BRATTLEBORO—Filmmaker Jay Craven’s six Vermont-made movies and characters buck the Hollywood stereotype of the rural fool.
Media is so powerful that without cinema to reflect culture, that culture doesn’t exist or is marginalized because it is treated in a generic way rather than specific, he said.
“Our goal is to expand the conversation about our own place,” Craven said. “To say that we do exist” through our literature, music, history, and film.
These goals also drive the educational process for the students participating in the intensive Movies from Marlboro (MFM) program, a collaboration between Craven and Marlboro College. Craven hopes the students will realize they have their own cinematic voices separate from Hollywood.
“You can make movies where you are,” he said.
Craven kicked off the filming of the third Movies from Marlboro film, Wetware, adapted from the novel by Craig Nova, last week in Brattleboro.
Large lights on the roof of the lower Main Street buildings focused red swaths of light across the street against the Latchis Hotel’s upper windows.
Pedestrians stopped. They looked from one building to the next, vibrant with light against the night sky.
A few days later, the film crew and talent for Wetware moved to Burlington. In a few weeks, the production will shift again, this time to Nantucket.
On April 1, the day starts at 12:30 p.m. in Burlington. The weather, said Craven, does not appear “terribly inviting.”
“You come to appreciate why the movie industry is housed in L.A.,” he said during a phone interview.
Dedicating a career to filming in New England has meant challenges. Movies rely on massive infrastructure from equipment houses that rent camera and lighting gear, to staffing, and in the pre-digital days, film processing laboratories. Not businesses usually found on the corner of Elliot and Main streets in downtown Brattleboro.
Craven has compensated by creating systems like using FedEx to deliver things to New York City. In the old film stock days, he said, a crew member drove to NYC three days a week to deliver and pick up dailies, which are the unedited film prints from a day’s filming.
Financing, however, is the most difficult to achieve outside the hubs of NYC or L.A., Craven said.
As he gets older, Craven asks himself how many more times he’s going to do it: make a movie, find the money, and distribute the final product.
Craven has multiple films, documentaries, and television series under his belt. Most of the films were made in New England, such as Where the Rivers Flow North (starring Michael J. Fox, Rip Torn, and Tantoo Cardinal), Disappearances (starring Kris Kristofferson and Charlie McDermott), and Peter and John (starring Jacqueline Bisset and Christian Coulson).
A child of the 1960s, Craven said the decade’s activism infused his goals as a filmmaker. Yes, he decided. Yes, he would make films outside of the traditional Hollywood system. He would tell his own community’s stories and find his own audiences.
In 1991, Craven and fellow filmmaker Bess O’Brien founded the education, media, and arts organization Kingdom County Productions .
Filmmaking as an educational process
The Movies from Marlboro (MFM) semester-long program through Marlboro College provides college students from across the country with the opportunity to gain college credit and professional experience.
The students join industry professionals to produce a feature film. The program’s first film, Northern Borders (2012), based on the novel by Howard Frank Mosher, is available for streaming on Netflix. The program’s second film, Peter and John (2014), based on the 19th seaside story by Guy de Maupassant, was made in Nantucket.
This year, 24 professionals will mentor and collaborate with 30 students from a dozen colleges to make Wetware.
According to Craven, MFM serves two purposes:
First, the program provides “transformative experiential education” in the mold of 20th century educator John Dewey. Craven said Dewey believed that intensive group learning increased students’ understanding of a subject.
Next, the program fosters “sustainable, place-based New England filmmaking,” Craven said.
Craven estimates 11 of this semester’s professionals are also program alumni.
The professionals benefit from the program as well, Craven said. With the exception of Costume Designer Sarah Beers (Peter and John, Maria Full of Grace, Rescue Me), the cast and crew are under 32 years old. The program opens the door to these young professionals to have larger roles and more responsibility than they might get on a Hollywood film.
“That’s a huge opportunity for young actors,” Craven said.
The energy created by a team of people pushing their boundaries is exciting, Craven said. Filmmaking comes with many challenges. It’s imperative to go through that process with people you like.
The newness of noir
Wetware represents an artistic leap for Craven. It’s his first noir. The challenge appeals to him.
The film is set in 2026. People down on their luck and at the end of their rope willingly submit to undergoing genetic modifications. These GMO upgrades prepare them for jobs that only the desperate will take.
Craven met Wetware author Craig Nova in 2007. Nova contacted Craven during the filming of Peter and John, and suggested he adapt his story Cruisers. Craven countered Nova’s offer with Wetware.
Adaptations from novels to screenplays can prove tricky. While both are stories, they are completely different media. Just as an oil painting and photography are considered visual art, they are not created using exactly the same tools, nor do the final products appear the same.
A novelist can spend whole chapters describing a character’s inner thoughts or feelings. The screenwriter’s dictum: write only what the audience can see.
“Everything is challenging to adapt in this book,” Craven said.
Craven’s previous films are period pieces ranging from the 1800s to 1970s.
Wetware comes with a futuristic period and noir genre. Each scene — conveying emotion, the visual style, the actors’ performances — will be first-timers for the veteran director.
Not every aspect of Wetware will depart from Craven’s usual storytelling. Like his other films, Wetware will center on the characters.
He wants the film to stay grounded in the “human element” of this futuristic, genetically modified, desperate world.
Many of the novel’s themes can stand on their own, he said. Other parts of the book he’s altered.
For example, in the novel, the genetically modified humans grow in a laboratory. In Craven’s script, desperate human beings volunteer to become genetically modified.
These characters carry the theme of what it means to be human, Craven said. The movie even asks if they are still human.
To submit to the GMO upgrade, these characters willingly sign away their human rights, he said. Their memories are erased.
According to Craven, military personnel undergo something similar. When soldiers have sued the government, the courts have ruled that, essentially, in Craven’s reading of the situation,
soldiers have no individual rights.
A documentary Craven made 12 years ago about combat veterans, After the Fog, inspired some of the themes Craven brought to Wetware.
While working on the documentary, Craven read about a program to splice soldiers’ genes in hopes of deadening their trauma responses.
Craven said, imagine, in a world of non-stop war and counterterrorism, creating soldiers that are unresponsive to the conditions of violence either endured or inflicted.
“It was unsettling,” he said.
Craven said he doesn’t intend for Wetware to preach social themes, but genetic modification, economic fairness, and human rights are questions for today’s society.
This is a character-driven film, he said. The movie will focus on the characters, their experiences, and their choices. The big themes will be subtext.
Grassroots funding for local New England stories
Wetware’s budget —not including distribution — is $700,000. Craven and the crew are banking on a Kickstarter campaign raising $48,000. As of April 3, the campaign had raised $10,435 with 24 days to go.
“It’s a stiff challenge,” Craven said.
Craven raised $62,000 for Peter and John through Kickstarter and $15,000 for Northern Borders.
Parts of Wetware will be filmed in Massachusetts. Why? Because unlike Vermont, Massachusetts has offered Craven a $155,000 film incentive. Craven has committed to pre-production and half of production in Vermont all the same. He said he believes in Vermont cinema.
Craven calls the act of crowdfunding a “mutual expression of faith” on the part of the film crew — make it and the audience will fund — and on the part of the audience — fund it and the film will tell the stories Hollywood isn’t.
The hardest part about the title of “independent filmmaker” is funding. Nowhere is that more difficult than in the distribution process, when movies are released to theaters, or DVD, or a streaming company such as Netflix.
Films go through multiple phases. Each phase has its own set of associated costs, like pre-production, production (shooting the film), post-production, and distribution.
According to Craven, it can cost $60 million to release and market a film.
Small New England films lack support in a global market where things like a sense of place — or even a dependence on language — are considered detriments, Craven said.
Blockbusters are the big deal in a world market, he continued.
Craven will produce two versions of Wetware. The first is a feature-length film that he’ll barnstorm across New England. The second will be a six-part mini-series for PBS, web-streaming, and downloading.
In Craven’s experience, independent films had more currency 30 years ago.
In 1992, Craven sold 40,000 copies of a film on video at $60 each to stores. Financially, the more than $2 million earned was a workable situation.
By 2007, the finances had shifted to where he’s selling 120,000 DVD copies of his film at $3 each to big-box stores for a total of approximately $360,000.
Television has done much the same, he continued. Twenty-five years ago, a TV deal would run $350,000. Now, a three-year licensing to Showtime, Starz, or a similar channel is $10,000 to $15,000.
“Independents suffered enormously in terms of this financial structure,” he said.
The film distribution system is exploitative, Craven said.
Craven said accessing grassroots funding is “crucially important.” Cultivating the ground, however, takes a lot of time and energy.
“We depend on a grassroots base for the work,” he said.