‘Winter’ used as spring

Princeton filmmaker’s short promotes feature on legend of Lucy Keyes
By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2003

John Stimpson gets an eerie feeling when he hikes with his dog, Nala, at the back of his property in the town of Princeton.

It is a vaguely haunting sensation, he says, that brings to mind the legend of Lucy Keyes, a child of 4 who disappeared in the same wooded area 250 years ago. There are those who say her spirit lingers, and her mother’s voice calling for her — “Lucee! … Luceee!” — can still be heard.
Mr. Stimpson finds the lore alluring.
“I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts,” he said in a recent interview, “but I think there is a lot we don’t know. Someone said an inspiration — or maybe it was intuition — is a message from beyond.”
Mr. Stimpson is a writer and director of films. He has long wanted to make a movie set in the present day that is based on the Lucy Keyes legend. Several years ago, he researched the history and came up with new material. He then wrote the screenplay.
But the 41-year-old Mr. Stimpson is hardly naive. He has years of experience in episodic television, and he is the writer and director of the feature-length film “The Gentleman from Boston,” which was recently recut and renamed “Beacon Hill.”
Knowing that he had to rise above the crowd to attract investors to his new project, Mr. Stimpson did something unusual: He made a short movie to show what he and his producer, Mark Donadio of Waltham-based Moody Street Pictures, could do with high-definition video and the latest in digital effects.
The other day, Mr. Stimpson, whose personality fairly bubbles over, seemed nearly as excited about the short film, a thriller titled “The Winter People,” as he was about the prospects for the larger movie.
The 14-minute version is a spooky look into the world of spirits who inhabit an abandoned summer cottage during the winter season. It was shot on Cape Cod on a gray, cold weekend at the end of March. It has been tapped for two film festivals, even before it is in the can. Mr. Stimpson also plans to submit it for consideration for the Sundance Film Festival in January.
“The short market is usually sort of weird, eccentric,” he said. “This is a strong narrative — a creepy, scary linear story with a strong script.”
Nevertheless, “The Winter People” will primarily be used to raise about $2 million to make “The Legend of Lucy Keyes” and snag an actor with a big name for the lead role — that of a mother in her late 30s with two children. A Los Angeles production company, Davis Entertainment Filmworks, already is enthusiastic, Mr. Stimpson said, and has the necessary contacts to reach the right performers. Elisabeth Shue, Linda Hamilton, Marisa Tomei or Kira Sedgwick would be a good fit, he said. Actors of their caliber command from $100,000 to $250,000 per picture.
“It would be worth it,” Mr. Stimpson said. “It’s attractive for actresses who aren’t working as much as they did.”
“Lucy Keyes” is a modern, free-the-spirit tale based on the lore surrounding the child’s disappear- ance in 1755. Mr. Stimpson’s fictional story centers on Guy and Joanne Cooley, who move with their two daughters into the 18th-century Princeton farmhouse once inhabited by the Keyes family.
The Cooleys learn of the legend, and supernatural things begin to happen. Lucy, one of their daughters, disappears on a windy night, plunging them into the world of the unknown as they seek to save their child and set right the centuries-old mystery.
Mr. Stimpson delved into the history himself to try to uncover what really happened to Lucy Keyes. Over time, many people believed she was snatched by a band of Mohawk Indians. Persistent rumors of a written confession to her murder were treated skeptically by local historians.
In an Internet search, Mr. Stimpson located the confession, which was squirreled away in the archives of Cornell University. In 1815, a man named Tilly Littlejohn recounted on his deathbed his anger at Lucy’s father over a land dispute and his jealousy of the family’s happiness. He stated that he came across Lucy alone in the woods; he bludgeoned her to death to spite her parents and buried her body. He then participated in the search for her, and planted the idea that Indians had kidnapped her.
“It makes your skin crawl,” Mr. Stimpson said. “It’s so sad.”
While the story is indeed heart-rending, sophisticated digital ghost effects will be key to the success of both films. Animator Frank Vitz of Lincoln is using scenes from “Poltergeist” as his model for “The Winter People,” Mr. Stimpson said.
Those connected with the short film have real faith in the techniques. Mr. Vitz, who worked on “X2: X-Men United” has donated his time, and the actors have deferred payment.
“Everybody’s hoping this will pay off,” Mr. Stimpson said. “We did it on a shoestring.” Mr. Stimpson was first attracted to show business as a student at Harvard University, where he was president of the Hasty Pudding Social Club, renowned for its wacky theatricals.
After graduating in 1983, he headed to Hollywood to become an actor. He landed roles in TV commercials and guest spots on shows — but it was frustrating.
“I quickly realized my education, good attitude didn’t matter,” said Mr. Stimpson, who grew up in Wellesley. “It was driving me crazy. It was good to do. I had some fun, but I knew I’d never settle down out there.”
Mr. Stimpson returned East in 1987; two years later, he married Carolyn Crowley, whose family owns the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area and Polar Beverages. They live in Princeton with their three sons, John, 12, Chris, 10, and Sam, 7.
Over the years, Mr. Stimpson built a career making corporate sales and training videos, and, later, creating programming for the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Home and Garden TV cable network.
Still, he yearned to make his own films. In 1999 he took the plunge, writing and directing “Beacon Hill,” which was screened earlier this month at The Boston Comedy and Movie Festival. The movie has not found huge success, and Mr. Stimpson said that, though he is proud of his first feature-length film, he learned that good performances are not enough. A movie must have at least one actor with a household name to propel it to real prominence.
With post-production on the “The Winter People” just about wrapped up, Mr. Stimpson is hoping that all the elements will quickly fall into place for “The Legend of Lucy Keyes.” He would like to start shooting in the fall.
“People are jumping on board; it’s so exciting,” he said with an infectious laugh. “All the pieces are coming into place.”