BAR HARBOR — Nearly 25 years ago, a simple little movie starring Kathryn Hepburn and Henry Fonda caught the attention of millions of Americans.
“On Golden Pond,” a drama of love and redemption, would go on to win several Academy Awards in 1981, including one for its author, a young writer from a small town in Vermont named Ernest Thompson.
Decades later, “On Golden Pond” remains one of the most staged theater productions in the world. The movie continues to enthrall generations of viewers. And Thompson remains as firmly fascinated and enamored with the story he created at the age of 28 as he has ever been.
“Something magical happens with ‘On Golden Pond.’ There is so much love in the story, even if it is not expressed. So the best in people comes out,” Thompson said this week from his New Hampshire home. “I’ve been trying to explain…for the last 30 years, why ‘On Golden Pond’ continues to resonate. And I think it is because people feel the love on the screen.”
Thompson has remained very active and creative in the worlds of theater, television and film production since hitting it big with “On Golden Pond.” He has directed two TV movies of the story, written screenplays for several other Hollywood films, and worked with such Hollywood luminaries as Susan Sarandon, Robert Downey Jr., Shirley MacLaine and Kirk Douglas.
This weekend, Thompson will be in Bar Harbor to promote his newest movie, “Heavenly Angle,” an independent film which he wrote, directed, produced and stars in. It is a quirky exploration of lost ideals and small town values, and follows exactly Thompson’s desire to bring his socially-conscious philosophy to the world of cinema.
“So much joy went into “Heavenly Angle” that I think it is infectious for the audience. It takes the leap out of just being a movie and becomes about dreams,” he said. “It could be nuclear physics. It could be wanting to be a lobsterman…but the people in the movie get to follow their dreams.”
Thompson has always written about what he knows. He has for many years had the privilege of following his own dreams. He was so enamored with the area in New Hampshire where “On Golden Pond” was filmed that he bought a 40-acre farm and settled there to raise a family. He could have had Los Angeles, and he still does spend plenty of time there, but the pace and values of small-town New England better suited his desire to create something positive out of the world.
With the development in recent years of his own film company, he has done just that. Whitebridge Farm Productions is an independent business run out of Thompson’s New Hampshire property. The company invites and accepts anybody who wants to get involved with their productions, and acts as workshop, clinic and training ground all at once. Their productions are completely free of the Hollywood system, Thompson said. As such, they reflect the stories he wants to tell and the mental environment he hopes to create.
“There are so many pressures on making a movie in the Hollywood system. In the process of doing it here, my house becomes our sound stage, my property becomes our back lot. I insist that everybody has a great time, and I think it comes across on the screen,” Thompson said. “Anybody of any age and background can come out and make a movie with us. To see the pleasure that it affords these actors, extras, designers and crew members is absolutely gratifying to me. But more than that, what I discovered is that there is so much talent in the woods of New England that I would be an idiot not to tap that.”
In “Heavenly Angle,” a down-on-his-luck Hollywood filmmaker, Linus Van Scooter (Thompson), thinks he’s found a heavenly angle: to show up in a little town in New Hampshire and con its mayor and residents into putting money into a movie he has absolutely no intention of making. The scam works beautifully until his lovely and loyal muse has had enough of the game and leaves Linus to fend for himself with no credit card or license and no choice but to make the movie, and grudgingly, to accept that the woods are full of remarkably talented and passionate true believers, who, in turn, inspire Linus to embark on a hilarious and heartfelt journey back to the long-forgotten artist he once was.
The movie is positive, upbeat and funny. And its optimistic message is no mistake. That, too, reflects some of the energy Thompson hopes to convey.
“As our world gets even further off kilter and scary, I think there is such a hunger for a message that is optimistic and real,” Thompson said. “Like everybody, I find it hard to watch the news. So, where do you look instead? You look around you, and you think, ‘There has to be a more satisfied and noble way of living.’ So that’s what I try to espouse.”
“Heavenly Angle” is Whitebridge’s second film in as many years to be picked for the Maine International Film Festival. Last year, Thompson and his wife Kerrin accompanied “Time and Charges” to Bar Harbor, and are very much looking forward to visiting the area again.
“We had the greatest time and the audiences were so appreciative and discerning, it was irresistible not to go back,” he said. “We were so charmed by the spirit, the energy in the air. That is a little bit of what my movie is about as well.”
It’s important to Thompson to lead an authentic type of life. One where he keeps his hands in the business, and where the pace of life is slow enough to smell the roses, so to speak. He finds such authenticity in his rural New Hampshire home and in places like Bar Harbor, he said, where people are still connected to the things that matter. And that connection has long been more important to him than the sparkling stars of Hollywood, even while it is those very stars that have made his way of life possible.
“I think all of life happens on a slower basis in small town America,” Thompson said. “I’m living proof you can retrace your roots and put them back in the ground and have very fulfilling life far away from the bright lights.”
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