KINGSTON, R.I. — In early 18th century New England, a young woman living alone gets a visit from a powerful man who suspects her of using witchcraft.
What happens next is explored in “To Dust All Return,” a short film written and directed by University of Rhode Island student Alyssa Botelho.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of period pieces and it’s been a dream of mine to create one set in colonial New England,” Botelho said.
The film captures the tense atmosphere of New England during the witch trials and explores the nature of good vs evil, the power dynamics between men and women in that time, and the lengths some will go to make things “right” again, Botelho added.
The woman, Amity Smith, is described as a “well-mannered girl with a will of iron” whose one wish is to have her mother back home instead of at a “madhouse.” Her father, John, is presumed to be away hunting. While alone, Amity is visited by Enoch Adley, a friend of her father’s. The man questions her about her father’s whereabouts, and a game of cat and mouse develops between the two.
The interplay between them culminates when “the veil is lifted off of secrets the house holds,” according to a synopsis of the film.
“It’s pretty simple, but there are a lot of layers at the same time,” Botelho said.
Being accused of using witchcraft in colonial New England could prove to be deadly. The infamous Salem Witch Trials form the backdrop of Botelho’s film.
“I wanted to write something about a young girl who’s a strong character,” Botelho said. “I thought, ‘What time period could I put her in where she’d be facing really big obstacles?’”
She and her cinematographer even ventured to Salem in October to do research for the production.
The town was once a hotbed of witchcraft hysteria in the late 1600s. Women suspected of being witches were tried, and some who were found guilty were sentenced to death.
Three centuries later, the town has successfully cashed in on that reputation to become a top tourist destination in New England, especially for history buffs.
“We brought notebooks and collected papers and started taking out library books about the time period,” Botelho said.
But the seeds for “To Dust All Return” might have been planted years ago, when the director performed in a high school production of “The Crucible,” also about the witch trials.
She and some of her castmates took a similar field trip to Salem to connect with their characters.
“I think the inklings of the idea started then,” she said.
Botelho is wrapping up production on the film and plans to screen it May 20 at URI.
“I’ve been editing it, and we’re actually re-shooting the first shot this weekend,” she said. “I’m kind of near the end of the first cut.”
A film and business management major set to graduate next month, Botelho also plans to show it at several festivals over the next year and then release it online in 2022.
The production is part of a film class capstone project at URI, meaning it will also be evaluated by the class instructor as a final project.
Botelho started work on the story last August, piecing the plot together and doing research. Work on the writing began in earnest in late December and wrapped up in early January.
The film crew had the opportunity to shoot in March in Bourne, Massachusetts, at the Aptucxet Trading Post, a replica of the 1628 structure built by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and used to trade with the Wampanoag Indians and the Dutch.
Principal photography took place over two days, entirely at the trading post, and wrapped on March 21. The film is currently in post-production.
New York City actress Paulina Knaak, The Actor’s Foundry trained David Prottas, and SAG-AFTRA actor Duncan Putney played the roles of Amity Smith, Enoch Adley, and John Smith, respectively. The crew includes several URI students and alumni.
One of the big challenges of making this film was planning and shooting it during COVID-19, Botelho said.
“We of course had to do testing of everyone, and wearing masks and socially distancing,” Botelho said.
Botelho grew up in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, where she made several short films that appeared in New England and national competitions.
“I pretty much knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to write. Kind of the deal. Like I got a library card at two weeks old.”
In 2019, she explored the struggles of a young man coping with drug addiction in the short film “Junkie,” partially based on true events.
“That was a more serious and heavy film, but I also had a lot of fun making it,” she said.
As for influences, Botelho cites the “Lord of the Rings” films by Peter Jackson, and credits Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” for its tonal shifts and plot devices.
Like most in the industry, she’s a huge movie fan as well. The last film she saw in the theater before COVID was “1917.”
“I loved that movie – it was so good,” she said.
Her film’s rough cut will be sent to a colorist, sound designer and music composer on April 16, and Botelho hopes to wrap up post production in the first or second week of May.
Even small films come with a price tag for all of the planning, production and post production, so Botelho has set up an Indiegogo page to raise about $5,000 to cover the costs and give some glimpses of the picture. The page is at indiegogo.com/projects/to-dust-all-return-a-short-period-piece-film#/
Her family plans to see her new film and is eagerly awaiting release.
Botelho has given no spoilers, though.
“My parents and my uncle actually showed up at the set, which was really funny,” she said. “And I’ve showed them some still frames. But I’m not showing them anything until it’s all done.”