Ours is a society where grandiose self-promotion and one-upmanship are as routine as breathing air. Right now, that extends beyond A-to-D list athletes and movie stars to the extent that even college spell finalists or team-building participants company preen and strut their stuff in choreographed routines of self-congratulation.
Refreshingly, Madeleine Schumacher had an old-school reaction when she learned last August that the first feature film she co-produced, “The Last Thing Mary Saw,” had been picked up by Shudder, the service of AMC Networks premium streaming for horror, thriller and supernatural.
“I think my exact words were, ‘Oh my God! This is really happening!” Schumacher said in a polite voice that sounded like she still couldn’t believe it.
The world premiere of “The Last Thing Mary Saw” took place virtually on August 13 at the 25th annual genre-focused Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Quebec, and debuted on Shudder on January 20.
A 2016 graduate of Lyme/Old Lyme High School who, four years later, emerged from the prestigious New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Schumacher has been on the phone since her day job in Manhattan — and, yes, she still has a day’s work despite the off-the-beaten-track success of “The Last Thing Mary Saw”.
“All the kids at NYU are hoping for something like this, but I’m not sure you really expected it to happen,” Schumacher said. “Honestly, it couldn’t have gone better for us. We worked hard for it, but there’s always an element of luck. We just hoped it would happen somewhere, at some point.”
“The Last Thing Mary Saw” is an occult thriller set in an upstate New York village in the winter of 1843. The youngest daughter of a strict Calvinist family has an illicit affair with a servant girl. After the family’s disapproving matriarch is found dead, the daughter is suspected to be responsible. During his brutal interrogation, the tale backtracks and reveals family secrets that go beyond the rigid demands of faith to the dark supernatural.
Schumacher describes “The Last Thing Mary Saw” as “a slow-burning horror with elements of family tension and psychological terror. Not everything in the genre needs someone jumping out of a cupboard with an axe.”
The film stars three actors with strong horror movie credentials in Stefanie Scott (“Insidious: The Last Key”), Isabelle Furhman (“Orphan”) and Rory Culkin (“Signs”, “Scream 4” ). Reviews have been mostly favorable, including a three-star rating from Matt Zoller Seitz on RogerEbert.com. Lena Wilson of The New York Times, though ultimately ambivalent about the film, wrote, “Fans of arthouse horror can rejoice in its supernatural twists and dark ending.”
Despite streaming on a popular international platform and with positive reviews from high-profile outlets, Schumacher says she’s still most proud that “Mary” came together as a project created and nurtured by a group of NYU friends and classmates.
His partner in Arachnid Films, the company founded behind “The Last Thing Mary Saw”, is his classmate Harrison Allen. While in school, they produced and/or helped direct numerous short films, music videos, and commercials while in school. And “Mary” was written and directed by fellow NYU friend Edoardo Vitaletti.
“I’ve known Edoardo since he was working on a short film at school and we have a great relationship. The script for ‘Mary’ was something he was working on for his graduation thesis, and Harrison and I we read the script and thought it was wonderful,” Schumacher recalls. “We all wanted to know and be a part of what the possibilities might be beyond his thesis. It’s taken a lot of twists and turns over the past four years, but we had a dream together and we jumped on it.”
Filming for the film wrapped in 2019, just before the pandemic hit, and the editing process took place in 2020. They started buying “Mary” in early 2021, and the deal with Shudder includes the distribution this year in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
An ideal platform
Schumacher says she and her colleagues definitely knew Shudder. “Oh, we were very aware,” she laughs. “Being in film school, we started paying attention when Hulu and Netflix started hitting big. And the pandemic has only added to the reality that many audiences want to see everything in one convenient place. .Given the type of film ‘Mary’ is, having Shudder be a big player in this genre really helps us a lot.”
It also helps that Schumacher’s day job is at Giant Pictures, a boutique company that provides digital distribution services to independent filmmakers. Her experiences there, and of course the program at NYU, proved very important in her endeavors as a producer — a job title she admits to be amorphous and misunderstood.
Indeed, while viewers are used to seeing “PRODUCED BY” in giant letters at the top of any film’s credits, few civilians can describe exactly what a producer does.
And, given that “Mary” was a first-time project, the gig was very different from what you’d expect from an established Hollywood producer who can greenlight a project on his iPhone while still buttering toast.
“It surprises some people that production is a major that’s actually taught at NYU,” Schumacher said. “It’s the art of putting a lot of different elements together. In this case, I’ve been on this show since the first draft and every step of the way – casting, directing, financing, coming up with a plan of distribution and, later, all the minutiae with Shudder. I guess one way to describe it is that it’s like a parent raising a child.
Given “Mary’s” status as an independent film with a modest budget, Schumacher says they simply followed the wisdom of what they were taught in school: “Go and do something.”
Not only does NYU film school have a lot of equipment available to students, adds Schumacher: “You’re immersed in an environment where everyone knows someone else who’s trying to get started. There’s a great spirit of cooperation and people who are experts in one area or another, and this leads to opportunities where you can contact potential investors.
“Film is about connecting, getting to know and meeting people. Maybe you’re at a birthday party or some other social situation and someone asks you what you’re up to. “I’m a filmmaker” is something that people find interesting, and someone likes an idea and jumps on board.”
With that in mind, by the time it was all said and done, the official credits for “The Last Thing Mary Saw” read: “(P)roduced by Isen Robbins and Aimee Schoof of Intrinsic Value Films, Harrison Allen and Madeleine Schumacher of Arachnid Films, Stephen Tedeschi and executive produced by Scoop Wasserstein.”
Not so long ago
That Schumacher only graduated from high school six years ago seems incredible given his success so far. And when she talks about growing up in Old Lyme, Schumacher has nothing but great stories about her parents, Heidi Meyer and Eric Schumacher, and her younger sister Olivia Schumacher. She also credits Lyme/Old Lyme High School teachers Jennifer Burke (AP English), Kristine Pekar (choir), and Aron D’Aquila (social studies) as particularly influential.
“All these years later, Madeleine still stands out in my mind as a bright, creative, and hardworking person, and also a friendly, kind person,” D’Aquila said.
It’s also true that Schumacher thought of D’Aquila when precision was required in the script-writing process. She set up a Zoom call between D’Aquila and the “Mary” team.
“I don’t know how helpful I was,” laughs D’Aquila, “but I think I provided some historical and religious context for that time period. I emailed it, but the production and the performances look great, and I can’t wait to see the whole movie and what’s next for her.”
Schumacher can’t say much about future or potential projects other than “there’s other things going on that we’re excited about. And we’re still working on marketing ‘Mary’ and hopefully we’ll expand into more ‘other English speakers and international markets. In the meantime, I hope people see the film and love it. It’s so rewarding. In truth, though, I’d be proud if nothing had happened because we did all of this work together and just seeing it come to fruition is amazing.”