Sumner McKane’s music career brought him into documentary filmmaking. Now he scores his own work, often live on stage. Photographed by Mark Fleming.
Haunting modern guitar meets sepia-tinged nostalgia in Sumner McKane’s new deep-dive documentary Northeast by Eastern.
By Joel Crabtree
[dropcap letter=”I”]f you detour a few blocks from the squeaking brakes, tooting horns, and blaring radios of bumper-to-bumper summer traffic in Wiscasset, you might hear the lonely tones of Sumner McKane’s guitar echoing from a tiny shed-turned-studio. Inside, you’ll find McKane amid Bruins memorabilia, a rack of guitars, an old fridge covered in band stickers, a big computer screen, and rows of Maine history books arranged neatly on a desk.
Documentarian and multi-hyphenate McKane is set this month to debut Northeast by Eastern, in which he uses old postcard photographs to imbue the landscape of early-20th-century rural Maine with humanity and personality.
The idea started when the Penobscot Marine Museum approached him about making a short film to loop at an exhibit of postcard negatives from Belfast’s Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company. “[They] asked me if I wanted to do it, and I was thinking: ‘Postcards?’” McKane says. “I mean, you picture, like, a picture of a motel or something. I had no idea, really.”
Once he dug into the collection of 50,000 negatives, he was struck by how the images served more as windows into everyday life than mass-printed “wish you were here” postcards do today. McKane turned up images of countless small Maine towns, then paired them with recorded stories from locals: a shot of a bridge between Madawaska and Canada, together with a woman’s reminiscence of when she was almost caught smuggling a bottle of brandy across during Prohibition; a photo of a cluster of women standing outside in Patten, paired with the tale of how the menfolk once warned them to stay inside when the river drivers came to town.
After finishing the short for the museum, McKane worked with the staff to get even more negatives for a full-length film. He brings a deft sense of storytelling to the project, avoiding the pitfall of a documentary feeling like a slideshow. In McKane’s hands, the archival postcards become establishing shots — placing the viewer in that moment in time — interspersed with interview footage that lets real-life characters narrate action. If you like Ken Burns, you’ll like Northeast by Eastern.
What makes McKane’s work especially distinctive is his background as a musician. He writes and performs his films’ musical scores. Originally from Damariscotta, he played professionally for more than 20 years, touring with a number of folk and country bands at bars, fairs, and theaters (including, once, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry).
But after years of life on the road, McKane, now a father of two, found a new application for his music. In 2009, his band played a live score at One Longfellow Square in Portland for a screening of Nanook of the North, the renowned black-and-white documentary about the hardscrabble lives of Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. No extrovert, McKane had never thought of himself as a frontman; by playing to film he could step back and let the characters on screen take the lead. “Nanook is so stark,” he says. “It just seemed like a perfect fit for my music — there’s a sort of hopeful depression in the stuff that I write.”
When McKane wondered what other sort of films his music might augment, he was struck by the memory of a silent documentary he’d watched as a child, about a log drive in Machias in the 1920s. So he set to make a similar film of his own. McKane scoured historical societies, libraries, and museums for archival footage and oral histories of Maine lumbermen from the 19th and early 20th centuries. He spent the next three years assembling them into a film, called In the Blood, and then created not one but two different scores — one for DVD and another he would perform live at screenings around the state.
Northeast by Eastern is McKane’s third documentary. Sitting in his cluttered studio, he fires up his computer and starts to roll some film. A voiceover comes in, an older woman reminiscing about farmers having kicked her out of strawberry fields in Caribou when she was young. “This woman here kind of sums it up perfectly,” McKane mutters, and he gestures at the screen in expectation.
“Life was so different then,” the woman concludes, “and I hate to say this, but better.”
McKane freezes it there. “So that’s kind of the premise,” he says. “‘All we worried about was getting kicked out of the strawberry field.’ As opposed to today, where there’s so much [to worry about], especially as a parent. It just seems endless.”
He skips around further, from one interview to another. The conversations and characters have a mesmerizing effect, complemented by the blue lilt of his acoustic score. There are nods to Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-western soundtracks, which riffed on classical melodies, along with hints of post-rock instrumentalism with a kind of backwoods twist. At screenings, he’ll go electric, but both versions of the score capture McKane’s preferred ambience — a melodic mood just shy of melancholy.
He strums a few notes on his guitar, then says, “I mean, it’s a little depressing, but it’s also kind of hopeful.”