Once More to the Cabin
a documentary short by Jim and Tom Isler

Q&A with Tom Isler

What is the story of the cabin?
The cabin is part of an enclave of similar log cabins called Sprucewold, on a hill between Linekin Bay and Boothbay Harbor in Maine. The cabin was probably built in the late 1920s or 1930s. It came into our family a little later. In 1945, my grandfather was on vacation with his parents and sister at the Green Shutters Inn when he met my grandmother, who was working at the Inn for the summer. They were married in 1946 and returned to Boothbay every summer for the rest of their lives. My great-grandfather liked Boothbay, too, and bought the cabin a couple of years after my grandparents were married. The cabin's been passed through the family.
How did you come to make this film?
After my grandfather, whom we called Bapa, died in January 2007, I knew that I was interested in filming more with my grandmother, Nanny, just for personal reasons, so the family could have footage of her from this point in her life. And I started thinking about what we could film, and Boothbay was such a meaningful place for her, and I knew that her first trip back to the cabin without Bapa was going to be a big moment in her life. And quickly I started to piece together that I could not only achieve my goal of filming with the family, but tell a larger story about what it was like to lose a spouse after 61 years, what it was like to face your own mortality and how the symbol and the metaphor of our family's cabin changed as we grew older. Everything was connected to this trip back to the cabin.
    After I came up with the general concept, I started reading more about summertime and houses and a sense of place. And that led me to essays that E.B. White wrote in Maine. We named the film “Once More to the Cabin” as a reference to one of his more famous essays, “Once More to the Lake,” which tells an intergenerational story of facing mortality and the cycles of life, set against the backdrop of a Maine summer. It's an interesting text to compare to the the film. Another instructive read was George Howe Colt's The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home. After reading all of this material, I knew there would be a way to make a personal story meaningful to a wider audience.
What did your grandmother think about the idea?
She was tolerant. We've been filming family gatherings since we were very young, so she was used to us hanging around with cameras. I don't think she was thrilled to be the subject of a film — she didn't really like looking at herself on screen — but she was willing to do it because she wanted to be supportive of her grandchildren. That was the way she was. But she had fun and really did like wearing the wireless microphone, and she certainly was happy that we were filming the cabin. We didn't really discuss with her the larger themes we wanted to explore in the film because we didn't want those discussions to color her behavior. She just thought we were making a film about the cabin and what it meant to the family. Which, in a way, is what we did — that just wasn't all we were doing.
Who is the intended audience for the film?
No doubt this is an intimate family story, but we made it so that it would be meaningful to a wider audience. It's a love story, it's a story about persevering after experiencing a death and a loss, and I think a lot of people will be able to relate to those aspects of it. It's also a story that will resonate with anyone who has a strong connection to a place that isn't their primary home and who returns to that place with any regularity, whether it's a summer home, a vacation spot, a childhood home, or any other place where you have a lot of history and memories. For me, this film is really about how we create and confront memories. Hopefully people will be able to see aspects of their own life in this film. So far, that's been true for the people we've shown it to.
You use interviews you shot with your grandparents many years ago in the film. How did you have all of that material?
In 1997, we actually set out to make a biographical film of Bapa, and we only conducted two sets of interviews before we abandoned the project. It's a coincidence that one of the two interviews we did with Bapa was conducted on the porch of the cabin, with him talking about what the place meant to him and how it had changed over the years. When we went back to look at the tape and the questions we were asking 10 years ago, it was as if we knew we'd be making this film down the road, which, of course, we didn't. We conducted the other interviews with Bapa and Nanny at Christmas and cover how they met.
    We couldn't have made this film without that footage. It's important that the audience gets to meet Bapa and hear his voice. As a minister and author, he was incredibly articulate, so the film benefits from his thoughtful insights. It's also valuable to see Nanny a decade younger than she appears in the present-day film footage. It shows how time changes people, and it's much more effective than looking at still photographs. We had no choice with Bapa, but we decided not to go back over that same material with Nanny in a formal modern-day interview. We wanted those moments to play in a sort of memory mode, separate from the present-day footage, and it was a formal way to illustrate the connection she had with him. We're also lucky to have color film footage of their wedding from 1946. I can't believe that someone filmed it and that it survived, but it's a real plus to be able to use that in the film, too.
You shot in Boothbay over the course of a year. How did you approach the shoots in the various seasons?
We shot the trip with Nanny first and that way we knew what we needed to get in the other seasons. Since that trip was late in the summer, I went back to shoot the fall footage only a few weeks later, and then when winter came I went back and got a lot of same setups we had filmed in summer and fall. In the spring I went through the same process again. We wanted to get some angles in all, or at least multiple, seasons and we wanted to get shots that really communicated what the place was like in each season. I was also able to go back and shoot some pick-ups in the fall that play as summer shots — some of the footage of the Green Shutters Inn I filmed in the fall, after we had reviewed the footage and realized we didn't have enough. We also had that beautiful rainstorm in the fall, which was some of my favorite stuff to shoot.
What was the most challenging thing about making the film?
For me, the toughest part was finding the story's shape and having to write narration that would fill in some of the blanks. We'd never done a film in this style before; we more naturally gravitate toward vérité, so it was liberating and challenging to tackle something like this. This wasn't a story that had much action that we needed to tell in sequence, and it wasn't a story that would tell itself. It really needed to be set up with narration and we had to figure out a way to tie all of the elements together while still giving the film an overall arc. Early on, I had so much I wanted to say about the cabin and the repetition of life in a summer community and aging and loss, but the film wasn't the right forum for it. It sounded too much like an essay — and not nearly as elegant as what White or Colt could write on these subjects. So we eventually cut most of that because it wasn't playing. It felt heavy-handed and we wanted the audience to fill in some of the blanks themselves because I'm sure they have more profound things to say about aging and loss than I do. That was another major challenge: finding the right balance of articulating enough of these issues so that people are aware of them, but not to say too much that we turn off the audience or preclude people from seeing their own experience in this story.
What was your favorite part of making the film?
Aside from connecting more with my grandmother, two things stick out. The first was the process of getting up to shoot the sunrises on consecutive days. It was exhilarating. I like how life revolves more around nature when we're up at the cabin. I definitely felt more ownership of the place after that experience. The second was discovering the wonderfully run-down state of the Green Shutters now — overgrown grass, paint peeling, furniture rusting. It seemed like a perfect manifestation of my grandmother's memory. The place was still there, still recognizable, but fading away. It was another twist on something Bapa says in the film, which I think is one of the main themes: “The forest restores itself.”

Did your grandmother see the final film?
She never saw a completed cut, but we did show her a lot of the raw footage. She liked it. It really transported her back to the place she loved so much.
Did she ever return to the cabin? Or was the trip in the film her last?
She never spent another night in the cabin after this trip, but my mom and aunt did drive her up there in 2008 to see the place again.

What have you learned from your grandmother's experience?
Clichés are true. It's important to live life as fully as you can and create the kinds of memories you'll want to look back on later in life. Though it was difficult for Nanny to get to and stay in the cabin as she aged, it really was something that energized her. Although we tend to want to protect people and are fearful of the dangers that confront the elderly, sometimes we overlook the huge benefits of letting them do things and go places that transport them back to happier times, despite the risks. Seeing Nanny in the cabin really taught me the importance of spending time doing things you love, in places you love, with people you love. I'm afraid it's not an original insight, but that's what I took away from the experience.

— May 4, 2009