Kindred Spirits Jay Craven completes Howard Frank Mosher film trilogy

Aug. 6, 2007
By Ben Beagle
Daily News Lifestyles Editor

Filmmaker Jay Craven and novelist Howard Frank Mosher have been telling stories of wild and colorful Vermonters for decades.

Yet, neither is a native. Craven grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania. Mosher in central New York. They are, however, kindred spirits, drawn to the northern frontier by the quirky, determined people who inspire Mosher ‘s novels, three of which have been adapted into feature films by Craven.

“These films contradict and expand our notion of New England, away from the town green and white picket fences, to this notion of a frontier, especially along the border,” Craven said in a telephone interview from his production office in Barnet, Vt.

Craven’s latest film, the whiskey-running adventure Disappearances , makes its Western New York premiere this week. A single screening is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, 341 Delaware Ave., Buffalo. Craven will not be in attendance, but Mosher (the featured author in the 2004 Tale for Three Counties community reading project in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties) is scheduled to visit Hallwalls next week and said he expects to talk about the film during his program.

“When you think of independent-minded filmmakers, Jay fits the bill,” Mosher said. “He could be a renowned Hollywood director, but he wants to run his own show. I think he does a good job. He stays as close to the characters and spirit as I bet you can.”

Craven had adapted two other Mosher novels, Where the Rivers Flow North (1994) and Stranger in the Kingdom (1998). He calls the three films his “Vermont frontier trilogy.”

“How Howard writes about the Northeast Kingdom made a natural connection for me,” said Craven, who moved to Vermont in 1974, about a decade after Mosher settled there.

“Howard set out to make contact with the last of a vanishing breed. These characters … are largely unvarnished by media and contemporary sensibility and rendered as a kind of mythic world that resembles a Western,” Craven said. “There’s an outlaw culture that exists in the margin.”

And that may be why Disappearances , a mystical, sometimes wild coming-of-age adventure adapted from Mosher ‘s 1977 debut novel, feels like something John Ford or Sam Peckinpah would have made.

In fact, Disappearances star Kris Kristofferson, a veteran of several Peckinpah films, called Craven’s film “the Peckinpah film that got away.”

“It had the quality of an old folk ballad. Half of it is magic, and half of it is real,” Kristofferson said in a documentary about the making of Disappearances .

A fading frontier

Kristofferson stars as Quebec Bill Bonhomme, an old bootlegger trying to make it on a hardscrabble farm. He’s smart and cunning, but also, it seems, doomed to failure.

Set during a cold muddy spring in Depression-era Vermont, a freak lightning strike causes a fire that destroys Quebec Bill’s barn. He still finds a positive spin – as he does on everything else that goes wrong. He seizes on the idea of a final cross-border moonshine run to get money that will save the farm, and help him introduce his nowhere-near-wild son Wild Bill (played by 15-year-old Charlie McDermott) to a past that is disappearing.

“In a way, Quebec Bill represents a fading frontier,” Craven said. “He’s desperate to pass on his life to the kid. But Quebec Bill also comes to realize that Wild Bill represents something different. He represents the future, the next generation.”

And Wild Bill emerges from the story with a more complex understanding of his family, which includes Aunt Cordelia (Genevieve Bujold), who magically appears and disappears to Wild Bill several times as she tries to save the boy from a terrible fate she has foreseen.

Craven, who grew up going to Westerns and Tennessee Williams films with his grandmother, found himself taking a journey of his own in making Disappearances .

The filmmaker said he found a personal connection to the story: his own father ran away over alcohol. Craven said he was 6 years old when his father left, “and I never saw him again.”

“Of all the movies I’ve made, this one has spoken to me most consistently,” he said. “Nothing else has grabbed on to me, and kept speaking to me like this one. For me, it’s opened doors not known to me.”

The past, as present

Together, Craven and Mosher look at Vermont the way earlier storytellers saw the Old West.

“I think Howard saw, and I certainly do, that the Western is the genre that enables a writer, or a filmmaker to address quintessential American themes,” Craven said. “These ideas are timeless, especially for rural America.”

Often the themes deal with a disappearing way of life, or mark a place and time where the past continues to be present. The theme is introduced in Disappearances by a quote from Faulkner – “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – and repeatedly addressed by the mystical appearance and disappearances of characters. The device, both Mosher and Craven acknowledged, made Disappearances a difficult story to translate to film when working on a limited budget.

“You do a narrative dance between the magical and realist elements,” Craven said, “so that neither overloads the other. It allows the audience to think of certain meanings for themselves.”

Linking art and community

Craven, a professor at Marlboro College near Brattleboro, Vt., moved to the region after living in Boston and New York City. He said he felt “a stronger sense that I’d have more in common” in Vermont after growing up in rural Pennsylvania.

For 16 years he ran the non-profit Catamount Arts. It started as a traveling classic film series and expanded into performing arts, bringing such artists as Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and Miles Davis to small towns in Vermont and New Hampshire. Craven also co-founded Circus Smirkus, a semi-professional children’s circus that still visits 40 towns each summer.

Then he turned to filmmaking.

“I was looking to link the cultural aspects of art with community,” said Craven, who lives in Peacham, Vt., with his wife Bess O’Brien. “I think this region should have a voice, and far larger than it does. For cultural films, you have to be a powerful producer to make it with the system that is in place.”

Craven’s films typically have budgets of $2 million or less, far below even the cheapest Hollywood films. To get them made he relies on his own determination, honed through more than 30 years as an arts activist, and the sense of community that comes with his films. His actors, regardless of how familiar their names, work for the Screen Actors Guild minimum – $1,620 a week for Disappearances – and contribute in other ways.

“Financing is badly hobbled by the nature of film distribution in this country, which is so dominated by Hollywood. It’s not a sustainable economic form for those who want to make independent cultural films,” Craven said.

His most challenging film

Disappearances , which received a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, took 10 years to complete.

Craven said it was his most challenging film to make. He had optioned the rights in 1995, and was set to begin production in 2000. But when a major funding source fell through the project – and Kristofferson – had to wait.

Craven’s Kingdom County Productions went about raising the additional money as it had for past projects – selling shares to investors. Even after production began in 2005, fundraising continued. Craven mortgaged his house, and Kristofferson played two benefit concerts, raising $60,000, and attracting another $100,000 investor.

“When you’re trying to make a movie look like $10 million bucks, but are making it for $1.5 million bucks, there are going to be compromises,” said Craven, who took Disappearances on a tour of New England before its premiere in March 2006 at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. “But we got to tell the story, we got to make a movie. We got to do Disappearances .”

Sense of mission

Craven’s next project will take him away from Vermont. They Don’t Dance Much , based on the novel by James Ross, is described as “deep south country film noir.”

But he isn’t abandoning the state.

He still wants to adapt Mosher ‘s Northern Borders , and he has optioned Judgement Ridge , a book about the 2001 murder of a Dartmouth College professor and his wife by two Vermont kids.

“The job of trying to build an audience for these cultural films could consume a lifetime,” Craven said. “But I come out of the ’60s, and like a lot of other people who did, I bring that sense of mission. I just found the arts to be the arena that works best for me.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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