KINGSTON – From the early winter of 1692 to the spring of 1693, 19 people accused of witchcraft, most of them women, were executed in Salem, Mass. Drawing from the paranoia of the Salem witch trials and its aftermath, a new student short film from the University of Rhode Island (URI) will explore the nature of good versus evil, righting wrongs and the power dynamics between men and women during the time period. “To Dust All Return” was written and directed by URI graduating senior Alyssa Botelho and is currently in post-production.
Set in 1710 New England, the suspenseful drama centers around a young woman living alone who is visited by a powerful man suspecting her of witchcraft. Botelho explained the film’s premise was inspired by a long desire to frame a story around a young female character.
“I was thinking about all the stuff I had made up until this point, and I realized that none of it ever really centered on a strong female character, and that’s something that I’ve always thought would be really cool, especially someone who’s a bit younger,” the film/media and business management student said. “And then I started thinking about a time period when it would be really tough for a girl to kind of take control into her own hands. A lot of people say that’s true nowadays, but the Salem witch trial period was an intense struggle for women, and that’s basically where it came from.”
Being a period piece, and with suspension of disbelief playing the critical role in a film’s ability to immerse its audience in the constructed world and setting, Botelho, who is from Fairhaven, Mass., knew the shooting location of “To Dust All Return” had to be believable. After seeing the Aptuxcet Trading Post in Bourne, Mass. in another local film, she set her sights on filming there. The organization that manages the property, the Bourne Historical Society, allowed them film to be shot on the premises free of charge.
“They were just the best, they helped us so much,” said Botelho. “They had a lot of artifacts in there, some were authentic and some were replicas that we could use for set decorations and props. We couldn’t have asked for a better location.”
However, though the old saying states “location, location, location,” Botelho knew the shooting location was only one piece of the complex puzzle of successfully recreating the time period. Extensive research also went into the costumes, props and even the facial hair of the cast, with Botelho consulting a local historian.
“I started with taking people on that I knew would take it seriously and I knew would do their research,” the writer/director said. “The immersion is a huge part, and the same thing goes for costumes. We were looking at pictures and facial hair and what it would mean for a man to have different kinds of facial hair in that period and the trends. We also looked at the different kinds of dyes they would have had available. It was a lot of research in preproduction and setting up the time for that.”
Botelho got the idea for the story in August of last year and by December, and after a research trip to Salem, Mass. in October, the script was completed. Principal photography took place over two days at Aptucxet Trading Post and the film is currently in post-production with a worldwide festival circuit planned once editing and final touches are completed. The film is tentatively scheduled to appear on Youtube and Amazon Prime video next year.
Finally, casting also had to be spot-on in order to preserve the authenticity of the film. After sifting through over 500 applications and audition tapes, Botelho selected New York City-based actress Paulina Knaak for the lead role of Amity Smith, The Actor’s Foundry-trained David Prottas for the character Enoch Adley and Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists’ Duncan Putney for the role of John Smith.
“I had such a good team that I was able to focus more on what a director really does, rather than running around doing all these other tasks,” said Botelho. “In preproduction, I got to rehearse with my actors over Zoom, and there was a point I felt that they were finally getting it, and that was such a great moment.”
“When we were on set, seeing the cast in costume, and the lighting being beautiful and the props being authentic, it was so cool to be in it, and it felt so real,” she added.
With Hollywood only recently figuring out a production process for safely shooting films and television series during the COVID-19 pandemic, health was among Botelho’s top concerns during production.
“At the beginning of the semester, I was very stressed out about shooting during the pandemic,” she said. “My mind just goes to ‘what could go wrong?’ Things like two days before the shoot, me or my cinematographer or my lead actress testing positive and then it’s all up in flames.”
The show was able to go on, however, as Botelho and the film’s two producers figured out a system to ensure shooting could take place in the event of a member of the cast or crew testing positive for the filming.
“It was a lot of checks and balances in making sure that we had people ready to be backups in case someone tested positive,” she said. “We asked everyone to get tests, we had everyone masked up and then there was a lot of sanitation of props, a lot of control.”
“It can be tough because of course, it’s a student film and there’s not a lot of regulations, so you have to watch yourself,” Botelho continued. “We were constantly cleaning and distanced, eating outside and things like that. Making sure people weren’t crowding the monitor and coming up with technical solutions.”
“To Dust All Return” will debut at URI’s Film/Media screening in May, with a local screening set for October at the Fairhaven Town Hall in Fairhaven, Mass.
Botelho estimates “To Dust All Return” will run about 8 minutes. The film, like many student films, is currently seeking donations for the post-production process and its festival run. Those interested can visit indiegogo.com/projects/to-dust-all-return-a-short-period-piece-film#/ to learn more or make a donation. You can also the follow the film on Facebook @ToDustAllReturn.