WILLSBORO - The Hollywood of the East? Maybe not yet, but this lakeside hamlet has proven an excellent place from which one ambitious young writer and director can launch his film career.
"Fish Ladder," a 20-minute short film written and directed by Paul Bonfante, premiered at Willsboro Central School April 17, a free-will donation presentation by the Champlain Valley Film Society.
An audience of about 200 people gave a warm welcome to Bonfante and the first public showing of his film, which was cast and shot almost entirely in Willsboro.
"I knew I wanted to show it here in Willsboro," said Bonfante, noting the contributions made by the film's local cast, crew, and benefactors.
The film represents the first major project for Bonfante, a Buffalo native whose parents brought him on vacations to Willsboro throughout his youth and now live there year-round.
At their urging, Bonfante brought his project to the North Country last fall. He enlisted the help of Willsboro teacher Derrick Hopkins to cast several local amateurs in a handful of roles.
Bonfante's crew took a modest budget of $11,000 and spent the next eight months turning his vision into reality, shooting on location at sites in and around Willsboro.
Many scenes in the film were shot in an upper room of the former Willsboro Central School, now owned by Eli Schwartzberg, who granted use of the building and some of its contents.
"If we didn't have that place, there really wouldn't have been anything," Bonfante said.
Bonfante was also able to gain support from several local business leaders. Win "Chief" Belanger and Commonweath Home Fashions' William McClay co-produced the film, with additional funding coming from Ron and Paula Davoli and the Willsboro Development Corporation, which matched donations of local residents.
"Fish Ladder" stars Westport senior Kim Hughes as Andrea Gruber, a young journalist who finds herself working for Cyrill Flagg, a corrupt newspaper editor. Desiring to become a powerful, influential writer, Gruber begins to question her morality as she slowly becomes aware of the repeated acts of violence Flagg uses to "create" news stories and sell papers in a newsless town.
Like most members of the cast, Hughes has several years of experience on stage in community plays and musicals, but had never acted on film before.
"I never imagined I'd end up getting the lead," she said, noting that the experience has made her consider more film acting in the future.
Willsboro guidance counselor Christian Ford, who stars as Flagg, had no previous acting experience, but was convinced by Hopkins to audition for the film.
"A couple of days later, Paul called and said 'I want to offer you the role,'" he recalled.
Ford said it was interesting to see the final cut of "Fish Ladder," and especially the audience's reaction.
"I thought it was funny to know what they laughed at," he said. "Everyone seemed to like it."
"The times when it was really suspenseful, it was palpable," said Bonfante. "You could really feel it in the audience."
Bonfante said he plans to show the film locally in the coming months as he makes plans to enter it into short film festivals. In the meantime, he's already thinking about his next project, which he also plans to film in Willsboro.
"I've learned a lot just doing this," Bonfante said, "so hopefully it's the first of many."