`Mel Mania' Creeps Up the Maine Coast

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AUGUST is a much-heralded month here in Maine. The blueberry pancake breakfasts, lobsterfests, yard sales, boating, hiking, sightseeing; this is the stuff that gives Maine its nickname "vacationland."

But this summer, Maine has attracted more than just RVs and canoe-topped cars rolling along scenic Coastal Highway 1.

Psssst: Mel Gibson is here.

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The actor isn't here to go sailing or to make "Lethal Weapon 4." He's starring and making his directing debut in the film "The Man Without a Face," based on the novel by Isabelle Holland.

Generally speaking, Mainers aren't a terribly excitable bunch, and they certainly have a reputation for being skeptical of outsiders. But now that Mr. Gibson is around, everyone has something new to talk about.

His movie-in-the-making has been a boost to the economy and brought a little bit of interest, if not, I dare say, fanfare to the midcoast region.

On any given summer day, folks around here participate in the non-Olympic sport of porch-sitting. Now that Mel Mania is creeping up the coast like a schooner, natives and people "from away" (summer vacationers) are making casual attempts to catch a piece of the action or, better still, a look at "Mad Max" Mel Gibson, once billed as "the sexiest man alive."

Have moose sightings given way to Mel sightings?

"It's comical," says Jessie Warrington, owner of the Center General Store in Lincolnville, which is closed this day due to filming. "I tell people, `Sorry we're closed, then they say [in a whisper] `Is he in there?' "

True to Ms. Warrington's words, a few young women nearby clutch their Mel Gibson fan books and croon, "He's, like, soooo gorgeous." Several gawkers drive slowly past and click pictures.

Maine is not used to this.

It's been a while since a movie company spent this much time in these parts. Back in the 1950s, the then-daring "Peyton Place" was shot in some of the same areas. People are still talking about that.

For "The Man Without A Face," hundreds of people from the area, including many children, were cast as extras in the film. Some 2,000 hopefuls showed up for the auditions.

The plot of the movie centers around the relationship that develops between a fatherless 12-year-old boy, played by Nick Stahl, and the town recluse, played by our man Mel. The screenplay was written by Malcolm MacRury.

Set in 1968, the story takes place in a fictitious New England seacoast town called Cranesport. Production people have been scouring towns for '60s clothing, antique cars, and other vintage props. They even rented barber-shop equipment from barber Bill Kief in Belfast. Storefronts and even gas pumps have been zapped back in time to 1968. Other on-location spots include: Brunswick, Rockport, Rockland, Northport, and Deer Isle.

"It's got a great look," says the movie's producer Bruce Davey about the area. The company also considered filming in Nova Scotia and British Columbia but settled on midcoast Maine. During a recent filming at the Camden library, tourists-turned-movie-gawkers numbered about 1,000. Nonetheless, Mr. Davey reports that everyone's been "very civilized, very respectful."

North of Camden, residents in Bayside are tidying up their homes to be in the film. Locals and renters in this secluded, quaint community of gingerbread cottages on Penobscot Bay are intrigued but share concern about having the handsome actor-director and his crew barrel in for some 12 days of shooting.

One thing's for sure: Everyone likes Mel. Ever since he visited here several weeks ago scouting out just the right homes, people have been collecting autographs.

"I just met him to say hello," says one woman whose oceanfront home will be shown in a few exterior scenes. She has her autographed photo of Mel in her front hallway. "Seemed like a nice fella. I've heard glowing reports that he's so gracious."

"He's very very down-to-earth; there's no star quality about him," says one man who worked 14 hours one day as an extra in the film. "He's a very talented, sensitive person and seems to handle children beautifully," he adds. "He has six of his own." (Gibson's wife and their children are staying nearby.)

Sensitive to vacationers and, perhaps their own convenience, the film company is not working on weekends.

"They have been extremely courteous," remarked one resident, who noted they plan to donate money to libraries, schools, and organizations involved in the filming as well as compensating people for use of their homes.

This reporter's parents' cottage was fortunate enough to gain a new coat of paint and added landscaping for exterior shots in the film. A couple across the way got a "temporary" '60s-style kitchen built into their dining room.

Although people consider the lights, camera, action! to be an added attraction, they do share concerns about "Mel Madness," as a local paper called it, coming to their private community.

"I am of course excited; we're all excited," says one resident who's son has a walk-on part in the film.

But at the same time, she points out: "When the circus comes to town you don't just get the clowns and elephants, you get all the folks who want to watch the show.... We survived Hurricane Bob last year. I imagine we'll get through hurricane Mel this year."

Another cottage owner complains that with only two "precious" weeks of vacation here, she could do without the extra commotion: "I am not one of the happy campers."

Although she acknowledges that the whole shebang will ultimately be good for Maine's economy, she fears exposure fallout: "While I'm flattered they've chosen Bayside for its uniqueness and character ... it's a hidden treasure, and selfishly I'd like to keep it that way."

"Still I'm the eternal optimist," she adds. "I think the novelty will wear off."

Maybe so. But people are already talking about rushing to the theater to see the movie and buying the video to treasure for years to come. It'll be something to show the grandchildren, the summer that Mel was here.

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