A free screening of the sci-fi movie “First Signal” at Concord’s McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center might have movie-goers doing a double-take, since much of the film was shot on location there.
Practically every part of the facility makes an appearance in New England filmmaker Mark Lund’s space thriller, in which a signal from an alien satellite leads to the discovery of a government conspiracy — and the big question: Are there aliens among us?
The film will be shown at the Discovery Center on Friday, July 9, at 9 p.m.
The center served as backdrop to everything from boardroom scenes to outside shots that, thanks to special effects, included military jets flying overhead and some changes to the vista.
“The exterior doubled as a military base in Brussels, Belgium,” Lund said.
It isn’t the first movie that has been filmed here, but it’s the most intensive use of the facility so far.
Previously, a student from NHTI — Concord’s Community College filed a short sci-fi story here, and then there was the acting troupe that asked to stage and film a production inside the building, said the center’s executive director, Jeanne Gerulskis.
That one led to a funny miscommunication after Gerulskis happened upon what she assumed was visitors engaged in a fight on the stairs. She admonished the unruly guests and told them to take it outside, only to learn it actually was part of the play.
“I wrecked a scene,” Gerulskis said, laughing.
For the 2019 filming of “First Signal,” scenes were shot both at night and during the day. “It was so much fun,” she said.
Still, it wasn’t until Gerulskis saw the completed film that she realized just how creative the cast and crew had gotten with spaces, including a catwalk to the attic that’s rarely used by staff.
Lund shot the publicity shot for the movie in the Discovery Center’s planetarium. A cast of concerned characters stares ahead as the spectre of a giant moon, with its shadows of craters, looms behind and above them.
“I was laying on the floor when the moon came up over the cast. I asked them to look forward, and I got that down-up angle,” Lund said of the juxtaposition of the figures against the vastness of space. “The whole museum just worked out wonderfully.”
The film made the rounds at virtual film festivals internationally in 2020, earning 17 awards including best feature, actor, actress, director and screenplay.
The film’s Granite State debut took place at Smitty’s Cinema in Tilton in April and got its premiere in Lund’s home state of Massachusetts at the Strand Theatre in Clinton last weekend.
Most of the crew is from New Hampshire, as well one of the stars of the movie, Patience McStravic, who portrays Maj. Ellen Sampson.
“I’m basically the military person whose unit first receives this mysterious signal from outer space,” McStravic said.
Her character initially is a “sidekick” to Gen. John Reager (actor Paul Noonan), head of Air Force Space Command, and then a pivotal figure after she helps relay information to the U.S. President Helen Colton (actress Wendy Hartman).
“As the film progresses, my character starts waffling a bit. She’s approached by different sides to determine where her loyalties lie, and she is faced with a big decision at the end of the film — whether to toe the line or step outside of the chain of command,” McStravic said.
The actor said she moved to Litchfield in 2007 after duty in the U.S. Army as a military police officer.
The chance to use the Discovery Center as a film set was a welcome surprise. “First Signal” was filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered venues, so the center was operating in normal business hours back then.
“There are so many artifacts, and the building itself was perfect for what we needed. The staff was phenomenal,” she said.
Shooting during weekends required precision, measuring exactly where each chair was placed or just what position that goose-neck lamp was angled so scenes had a sense of continuity, Lund added.
Having served as a producer on “First Signal,” McStravic also is known for her roles as Kate Warne in the Emmy Award-winning television show “Assassin Nation” (2017), Lori Rustcraft in the independent film “They Don’t Know” (2018) and Dr. Bartlett in the independent film “Alternate Ground” (2020).
Movie-goers will have an opportunity to meet some of the cast and crew of “First Signal” at the upcoming screening, which will take place outdoors on a pop-up screen on the lawn of the Discovery Center. Bring your own blankets and bug spray.
Center reopens today
Meanwhile, the Discovery Center — named after two Granite State space pioneers, Alan Shepard and Christa McAuliffe — opens for its summer season today. The center plans to host Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and inventor Dean Kamen at 1:30 p.m.
Visitors can check out aviation simulators, planetarium shows, lunar exhibits, weather displays from the Mount Washington Observatory and the Discovery Center’s upgraded DIY weather-reporting station, among other features.
Look also for a NH Space Grant-funded project in which high school students from the Applied Technology Center in Milford and Seacoast School of Technology in Exeter did a research project about how living and work in space affects the human body. Students in eight classes talked with NASA officials, astronauts and space physiologists.
Morning and afternoon time slots to the center are available. Reserve either the 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. session or 1:30 to 4 p.m. session through Sept. 5. Note that the center will not be open on Sunday, July 4.
For more information, call 603-271-7827 or visit starhop.com.