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A Wonder Wild

January 1, 2019

LOWELL -- Critically acclaimed director Terrence Malick will serve as an executive producer for a feature-length film revisiting scenes from Henry David Thoreau’s journals, from the Concord River to the mills of Lowell to Plum Island.

Filming for the movie, “A Wonder Wild” started several months ago and is expected to continue over the next two years, according to the film’s director Paul Maher Jr., who grew up in Lowell.

“As time came on I began taking the advice of the director Terrence Malick who told me I should bring in my own Lowell upbringing and incorporate the city of Lowell into the film,” Maher said.

Maher -- now 55-years-old and resident of Peterborough, New Hampshire -- moved to Lowell with his family when he was two. He attended St. Louis School, Robinson Middle School, Dracut High School and, eventually, University of Massachusetts Lowell.

“I grew up in Lowell and I just had a natural fascination with the Merrimack River when I was a boy. I played on the banks and stuff,” Maher said. “And when I read later that (Thoreau) sailed up the river I had a connection from there.”

His Lowell upbringing also sparked his interest in city-native Jack Kerouac, a major figure and author in the Beat Generation, who he would later write books about. Maher also studied and wrote about Thoreau.

Eventually, Maher’s writings turned to Terrence Malick, the American director known for movies like “The Tree of Life,” “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.”

According to Maher, he met Malick in December 2016 after the director read a book by Maher, “One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick.”.

“He doesn’t really read books about himself, but he happened to pick that one up and he liked it enough to take on an interest in me and my work,” Maher said.

In a letter from Malick recommending the Thoreau project, the director praises Maher’s abilities and his study of Thoreau.

Maher said Malick has agreed to offer some guidance for the film, which will focus on journals Thoreau kept from about 1839 to 1862.

Thoreau -- a Concord native and part of the transcendentalist movement -- is possibly best know for his essay on civil disobedience and book Walden.

Groton resident Jim Sampas, a producer on the project, said Thoreau brought influential ideas to the American people, like the importance of nature and unimportance of possessions.

“Thoreau I feel is certainly one of the most influential figures in American history on so many levels,” said Sampas, who is also the literary executor of the estate of Jack Kerouac. He has previously worked on movies about Kerouac, including “Big Sur.”

In addition to the visuals, Sampas said music will be an important part of the film and he will be seeking musicians for the project.

Eventually, they hope to add actors to the project playing Thoreau and others to ground the nature scenes. Maher and Sampas said they are still working on securing funding for the movie, which is estimated to cost between $10,000 and $50,000.

Sampas said they plan to reach out to companies or possibly start a crowd funding campaign. The movie will be submitted to festivals and possibly be used for teaching, including at universities. Maher said he wants any proceeds from the film to go toward environmental causes.

Maher is traveling with his wife, co-writer and co-producer Caitlin Stuart to different areas around Massachusetts to record nature shots.

“It was always a passion project that I wanted to take on together,” she said.

In addition to philosophical musings, the Thoreau’s journals record observations, like when flowers bloom, which has new-found scientific importance in light of global warming, Maher said. In other ways, the natural world has also changed since Thoreau’s writings.

“We might find a foundation of a mill in Lowell, but we’re also finding different types of trees coming up around that mill,” Maher said. “You have something that’s a remnants of technology and then you have nature finding its own way through regardless. It’s kind of a message that Thoreau preached.”

Maher said he hopes the film will capture these “flows of nature” and Thoreau’s messages, including “nature is eternal.”

“There was a great potential to create something unique in cinema using his figure and message,” Maher said.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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