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Feminine spirits may be the centerpiece of Nick Checker's new film "Wisp!," but it is the late John Kelley - former Boston Marathon winner and longtime coach and columnist from Mystic - whose gentle earnestness provided the inspiration to take an idea and keep running with it.
Checker, whose previous screenwriting credits include "Radio Rage" and "Trashed," has come close to movie-business success with a feature film in the past, but on each occasion finally hit the "heartbreak hill" of rejection and disappointment.
Now, he and other members of the local company Nightshade Productions are determined to shine a spotlight on what southeastern Connecticut filmmakers can do rather than wait for Hollywood to come calling. "Wisp!," an ambitious 23-minute melding of two previous stories Checker has written, will get its first public screening at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Niantic Cinemas, with hopes that success at subsequent regional film festivals will propel local filmmakers onto a national stage.
"We'll make stuff here, and maybe it will get attention on a larger scale so we can do a feature here," Checker said during an interview at the Bean & Leaf coffee shop on Bank Street. "Here in southeastern Connecticut, you have people with a lot of passion, a lot of talent. Now we can make our own films. We're not at the mercy of anyone."
Checker, who wrote and directed the project that was encouraged by Hollywood screenwriter and Mystic native Peter Filardi, has put a team of dedicated local filmmakers together, splicing in a few others from within a 75-mile radius to add acting and musical touches. The core, however, are director of photography Bill Hamell and editing visual-effects maestro Mark Alan K.
"This is the utmost in collaboration," Checker said. "It's a homegrown film to be proud of."
The film's shoots were done entirely in the region, including Riverside Park in New London, a private property in Waterford, River Road in Mystic, the Book Barn in Niantic and Olde Mistick Village. Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio has a small part - as a mayor, handing out an award - and former local running champ Liz Mueller inspired one piece of the plotline.
The New London Film Commission gave Checker some starter money, and other funds came quickly through the crowdfunding site KickStarter, but the movie was made largely by a dedicated crew who donated their services. The film cost only $1,500 to make.
Checker called "Wisp!" an eerie morality tale that revolves around a young female runner who is driven by a self-imposed need to prove herself a success on a standard stage - despite having Goth-girl tendencies. But when she is confronted by her own limitations - in the form of another runner with more talent - she has to make a choice about what type of person she will become.
"It's about struggle; it's about perseverance," Checker said.
It's also about deciding who you want to be, rather than having your life decided by other people, he said.
The main character, played by Bridgeport-area resident Blanca Grande, would rather be a novelist than a runner and hates to compete. But she is thrust into a pitched battle of runners thanks partly to the media, which hypes the races as a good vs. evil duel.
The title of the film comes from the supernatural forest creatures who follow the runners as they compete.
Checker said the film features a particularly nasty running coach who rides his athletes hard to help his own career.
The coach is the antithesis of John Kelley, the great marathoner from Mystic who inspired generations of runners in the region with his humility and compassion. Kelley is one of the people to whom "Wisp!" has been dedicated, and money collected during the premiere Sunday will be donated to help erect a statue to the famed runner.
Checker liked the fact that his friend Kelley never made competition the centerpiece of his athletic credo, as indicated by a running mantra that one of Kelley's former students, Wayne Jacob, made popular.
"He used to say, 'I could give up racing tomorrow, but I could never give up running,'" Checker said.
The same could be said of Checker's group and their moviemaking dreams.
Hollywood might be an uphill climb, but they are focused instead on enjoying a local scene with infinite possibilities. And if their short film is discovered and someone wants to make a feature out of it, they are hoping it will be done in the region by local filmmakers.
"I'm not interested in Hollywood; I like living around here," said film editor Mark Alan K, who created some very complicated special effects through his technological wizardry. "We'll stand toe to toe with them."
"We want to go to the moon," Checker concluded. "I'm just hoping 'Wisp!' will help launch that."
What: World premiere of "Wisp!," written and directed by Nick Checker
Where: Niantic Cinemas, 279 Main St., Niantic
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday (tickets available at 7)
Tickets: $9; $7 for seniors
Who: Nightshade Productions
Credits: Tom Steenburg, producer; Bill Hamell, director of photography; Mark Alan K, film editing and executive producer; Tim Kulig, music
Production personnel: Ben Berryman, Malcolm Cameron, Mark Mead, Alan Thibodeau, David Hamilton, March Frucht, Rene Gagnon, Marty McNeill and Beverly "Victoria" Hayes
Starring: Blanca Grande, Brian Ellsworth, Olivia Pentell, Robert Canelli and Catalina Gendron
Preliminaries: Guitar music by Richard Zack; short animations by Bill Burke; a short film "Robotrip" written/directed by Jessica Gagliardo
Post-screening reception: free food and drinks with actors and production personnel