Actors Kieran Roberts, Jonny Mars and Tyler Peck in Lucas McNelly’s “Up Country,” about three out-of-staters whose hike in the northern Maine woods goes awry. Photo courtesy of Lucas McNelly

In Lucas McNelly’s thriller feature “Up Country,” three young men set out for a hike in the Northern Maine woods. Their taciturn, clearly unimpressed guide winds up stranding them there, leading to an increasingly intense fight for survival in an environment they don’t understand – and that seemingly has it in for people “from away.”

For Waldoboro native and Damariscotta resident McNelly, this crisp and nasty indie drama is a love letter to his hometown, even if “Up Country” suggests that unwary visitors to his home turf need to watch themselves. “I’ve always had this idealized dream of continuing to make movies of this size in Midcoast and various other Maine places and straight-up premiere them in my hometown theater,” says McNelly.

Well, for an industrious Maine filmmaker, wish and you shall receive. (OK, wish, scrap and save, hustle, put yourself through the grueling shooting, festival and distribution process, and then receive.) The 70-minute “Up Country” is, indeed, having its world premiere on Tuesday, June 6, right at Waldoboro’s excellent arthouse movie palace, The Waldo Theatre. For McNelly, whose Waldoboro roots run deep, it’s the happy culmination of a fraught and eventful few years of pandemic-era filmmaking in and around his favorite Maine environs.

“We shot around my family’s hunting camp in Aroostook County,” says McNelly of the rough-and-tumble six-and-a-half day shoot during the summer of 2021. “We’ve been there forever and I love it, but I always liked the idea of going out there and having everything go wrong. It gave me a chance to play with the horror genre a little bit.”

McNelly describes the brisk unease of “Up Country” as “horror-adjacent,” and that’s apt. Working from an outline and filming with a bare bones crew over a week in the woods, McNelly fortunately was able to lure three solid professional actors to make up the movie’s over-their-heads trio of pals. “Kieran Roberts is from New York, Tyler Peck is from Boston, and Jonny Mars is a big indie actor in the Austin film scene,” McNelly says of his cast, noting that getting three actual, “from away” pros into his micro-budgeted, hardship-filled set was surprisingly easy.

“We had fun,” McNelly stresses. “Everybody knew from the jump – they’d have to bring sleeping bags, if you need a break, you sit on a rock, there are no porta-potties out there. We did have a nicer cabin to sleep in and recharge our phones, but I slept on the floor under a table. We’d hike a mile at dawn, shoot until sundown – there are really good actors out there who are looking for interesting projects. As long as you’re up front about what to expect, you eliminate people who would be a problem. It sort of self-selects people. I knew that six-plus days was all I could ask of people who weren’t getting paid, considering other projects and work they had. We all had fun.”


Of course, “fun” on a $5,000 indie film set in the Maine woods is a relative term. Says McNelly of the necessarily demanding shoot, “Literally, the budget was five grand for flights and food and a few random expenses. But once you get people in the woods with bounce boards, it’s pretty cheap.” As someone who’s seen “Up Country,” I can attest that McNelly’s ingenuity and skill makes his tiny-budgeted film look much bigger, with his cast of big-city ringers turning in uniformly fine performances. And despite McNelly pointing out the shortcuts and improvisation necessary to accommodate his film’s needs (Maine’s weather, unsurprisingly, was “a nightmare”), I reiterate that “Up Country” is a tight, well-acted and compelling watch – right down to the rough-hewn local actor who plays the friends’ untrustworthy guide.

“That’s my dad,” says McNelly, who’s excited to watch his father see himself for the first time on The Waldo Theater’s big screen. “He’s great – when he asked about his motivation, I said, ‘You have to drag these New York (expletive) around and you don’t like them.’ He just said, ‘I’ve got it.’”

McNelly, noting that “Up Country” made a semi-successful festival run, explains that he saved the world premiere for his hometown theater. “One festival was really small. Another was online-only. I just didn’t want to burn the world premiere on those.” And so The Waldo makes the perfect homecoming for this Maine-made movie, the scrappy indie theater’s eclectic programming philosophy and adventurous streak (check out their super-cool The Waldo After Dark cult film series) a suitable landing spot for McNelly’s ghoulishly affectionate Maine movie love letter.

As for the busy McNelly, next up is his long-gestating, also Maine-set feature “Maine Noir” (profiled in this column in 2021), an ambitious crime thriller the filmmaker hopes will finally emerge after a particularly tumultuous few years.

MAINE NOIR Pitch video from Lucas McNelly on Vimeo.

“We were ready to shoot last fall, and then people got sick and were dropping out – it was like six things in a row.” McNelly also cites the current writers strike (and potential Screen Actors Guild strike) as an unexpected problem. “It’s so confusing – are we allowed to shoot? I’m not in the Writers Guild, so it’s probably not scabbing, but I get mixed messages, and it’s sketchy with all that. I’m really pro-union, so it’s probably safer to do the right thing.”

That’s the thing about being an indie filmmaker, even one ensconced in the seemingly remote and independent Maine moviemaking scene. It’s always something. Still, as Lucas McNelly’s hard-earned hometown premiere shows, keeping your eyes on the prize is a winning strategy. Even in the Maine woods.

Tickets for “Up Country’s” world premiere are $10 in advance (purchase at or $15 that night. The screening starts at 7 p.m., and the film would be rated R for language and violence. You can pre-order “Up Country” on DVD at

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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