Falmouth-raised filmmakers' documentary uses Maine backdrop to explore life, mortality

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FALMOUTH — A childhood hobby-turned-profession for two brothers has taken the pair back to examine their grandparents’ legacy and compelled them to explore universal issues of life and mortality in “Once More to the Cabin,” their documentary premiering at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville next week.

In a medium that can travel effortlessly from past to present to future and back, Tom Isler, 27, and Jim Isler, 30, have blended decade-old interviews of their “Nanny” and “Bapa,” filmed before the project existed, with footage from their 93-year-old grandmother’s 2007 return to the old family cabin in Boothbay Harbor after the death of her husband. Weaving them together is footage of the couple’s 1946 wedding, current scenic shots of the Boothbay area and Tom’s simple narrative.

The result is a testimony to the 61-year marriage of Roberts and Barbara Luccock that extends beyond a family story to speak to a much wider audience about enduring love, loss and perseverance, and the connection to place that serves as a metaphor for life and the aging process as well as for a scrapbook of stored memories.

Tom said he prepared for the film by reading about summertime, houses and a sense of place in George Howe Colt’s “The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home” and the essays E.B. White wrote while in Maine, particularly “Once More to the Lake,” the inspiration for the documentary’s title. 

Tom and Jim and their family moved to Falmouth when the brothers were 3 and 6, respectively. The two had played with a video camera in their backyard and made films for as long as Tom Isler can remember.

“That’s what we did in our free time – we’d make movies,” he said.

When they were in middle school, a teacher encouraged them to enter competitions. They attended high school before it offered any video production class so their “video outlet” became the school’s video yearbook. “It was the first vehicle we had to get into documentary filmmaking,” Tom said.

Most of the time growing up, the two got along well, Tom said, developing an instinct from working together that gave them an intuition for knowing what the other wanted without voicing it. But it didn’t prevent a few artistic disagreements, Tom said.

“There were fights along the way, ” he said, laughing. “I walked off the set of one of our movies once.”

That was during the filming of an action movie at the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church cemetery when Tom played a deceased drug dealer who had come back to life.

“Some of the films we made growing up, today I’d be nervous about us being suspended,” he said.

After high school, Tom attended Yale University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in American studies and was awarded the George A. Schrader Jr. Prize for excellence in the humanities for his work in film and journalism. He is now on staff of Northstar Travel Media and freelances for film and music production.

Jim earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in film studies from Wesleyan University, where his senior thesis film won the Ross Prize for best undergraduate film.  He is a freelance editor of film and television in New York City. Both brothers live in New York.

The two formed the independent production company, Gloaming Pictures, in 2000. “Festival,” the pair’s first feature-length documentary, followed the 2004 Maine State Drama Festival; it premiered at the Maine International Film Festival in 2005. Their other documentaries include “Critical Hours: Building Blocks.” The film was selected as one of three finalists for the MSN Artistic Achievement Award at the 2006 New York Television Festival and was named best documentary for kids ages 8 to 12 in the 2007 Kids First! competition.

For those who aspire to a career as a documentary filmmaker, Tom has some important advice.

“With a documentary, nobody makes much money making it,” he said.  “People do it because they believe in what they are doing and love doing it.”

In other words, don’t quit your day job.

But for those drawn to the craft, he advises watching a lot of movies with a critical eye – analyzing the editing and the techniques used to make them.  And then, just as Tom and Jim have done since childhood, aspiring filmmakers must “go out and shoot.”

“Go out on the weekends, don’t think of it as a huge project but ask, ‘what kind of story can I find and tell today?'” he said. “Just be productive and hone your skills.”

“Once More to the Cabin” premieres at the Maine International Film Festival at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 13, at the Waterville Opera House. It will be shown again on Saturday, July 18, at 3:30 p.m. at the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.


“Once More to the Cabin,” a documentary film made by brothers Tom and Jim Isler, formerly of Falmouth, explores issues of life and mortality through their grandparents’ relationship and memories while it examines the deeper meaning and metaphor of the couple’s cabin in Boothbay Harbor. Tom Isler, left, and Jim Isler, right, sit with their grandmother, Barbara Luccock, in the cabin during filming in 2007. (Contributed photo)

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Tom Isler.jpgTom Isler films some winter shots of his grandparents’ cabin and Boothbay Harbor to complete the film he and his brother, Jim, made that follows the lives of their grandparents and their connection to Maine. The finished documentary, “Once More to the Cabin,” will premiere at the Maine International Film Festival on July 13 and be screened at the Woods Hole Film Festival on Cape Cod. (Contributed photo)