledge that us getting our asses kicked as a production company was becoming an undeniable part of the story. As much as the skiers were struggling, we didn’t capture everything we set out to capture that day. So, you could find a way to gloss over it, or you could just say, it’s more interesting to pull back the curtain. Yeah, we normally shoot in studios and manicured houses. We are adventure people in our free time, but when we snap on snowshoes, and had sleds of gear, we’re just trudging through waist-deep snow in some of these spots. We were totally out of our element.
And we didn’t go light. A lot of guys who go into the backcountry will just carry little point-and-shoot cameras that they can just pull out at a moment’s notice. They’re going light for a reason. We decided we wanted to bring these slightly bigger toys, bigger drones, bigger cameras that really get a unique image with a 70s lens. But there were such tradeoffs to that. So we really learned that lesson.
We’ve also learned the wildness community doesn’t love when you glorify that you crashed a drone in protected wilderness. We are a little bit smarter now about trying to get permission or figuring out where we don’t need to get permission. For instance, in the Wild White Mountains, we shot in a lot of places that are not part of the protected wilderness that you can’t fly drones. We selected spots that were in the open drone fly zone.
NESJ: What’s the hopeful list for more Made Back East features?
Lemay: Can you sign a non-disclosure?
Eric Wilbur can be reached at email@example.com.