READING — When Rob Apse launched his own production studio four years ago, one of the first projects he worked on was “The Last Lightkeepers,” a series of eight short films telling the story of historic New England lighthouses and those working to preserve them.
While developing the series, the Reading native learned about the lighthouses, how they lost their original lightkeepers after becoming automated, subsequently fell into disrepair and how a new generation of lightkeepers emerged to help ensure their history wasn't lost.
Realizing the depth and breadth of the lighthouses’ history, it soon became apparent that the short films wouldn’t do the story justice.
“I realized that there was a much bigger story,” Apse said.
Four years later, Apse has developed “The Last Lightkeepers” into a one-hour documentary, which will be released on Dec. 8 and will serve as his first feature-length film.
A graduate of Reading Memorial High School in 2005 and Ithaca College in 2009, Apse has a longstanding passion for filmmaking that he’s incorporated into everything he’s done. He’s applied his skills professionally through his work in advertising, and in 2016 he founded Wandergroove, his independent production studio.
Specializing in “curating the history and culture of brands through filmmaking and storytelling,” Apse has produced dozens of documentaries, short films and commercials through Wandergroove. But while the subjects of his work have varied widely, lighthouses and their stories remained a constant throughout.
“A lot of people say when you visit a lighthouse or do the research you catch the lighthouse bug,” Apse said. “There is such a vastness to the history and when you dig into each individual lighthouse everything has a story.”
Apse’s work took him up and down the New England coast, where he immersed himself in the local lighthouse community. He spoke with local historians, who told him stories like the time an alert lightkeeper helped prevent the ocean liner carrying President Woodrow Wilson – on his way back from signing the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War 1 – from running aground on Thatcher Island near Rockport on a foggy night in 1919.
He also learned about the National Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which led to the transfer of many historic lighthouses from the federal government to nonprofits and individuals dedicated to their preservation.
“It’s incredible what these people have done in the last 20 years to keep these lighthouses open to the public,” Apse said. “Or if they are private, then at least standing and looking the way they had in the late 1800s when they were first built.”
Originally planned for a 90-minute runtime, the documentary had to be trimmed down after the pandemic halted production and forced Apse to cancel some of his last planned shoots. Initially unsure if he had enough footage to proceed, Apse took a hard look at what he had already filmed and a month later determined he could finish the film.
“It forced my hand to get it done,” Apse said. “Lighthouses are symbolic for hope and our guiding light and in these turbulent times people need something good to look forward to.”
The film will be available Dec. 8 on Amazon to purchase or rent, and a portion of the film’s profits will support the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses and its efforts to restore the Whaleback Light at Kittery Point.
For more information on the film, visit www.thelastlightkeepers.com.