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Filmmakers set out to make a psychological thriller in the Cape Fear region -- then -- COVID.

Andrew Rose / Nick Coppola
Director Andrew Rose with actors Townsend Fallica and Allie McCulloch

Making any film, even a short film like Marlowe, is a massive undertaking. But add to that the creative and budgetary challenges of a pandemic, and the project soars to a whole new level of complexity.

Imagine starting one of the biggest and most meaningful projects of your life, then: COVID. While the pandemic caused a hard stop for people around the globe, two local filmmakers changed their game plan and plowed ahead.

WHQR spoke with Andrew Rose and Nick Coppola about the challenges of making a psychological thriller during a pandemic.

crew on the beach.jpg
Andrew Rose / Nick Coppola
Marlowe Director Andrew Rose at Wrightsville Beach with crew

Let’s just get this out of the way first. Producer Nick Coppola was born in New Jersey but spent most of his life in North Carolina. And as far he knows, he’s not related to that other Coppola film family.

“You know, it's funny cause I've never actually met them,” he said. “So I don't want to rule that out. You know, I wish there was a way to find out, you know, but who knows?”

Making any film, even a short film like Marlowe, is a massive undertaking. But add to that the creative and budgetary challenges of a pandemic, and the project soars to a whole new level of complexity.

Andrew Rose is the film’s writer and director.

He said, “Unfortunately because of COVID -- the testing, the PPE, you know, the nurse practitioner, I mean, that eats up about 15% of the budget and adds just such an enormous cost.”

With a budget of about $90,000, that translates to more than $13,000 for Covid expenses alone.

townsend and allie.jpg
Andrew Rose / Nick Coppola
Townsend Fallica (left) and Allie McCulloch (right), mother and son in real life, play mother and son in the short horror film, Marlowe.

Rose recognizes no matter how intense the pandemic difficulties, though, the work will have to rise and fall on its own artistic merit.

“Four years from now,” said Rose, “no one's going to care at all that it was really difficult to do. All they care about is, is this really compelling to watch? Is it very professional? Is it interesting? Is it a good story? And that's all that really matters.”

But after the Covid tests and the quarantines, they get to work, albeit with less time for shooting and more pressure to get things right on the first take.

The filmmakers describe Marlowe as within the horror genre, but not a traditional gore-fest. It’s a two-person cast: mother and son at Wrightsville Beach.

“And he goes in the water and, you know, he’s fishing and he finds something that, from his view, kind of looks like a fish, kind of looks like a crab. He's not too sure. And he's playing with it and he reaches into the bucket and he actually gets bitten,” said Rose. “And he’s kind of taken aback, and all of this is happening without the mom even realizing. And it's only after he gets hurt by this thing that he just found that he actually takes his little shovel and he just cracks it and actually kills it. And he buries it and he never tells his mom.”

But what if it wasn’t the only one? What could still be in the ocean? It’s an exploration of human fear.

Rose said he loved directing real-life mother and son Allie McCulloch and Townsend Fallica. But at the end of a long day of filming, how does a director get a 7-year-old actor to give one of the critical scenes in the film everything he has – and be scary?

“But that,” said Rose, “I remember being one of the more, sort of, challenging scenes just because of the darkness that this kid needs to go to. And in the end, the performance is, like, genuinely haunting.”

Both he and Producer Nick Coppola said they’re proud to hire local cast and crew. Especially after the blow they believe HB2, colloquially known as the Bathroom Bill, dealt to North Carolina’s film industry followed by what they described as a political climate that drove film professionals to Georgia, South Carolina, even New York.

Coppola said, “It has impacted the film industry in North Carolina tremendously, and it's also impacted a lot of filmmakers such as Andrew and myself. So the goal for us was to start a production in North Carolina and hire mostly local cast and crew, which we did.”

With people out of work across industries due to the pandemic, Coppola said he was glad to be able to provide local jobs, contribute to the local economy, and help the community.

Andrew Rose and Nick Coppola said their next step for Marlowe is the film festival circuit.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.