WATERVILLE — Academy Award winner Ernest Thompson is no stranger to stars.
At 32 years old, Thompson worked with Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda. He has directed Robert Downey Jr. and acted alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman.
On Tuesday afternoon, Thompson shared moments he cherishes the most with 40 guests at the Waterville Public Library.
“I wish I could have had someone tell me these things when I was starting out,” Thompson said. “I used to dream that would be the case.”
Thompson spent two hours with local actors, screenwriters and fans, talking about writing, life experiences and emotions, and how they all seem to blend. The workshop, “What’s the Story? Adapting Life Into Film,” was among the events offered during this week’s Maine International Film Festival.
Thompson’s latest film is “Time and Charges,” which he stars in and directs, and on Tuesday night it was shown in front of an audience for the first time, at the Waterville Opera House.
During the workshop, two local actors cold-read a scene Thompson wrote. A number of times the dialogue sent the audience into fits of laughter.
“I’m a firm believer that if you can make an audience laugh, you can take them anywhere,” Thompson said. “Part of our job as writers is to be as authentic as possible, so we don’t lose our audience.”
Thompson, a born-and-bred New Englander, spent much of his childhood at Great Pond in Belgrade.
That’s where “On Golden Pond,” originally a play, is set. It was filmed on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. The 1981 movie won three Academy Awards and was nominated for seven others, while Fonda won Best Actor in what was his final role, and Hepburn won Best Actress.
Thompson won for Best Adapted Screenplay.
“When I wrote ‘On Golden Pond,’ I didn’t know I was writing an Oscar-winning story,” Thompson said. “I didn’t know it was something that would live on 35 years later. I just thought it was an interesting story.”
Although “On Golden Pond” kick-started a career that continues today, it’s not what drove Thompson to get into screen writing and continue his 40-plus year career.
“The thing that’s so elusive about my business is that success is not quantifiable,” Thompson said. “You can say you’re successful if you win an Oscar or write successful movies, but it doesn’t mean you’re unsuccessful if you’re doing a play in East Podunk, New Hampshire.
“I can say to them, ‘Oh I’ve done this movie with Robert Downey Jr.,’ but I live on a farm in New Hampshire. Every day I get up and do what you should be doing: writing a story.”
Throughout the workshop, Thompson went back and forth between personal stories that stand out to him in helping his career and taking questions from the audience. At times, he got emotional.
“I was raised by a mother that said I will never succeed and that people would never like me,” he said. “The night I won the Oscar, my older brother said it was the proudest night of his life because it contradicted everything our mother had told us.”
Thompson, who founded Whitebridge Farm Productions, a film and theater production company based in New Hampton, N.H., focused on dialogue, clarifying the underlying message and making sure that it’s done fast.
“The message is an opportunity for the audience to stop and think about what you want to think about,” he said. “But you’ve got to get to the audience and get to them quickly.”
The majority of audience questions focused on Thompson’s largest and most successful film, “On Golden Pond.”
One of Thompson’s most memorable moments from the filming was an incident that could have have derailed his young career. One scene in the film has Fonda and Hepburn sitting in a canoe admiring the loons when a speedboat races by and disturbs the tranquil moment. It was Thompson driving the speedboat, and in one take, he got too close.
“I’d never driven the boat before and it was a boat that didn’t plane easily,” Thompson said. “I did one take and was 100 miles from them and just a little ripple came near them. The director told me to get a little closer.”
Thompson got too close, creating a rooster-tail wave that drenched the canoe and capsized it. Hepburn, 74, and 76-year-old Fonda were soaked.
“It was scary,” Thompson said. “The thing that made it OK was Henry was irritated, but at the director and not me. Hepburn thought it was a riot. She laughed and laughed and that made it OK too.”
The episode still haunts his dreams.
“In my nightmare, 33 years later, I killed Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn on the fourth day of shooting and my career and life both ended,” Thompson said.
The Oscar that serves as the lasting memento from his award-winning film is on display in his library in New Hampshire, blemished and worn from 30 years of people admiring it.
“I lend it out a lot,” Thompson said. “Various charitable organizations will approach me and they’ll charge people to take pictures with it. It’s all tarnished and fingerprinted and I’d have to spend a million dollars to get it dipped again, but I kind of like all that life on it.”
Jesse Scardina — 861-9239