Rucinski Grateful for Shoreline Support of Indie Film ‘Northern Shade’
Chris Rucinski grew up in Branford and now works in Los Angeles as a film editor (including Ford v Ferrari). But when it came time to craft his first feature film, Northern Shade, Chris knew there was no place like home.
“I directed it in Connecticut this past November. The cinematographer, Greg Gill, also grew up in Branford, and it was our dream to go back home to film this movie,” says Chris, now back in LA.
The neo-noir film, which escalates into an action drama, holds an underlying tale of military veterans struggling to return to civilian life in a world that’s become unrecognizable in many ways—including grappling with the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think we’re a pretty rare movie in that I knew early in the process that it was going to be centered in COVID,” says Chris. “I’ve been seeing movies coming out that were shot during COVID, but they were basically hiding the fact that COVID was this thing that we went through in the past year. And I don’t see the point in cinema doing that. We need to document this, in all aspects of the arts.”
As a result, in some scenes, such as those shot in locations including Branford’s Trinity Episcopal Church and Four Corners Gas Station in Guilford, characters are managing their best attempts at social distancing and wearing facial masks, just like the rest of us living in the pandemic.
“It just kind of has this natural vibe to it,” says Chris, who shot in Connecticut for three weeks, then returned to California to finish the additional scenes.
Chris is now hoping to get Northern Shade completed in post-production by August so that he can begin the process of submitting to film festivals and/or trying to get distribution deals. Due to the pandemic pause placed on film festivals in 2020, competition to enter festivals this year is high, says Chris.
“Not a lot of them are coming back,” he says. “A lot didn’t survive COVID, or if they did, it’s about figuring out how to do a festival in 2021. They’re also probably going to give priority to 2020 films. But I do think we may have a leg up on other indie films, because it’s very clear this film was set during COVID. I don’t think too many are doing that.”
Chris had worked on his script for a couple of years, finishing it at the beginning of last year. Just as news of COVID was beginning to appear, he decided to go all in and make the film happen.
“I wholly believe in the project; I just knew I had to try to raise the money,” says Chris. “But then there comes a point in the indie pre-production process where you’re like, ‘Okay, do I not make the movie because I need to stop everything and raise money to make it, or do I just use every single resource I have to make it?’ So I did that.”
Chris maxed out credit cards and cashed in savings accounts to get the film underway. He also thanks his entire team for putting in “a herculean effort to shoot a million-dollar movie on a micro budget.” Now that the film’s stellar performances and gorgeous cinematography are complete and in the editing process, Chris and company are hoping for the successful conclusion of a Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000—the bare minimum needed to complete postproduction. At press time, the campaign, which ends Thursday, June 3, was about halfway to the goal. Contributions of all levels are welcome at www.kickstarter.com/projects/crucinski/northern-shade. Supporters can also make a financial contribution to the film’s Venmo account anytime (search @NorthernShade).
Chris hopes to have digital copies of the film available by November.
Support from the Shoreline
A quick visit to the film’s Kickstarter or Instagram (@northernshademovie) easily helps set the tone for this gritty action drama. Locals will also instantly recognize several of the film’s locations, including those in Branford at Stony Creek Quarry, ZuWalick Sawmill, and Trinity Episcopal Church and in Guilford at Four Corners Gas Station, as well as at the Shore Line Trolley Museum on the Branford/East Haven town lines and at the Quinnipiac River Marina in Fair Haven.
Both Chris and Greg graduated with the Branford High School (BHS) Class of 2004, and Chris has another Branford friend to thank for assistance with Northern Shade: Kyle Berg, who served in the Army as a combat engineer (2009-’12) with active duty during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan. Kyle was one year behind Chris and Greg at BHS; the three were also friends growing up.
Chris says the script was in part inspired by Kyle, who consulted with Chris on the story. Chris also brought Kyle on as the film’s military technical advisor during production. In addition, Kyle brought in some fellow national guardsmen to act as militia members in the film.
Northern Shade’s main character, Army veteran Justin McLaughlin (played by actor Jesse Gavin), is introduced while leading an isolated life, living on a boat on the Quinnipiac River, working a menial job and drinking too much beer. When he learns his younger brother has been recruited by an extremist militia set up in a remote part of Connecticut, the film begins its arc toward its dramatic climax.
Scenes shot in Branford include a shoot-out at ZuWalick Saw Mill, which is owned and operated by another childhood friend of Chris’s, Josh ZuWalick. While Chris was able to tap Josh for that location assistance, he credits Perry Maresca, chair of Branford’s Economic Development Commission, for helping to get in touch with Stony Creek Quarry Corp’s owner Doug Anderson. The quarry is the setting where the film captures a vehicle ablaze.
“I’ve always known about the quarry; I’ve just never been able to access it the way that Doug Anderson let us get in there. I was never able to check out the old quarry, or given kind of a full run of the place,” says Chris. “When I told Doug about the project, and that we were all locals coming back to shoot, he got very interested and was super supportive.”
With the help and guidance of Branford Fire Department and Stony Creek Vol. Rescue Fire Co. 5, Chris filmed a controlled truck burn managed by the firefighters. Chris also thanks his sister, Alexa Rucinski, for her assistance with the scene.
“My sister is a fire protection engineer, so I enlisted her help to not only coordinate with Branford Fire Department, but also to be there,” he says.
Another person to whom Chris is grateful is Mark Dixon, location services expert with the Connecticut Office of Film, TV & Digital Media. Chris says Dixon was instrumental in not only finding locations among six Connecticut towns for the film, but in helping to put Chris in touch with two top producers, including Ellyn Vander Wyden of Guilford/New York, and Erik Bloomquist, to help drum up crew members here.
“Both of them were instrumental in getting Connecticut crew,” says Chris.
In Connecticut, the film employed 65 local cast and crew including several veterans. Chris is also grateful for product placement arrangements made with principals of Thimble Island Brewery of Branford and Foxon Park Soda of East Haven. Similarly, Chris thanks Rev. Sharon Gracen of Trinity Episcopal Church for allowing filming inside the classic church on the Branford Green.
“I grew up going to Trinity Church and my parents still go there,” says Chris of his mom Lisa and dad Mitch. “I think Sharon [was] a bit concerned at first with it being COVID, and wondering how many people we wanted to have in there, but I when I told them that the scene was set during COVID, so all the actors as well as all the crew would be wearing masks and social distancing, that really helped set their minds at ease.”
The church is the setting for a scene where one of the main characters is helping people with Narcan training for drug overdoses.
“It was important to me to have that scene in a church,” says Chris. “Not only does it set up that this is set in New England, where this kind of thing would take place in a church, but I think it gives the scene more weight and reverence if you’re learning these things inside a church instead of some board room.”
As a way to give back to many of the organizations which supported filming on location, Chris had Greg shoot B-roll—stock footage of a location—which was given to the groups as a thank you and for their use, including some “beautiful footage” of the Quinnipiac River and the Quinnipiac River Marina, where Chris says owner Lisa Fitch went above and beyond to assist during filming last November.
Looking back at the time he spent working on Northern Shade in Connecticut, Chris says “we accomplished quite a bit in the time we had. We started on Nov. 7 and finished on Nov. 24, and did everything as written. I think, based on the script, it is quite an achievement. Because once you start getting into logistics, it’s not an easy thing to put together an indie action drama with a shootout. Now, we just need to get it financed some more, to get this dream going.”