In the 11 years I’ve been writing this column and getting to know Maine filmmakers, the question always looms: Do you stay or do you go?

Everybody has to start somewhere, but, for aspiring moviemakers not fortunate enough to grow up in Los Angeles or New York (or now maybe Atlanta), there comes a point where the decision has to be made. Do you strike out for the industry hot spots (where you’re the tiniest of fish in the biggest, most predator-filled pond), or do you flop around attempting to survive in a state where the local film scene is still very much a work in progress? 

“Things have changed that allow us to be here, to make more work here and not feel like you have to make that choice.”

That’s Cape Elizabeth native, actress, producer and now first-time feature director Sara Friedman, who, alongside fellow Cape Elizabeth High School alum Dave Register, is bringing back to Maine not just her years of experience in New York and Los Angeles, but a whole new attitude toward the perennially daunting idea of making a movie in Maine. 

“Heightened” marks Friedman’s feature directing debut. The story of a young woman from Maine whose struggles with mental illness see her striking out into a Maine state park, where she meets an eccentric ranger (Register), the low-budget independent film is shooting right now in Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough and Portland, among other versatile Maine locations.

An expansion of Friedman’s 2015 short of the same name, also starring Register, “Heightened” is, in Friedman’s words, “an uplifting story that honestly deals with mental health without shying away from the comedy.” It’s also an example of a Maine filmmaker coming home, and bringing her passion project (and a whole lot of hard-won show business experience) with her.

Joking that she did, in fact, “head for the big city” at 18 (going to New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts and then to L.A.), Friedman states that her deeply personal short film was a tale she “couldn’t get out of (her) head.” After finding some success as an actress and in a production position at The Independent Film Channel (IFC), Friedman decided the time was right to get back into acting – and to go back to the beginning. After all, like a fellow Maine creative type once wrote, “Sometimes They Come Back.”

 With “Heightened” preparing for what Friedman calls “15 rapid days” of shooting, she and Register have assembled an impressive roster of partners. There’s Cut 4 Productions’ John Hermann and indie stalwart Tilted Windmill Productions (led by part-time Mainer Matt Ratner), whose combined commitment to indie filmmaking has brought forth compelling projects starring the likes of William Jackson Harper, Ben Schwartz, Aya Cash, Hannibal Buress, Sarah Silverman and Tig Notaro. And Register’s own East Shore Arts (recently featured in the Press Herald) is handling the oft-overlooked, on-the-ground details here at home, from securing locations to building relationships here in Maine. 

Says actor-producer Register (most recently seen on screen in TV’s “Madam Secretary” and “FBI”), “My experience here in Maine is that people will help out if they can, and if they’re made to care about the project. A lot of people think it’s cool to be part of something, to be attempting to change something. They’ll ask, ‘Wait, you’re shooting a movie here?,’ and be excited to be part of it. We’re funneling money into the state in various ways, top to bottom, and we’re always happy to write that check.”

Friedman (who appeared alongside Register in the 2018 Maine-shot “The Witch Files,” from fellow returning Maine director Kyle Rankin) agrees, citing her anticipation at filming in her home state, and noting that the six years’ worth of acting, directing and producing knowledge she’s gained in the business will all be brought to bear in making a bigger, better “Heightened.”

A still from “Heightened” featuring returned Mainers Sara Friedman and Dave Register. Photo by Tadin Brown/Rachel Greco

“It’s going to be better and more rich,” Friedman said of her feature. “We’ve expanded the story, introduced new characters, and we’re looking to really showcase Maine in a much more impressive way.” 

Laughing off any suggestion that “Heightened” might be relocated to a more industry-adjacent location, Friedman says that her movie is, at its heart, “an incredibly Maine film.” “There are so many elements to ‘Heightened’ that are so Maine-specific,” Friedman explained, “from the fictional state park it’s set in, to the types of people, to the aesthetic, which is a beauty that’s so specific to Maine.”

As to up-and-coming industry pros like Friedman and Register bringing this uniquely Maine story back where it belongs, Friedman said that recent industry changes have allowed for more freedom. Noting that the pandemic has made taped auditions the norm over the past few years, Friedman and Register both say that the ability to do more things virtually has loosened the tether to New York or L.A. for indie filmmakers and actors, an unfortunately necessary adjustment that can only be good for those looking to retain their connection to home.

“The longer I’ve spent away from Maine, the more I see so much value in it,” said Friedman. “This is my first feature film to direct, and it’s really exciting to be doing it here. I feel like my whole career has been leading right up to this.”

You might see the film’s production all around southern Maine in the weeks to come and should look for it to hit theaters next year. You can learn more about Maine natives and returning movie moguls Sara Friedman and Dave Register at saramintaha.com and @dave _register on Instagram.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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