Lights! Camera! Action! in Port Byron; The Making of “Black Mary”

Mary Ann Johnson in front of her famous Port Byron home. Photo courtesy of Mary Ann Johnson

There is anticipation building for a Hollywood-style movie premier in Port Byron, the Cayuga County village just north of the city of Auburn. This quiet village, located on the once-bustling Erie Canal, is the setting for an independent feature movie. Beginning in July 2004 and continuing late into the year, young filmmakers from New York City brought together a crew of technicians and actors to create “Black Mary,” a horror film slated to be shown there for the first time this October.

“Black Mary” is the brainchild of two young filmmakers and business partners, Matthew Leary and Chris Cannucciari, who live and work in New York City but have strong ties to the Finger Lakes region. Cannucciari is a native of Skaneateles, and while Leary grew up in Holland, Michigan, he often visited Port Byron where his grandmother, writer Mary Ann Johnson, is a lifelong resident.

After graduating from Ithaca College where they earned degrees in film and photography, Leary and Cannucciari went on to work at a cable news channel in “The Big Apple,” where Leary still supervises a crew of 11 technicians in five studios. The pair formed their own production company, Roman Moher Productions a few years back, and have already completed about a half-dozen shorts. Two were screened in film festivals held across the country, and won awards. Earlier this year they finished shooting 80 hours of footage in Minnesota for a documentary.

Two years ago, Roman Moher Productions identified the historic village of Port Byron in the Finger Lakes region as the ideal location for their first feature film, which borrows from the legend of a mysterious Indian from the Port Byron area known only as “Black Jenny.”

The story of Jenny, who lived in a hut on Towpath Road not far from the double locks of the Erie Canal, is recounted in “The Last Indian: Black Jenny,” from Ghosts of Port Byron. Eerie Tales along the Erie Canal, Mary Ann Johnson’s second book of ghost stories. Not surprisingly, this sole surviving Indian had customs and rituals which were mysterious to the Port Byron residents for whom she did laundry. Such practices were probably misconstrued as witchcraft. The circumstances surrounding the woman’s death are unknown, although Johnson speculates she may have drowned in the canal. After she disappeared, however, there were sightings of Black Jenny in a canoe gliding along the Owasco Outlet in Port Byron, or walking on the Towpath Road near her hut, which added to her legend.

While Black Jenny inspired the screenplay for “Black Mary,” it is not an entirely factual account of what is known of this Port Byron Indian. “I changed her name to Mary because it was so loosely based (on Jenny) that I didn’t want to paint Jenny in such a fictional light,” explains Leary.

The movie “Black Mary” tells the story of Isabelle, a young woman living in New York City, who goes to Port Byron to settle her mother’s estate after her death, and uncovers some disturbing family secrets, some of which take on a supernatural nature. “It’s really a psychological thriller,” explains Leary, who set out intentionally to make a scary movie. “Some of the scenes were spawned from ghostly happenings that I have experienced in the past,” reflects Leary, who is reluctant to divulge too many of the movie’s details for fear of giving away the story. He says it’s difficult to find a movie that truly scares him these days. “My plan was to create a movie that would scare me … and I think I may have accomplished that.

“The real monster is what you make up in your head,” continues Leary, who admires movies like “The Blair Witch Project.” “You never see the witch,” says Leary in reference to the 1999 movie which, like “Black Mary” was a low-budget film. “You’re scared by what you are imagining.”

Leary says they purposely limited the film’s violence and only used one obscenity in “Black Mary.”

The story unfolds by switching back and forth from the contemporary time period to the early 1900s through cinematic flashbacks filmed with 16 mm film. Much of the filming was carried out at Mary Ann Johnson’s 19th century home on Thompson Road outside Port Byron. The circa 1825 farmhouse provided the perfect setting, especially when transformed to appear as if it had been vacant for 20 years in keeping with the story. Other locations included two other family homes, the canal, as well as local businesses like a popular local eatery, the Port Byron Diner, and a shop, Penny’s Country Crafts. They also filmed at Juhls Fuels, a gas station on West Genesee Street in Auburn. There was a total of 30 days spent shooting, with the bulk of the production in mid-September. At times the cast and crew numbered over 20 people. “They were pretty crazy times,” recalls Leary. “Our shooting schedules were from early morning until the next day … we had a 30-hour shoot day at one point … exhaustion was not uncommon.”

What are the young filmmaker’s aspirations? “I just want to entertain people, to make them laugh or to scare them, and ideally to get paid for it,” says Leary.

“It’s unbelievable,” says Johnson, expressing her reaction to seeing a cut of “Black Mary” this past summer. “There’s a little bit of everything.” She adds with pride, “It keeps your interest.”

During the busy, round-the-clock shooting schedule, Johnson opted to vacate her home and stay at her daughter’s while still helping to feed the crew by making runs to local eateries. She laughs now about making the discovery of a dead skunk hidden in the corner of her hallway when she returned home, and even diffusing its scent with Chanel No.5 perfume. It had been used as a prop in the filming.

Johnson loved the entire experience, and for the woman who was once regularly invited to write Halloween stories for a Syracuse newspaper, she now has a few more tales to tell. These include how the movie stunt man fell down her staircase “eight times until he got it right.”

Johnson reflects, “I really learned to appreciate movies. You have no idea how much work is involved!” She became attached to her grandson’s young friends and co-workers and gave each a little gift for Christmas when production ended. She is excited at the prospect of making more movies in Port Byron.

When can moviegoers get a chance to sit on the edge of their seats and watch “Black Mary?” Leary expected to complete the editing in July, 2005, and to “roll out the red carpet” with a premier of the film around Halloween in Port Byron, in part to thank all the local residents who helped in the film’s making. “Half the proceeds (of the premier) will go back into the town of Port Byron,” predicts Leary, “perhaps to the historical society, or maybe even scholarships for people interested in the arts.” After the premier they will submit the film to festivals “around the world … anywhere and everywhere,” says Leary, in hopes that it attracts a receptive audience and a distributor to bring it to neighborhood cinemas.


by Laurel C. Wemett
Laurel C. Wemett is a correspondent for the Messenger-Post Newspapers in Canandaigua. She owns a gift shop named Cat’s in the Kitchen and lives in Canandaigua.