I think it’s time for another film to be shot in Maine — specifically in Waterville.

It has been 15 years since Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Empire Falls” was brought to life when much of it was filmed in Waterville and Skowhegan in 2003.

It was a thrilling time, having a film crew and actors Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, and Ed Harris, Helen Hunt and others in our midst for three months, helping to draw people to central Maine and giving the local economy a boost.

Russo’s book is set in the fictional town of Empire Falls, Maine, where a shirt factory has closed, much like the real C.F. Hathaway Co. in Waterville did. Russo wrote it while he was a professor at Colby College and lived in Waterville.

It made sense that “Empire Falls” be filmed in Maine, and with the influence of Russo, who is well-known in the film industry, and others in high places, it happened.

I know another screenplay that ought to be shot, at least partly, in Waterville, and I hope it happens.

Written by former Waterville resident and screenwriter Whitcomb Rummel Jr., of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, “Secret Boy” is set in the fictional town of Kennebec Falls and is a coming-of-age story featuring 15-year-old Gene Thayer, a loner who lives in a Victorian house next door to Evie, 14. She has recently moved there from the South with her mother, Mona, as Mona has landed a job at the local prison.

After a turbulent start, Evie and Gene become friends, and he takes her to his local haunts, including the Devil’s Chair, a quarry off Quarry Road, which in real life Waterville was a popular gathering place for teenagers such as Rummel back in the ’60s. The Two-Cent Bridge at Head of Falls and the Rices Rips swimming hole on Messalonskee Stream also were hot spots.

The screenplay, which delves into mother-daughter relationships as well as those of men and women, is both comedic and dark, tender and wistful, with a plot revolving around family secrets. Much of it is based loosely on Rummel’s experiences growing up in Waterville, where his parents owned “The Silent Woman” restaurant and Rummel’s Ice Cream, now Gifford’s.

Rummel named his lead character Gene after his long-deceased grandfather, Waterville Mayor Lorenzo Eugene Thayer, whose memory and legacy were resurrected two years ago when a bronze plaque stolen from a bridge over Messalonskee Stream decades ago was found, restored and rededicated at a special ceremony attended by city officials, residents — and yes — Rummel.

Rummel loves Waterville and has fond memories of his youth and childhood friends, including Bill Alfond, whose name, along with his wife’s, Joan, will grace a new Colby College dormitory being built on Main Street as part of downtown revitalization efforts launched by Colby and the city. The Alfonds generously contributed to the dorm and revitalization efforts in general.

“Thank God for Colby and thank God for Billy Alfond,” Rummel said Thursday in a phone interview. “Billy was such a good friend growing up, and he always had that sense of decency and goodness, even when he was a little kid. I haven’t seen him in probably 25 years. I remember even back then the family was very generous and welcoming.”

Rummel returns to Waterville every other year or so with his son, also Whitcomb Rummel. As they drive around the city, the elder Rummel points out the familiar places of his youth and tells stories.


“Secret Boy” netted Rummel a prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Award in 2004 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It has come close, over the years, to being filmed, but never as close as it is today.

Rummel and Pia Marais, a director whose films include “The Unpolished,” “Layla Fourie” and “At Ellen’s Age,” have been working on the script and readying it for production. Daria Jovicic, executive producer of films such as “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “The Railway Man,” has signed an option to produce it.

“We’re very optimistic,” Marais said Thursday from her home in Germany where she teaches film. “Daria Jovicic is working with a German producer, and they’re going to start trying to put the financing in place.”

Marais fell in love with the script when she first read it last year and began working with Rummel.

“It’s been a terrific experience,” Rummel said. “I can’t tell you how similar she sees the vision of the script to how I see it. I have 110 percent belief in Pia. She has a passion for getting this done.”

Ironically, when Marais first spoke with Rummel, she learned he was from Maine and asked where. Marais had come to Waterville two years ago with her films as a guest at the Maine International Film Festival. When Rummel said he was from Waterville, she was delighted, as she had grown to love the city when she was here.

“The people I encountered at the festival two years ago — it was amazing,” Marais said. “It was so warm. You have the festival at the center of this town, and there is so much enthusiasm and history and ongoing dialogue. It’s beautiful.”

Marais said what she loves most about Rummel’s “Secret Boy” is that it is a coming-of-age story with an unusual twist.

“It’s a coming-of-age which focuses on a conflict between mother and daughter,” she said. “The mother wants to let go of this pain of loss and move on, and her daughter won’t let go. I love the whole script, and I think that Whit has this great tonality behind it.”

She and Rummel hope to attend the 21st annual film festival this summer, where Rummel would get to meet festival programmer Ken Eisen in person, as they have communicated about Rummel’s script via phone and email. Ironically, Marais was a guest two years ago at the fest at the invitation of Eisen, one of the festival founders. It runs this year July 13-22.

Eisen said Thursday that Marais is a wonderful filmmaker, and he would love to see at least part of “Secret Boy” filmed in the city.

“I think it would be tremendously exciting, and it’s obviously where the film should be shot,” Eisen said, adding that the location would be ideal.

“Hopefully, they will find a way to make it happen, at least in part, as it did with ‘Empire Falls,'” Eisen said.

He looks forward to meeting Rummel, who is excited about returning to Waterville and seeing all the downtown revitalization progress he has followed on the Morning Sentinel website.

“I go to the Sentinel more than my own paper, I think,” Rummel said.

“Secret Boy,” he said, is the one thing he has tried to hold tight to over the years and not let die.

“It’s more a part of me than anything I’ve ever done, and this is so exciting after all that time,” he said. “It wasn’t until I spoke to Pia that I really actually thought it would be in good hands with her.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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