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Summer for ‘Winter Light’

Friday, July 24, 2015
Hanover — Julian Higgins could just email or text the link for his new short film, Winter Light, to his friends and former teachers.

So why is the 2004 graduate of Hanover High School encouraging them — and you — to see his 29-minute adaptation of James Lee Burke’s short story, shot on location in Montana two winters ago, on one of the big screens at the Nugget Theaters this weekend?

“I have a lot of difficulty thinking of cinema as something you can watch on your iPhone,” the 29-year-old Higgins said during a telephone interview last week. “(Winter Light) is not designed to be watched on a computer. Montana is an expansive place. And sound is important, too.

“I feel like I’m swimming upstream, in some ways. I know that most people watch their media today on a computer or a phone. It’s been difficult to say to people in the business, ‘Hey: Look at our 29-minute short, and see how much better it would be in a theater.’ ”

Spoken like the artist-in-waiting whom Kate Schaefer and Bill Hammond watched blossom in and out of their drama classes at Richmond Middle School and Hanover High School.

“He grew up next door to me (on Balch Hill in Hanover),” Schaefer recalled this week. “He used to create these unbelievably intricate fantasy worlds. He’d be a pirate. Or Sherlock Holmes. I can still see him running around the yard in his Sherlock Holmes outfit, with his spyglass. Then I taught him all through middle school. As he’s gone along, he’s had increasingly high artistic standards.

“He wants to do things of real value and substance.”

Higgins saw value, substance and something familiar while reading Winter Light, which follows the escalation of a college professor’s confrontation with h unters trespassing on his property.

“Growing up in New Hampshire, there’s something about the landscape, the seasons, the intense winters, the hardy people who live that out and choose to be there,” he said. “I felt I knew the people in the story.”

And while the action in Winter Light takes place in Big Sky country, Higgins found himself channeling the story through the prism of his Upper Valley upbringing — including, if only subliminally, the 2001 murders of Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop by two youths from Chelsea, just up Trescott Road from the Higgins ’ house.

“I’m not sure it factored consciously into it for me, but that was a very significant moment in my life,” said Higgins, a Hanover High freshman at the time of the killings. “That was definitely a moment of awakening to the reality of the world for me. ‘How do you be a good person in a world that feels indifferent and sometimes cruel?’ That’s a question I explore in every movie I’ve made.”

On a more conscious level, Higgins was reading Winter Light and other stories in Burke’s collection while snowed in at an off-the-grid family retreat in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, the winter after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences conferred its Student Academy Award on Thief, the short he’d directed for his American Film Institute (AFI) thesis.

“I always get into a creative mindset there,” Higgins said. “My mind opens up, and I can focus on projects. By the time I finished reading it, I knew I wanted to make a movie of it.”

While ruminating on when and how to do so, Higgins focused on other projects: A producer he’d met at the Student Academy Awards invited him to direct an episode of the final season of the medical drama House, which starred Hugh Laurie as a brilliant diagnostician and surgeon addicted to pain killers, and to pushing his hospital colleagues to their limits.

“It was just about the world’s most popular show,” he said. “It still is (in syndication) in many places around the world. The amazing thing about that show was that they gave a lot of leeway to directors to make episodes their own. My first day of filming was a Friday the 13th, but everything went great. The cast and crew was special. Directing them was such a treat.”

Josh Pence and Abigail Spencer, the two actors whom Higgins directed in, and with whom he co-wrote his next project, a short called Here and Now, enjoyed their experience with him enough to agree to serve as co-producers of Winter Light.

“All three of us shared a sensibility,” Pence, a 2004 Dartmouth graduate who plays one of the hunters in Winter Light, and whose credits include The Social Network, said on Thursday. “Here and Now was something I looked back on very fondly. It was just really fun. It was a light, easy fluid thing. Julian really is very adept at bringing out subtle, nuanced performances, intimate performances between people.”

Performance was one thing in Winter Light, logistics and financing each quite another.

“There were some moments that were a little bit terrifying,” Pence said of the Montana shoot during the winter of 2014. “At one point, the temperature dropped down to 15 below. The trucking company (that provided transportation services to the production) said, ‘If any of your vehicles gets stuck, you’re on your own.’ Sure enough, one of them went off the road, but we were lucky enough that somebody who lived there had a winch and pulled us out.”

That kind of effort and risk, for a short film, made Winter Light a tough pitch to potential financial backers, but Spencer — who has acted in Cowboys and Aliens and Oz the Great and Powerful on the big screen and in the television dramas True Detective and Mad Men — “was relentless in hunting down people willing to take that journey with us,” Pence said.

Higgins’ knack for cultivating such collaborators goes way back.

“When he was making films in middle school and high school, he was getting people you wouldn’t think would give a kid the time of day,” said Marion Cross School Principal Bill Hammond, Higgins’ drama teacher in high school. “He got Rusty (“The Logger”) DeWees for one project, and (Thetford-based actress) Kay Morton for one. And even in our productions, he usually had the best ideas, but when people had other ideas, he would say, ‘Oh, that’s even better! Let’s try it that way.’

“There are directors and actors who are in it for themselves. Julian is unquestionably not one of those.”

Nor is he one of those who forgets his roots.

“He came to the middle school to show Thief,” after it won the Student Academy Award, Schaefer recalled. “He screened it. He answered questions for the kids. He gave a number of copies to the library. It’s the kind of circle you love to see.”

Higgins, who also made animated films under the guidance of the late Richmond School teacher Hoover Sutton, sees it as returning a favor.

“I credit the Dresden School District with having so many resources for kids who are interested in art, and wonderful teachers,” Higgins said. “That’s why it’s a treat for me to come back.”

Julian Higgins will screen and talk about Winter Light at the Nugget Theater in Hanover on Saturday and Sunday mornings at 11:30. Admission is $7.75.

David Corriveau can be reached at and at 603-727-3304.


Filmmaker Julian Higgins earned the Student Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Thief , the short movie he directed as his thesis project at the American Film Institute. An earlier version of this story misidentified the organization that conferred the award.

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