‘Making a movie is like throwing a party: you just see who shows up’
In Jay Craven’s most recent movie, “Peter and John,” Jacqueline Bissett, left, continues a long tradition of Hollywood stars who have willingly accepted roles in Craven’s modestly budgeted independent films.

‘Making a movie is like throwing a party: you just see who shows up’

Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven to talk about getting the most of a small budget at Next Stage’s Framed series

PUTNEY — Next Stage presents Jay Craven's 2016 seaside drama film, Peter and John, as part of its Framed hosted film series, on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 at 7 p.m.

Based on the 19th century novel Pierre et Jean by Guy de Maupassant, Peter and John tells the story of two brothers whose relationship strains when the younger one receives news of an unexpected inheritance, a dire situation compounded when they both fall for the same woman.

Directed by Craven, Peter and John stars 2014 Golden Globe winner Jacqueline Bisset, Christian Coulson, Shane Patrick Kearns, Diane Guerrero, and Emmy-winner Gordon Clapp.

Nominated for a 2016 New England Emmy Award, the film was produced through the Movies From Marlboro program, a biennial film intensive semester jointly produced by Marlboro College and Kingdom County Productions.

The Next Stage screening of “Peter and John” will include an introduction and Q&A with Craven.

“I look forward to our screening,” says Craven. “And I'm sure I'll enlarge my own understanding of the picture through what audience members say. This, too, adds to my personal experience of making - and touring- the film.”

Craven, a Vermont film director, screenwriter, and former professor of film studies at Marlboro College, teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, where he oversees a Film Intensive program.

Craven founded and runs Kingdom County Productions and recently launched Catamount Arts performing arts program, New England's largest independent arts producer and presenter. He also is the curator of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival.

Peter and John is Jay Craven's eighth narrative film based in New England. The director's previous pictures include five collaborations with the late Vermont writer Howard Frank Mosher, among them Northern Borders, with Bruce Dern and Genevieve Bujold, Disappearances, with Kris Kristofferson, and Where the Rivers Flow North with Rip Torn, Tantoo Cardinal, and Michael J. Fox.

Widely seen

Craven's seven feature films have played 58 countries and 73 festivals, including Sundance - with special screenings at The Smithsonian, Lincoln Center, Le Cinémathèque Française, the Constitutional Court of Johannesburg, and others.

His commitment to New England place-based filmmaking was recently profiled by Orion magazine. They wrote: “Jay Craven has come closer than any other filmmaker to realizing (American poet, essayist, and film theorist) Vachel Lindsay's dream of a vital regional cinema that embodies the character and genius of a place in all its mystery, magnificence, and pain.”

Filmed in Vermont and Nantucket in 2015, and released in 2016, Peter and John is still touring at film festivals and sites like Next Stage, which screens innovative independent films.

“The film is coming to the end of its theatrical run, with a half a dozen dates in the past several months,” says Craven. “But it has not yet been released on video or become available online.”

Craven believes the original novel by Maupassant on which he has based his film Peter and John is “a great story with intense edges, that has a Romantic vision to which I'm attracted.”

Craven writes at the Next Stage website that “Maupassant's novel was widely credited for helping to change the course of narrative fiction through its detailed psychological characterizations. Tolstoy and Nabokov both cited the novel as an influence. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent Van Gogh cited Maupassant for the visual power of the novel's detailed seaside setting.

“Henry James wrote, 'Monsieur de Maupassant has never before been so clever' and he called Pierre et Jean a 'masterly little novel' for its potent themes of family, status, self-discovery and the lengths to which someone will go to reveal or suppress the truth.”

Yet however much he may admire the novel, Craven has not slavishly adapted Pierre et Jean to the screen.

For instance, he has changed Maupassant's setting in his film from mid-century France to 1872 Nantucket, during what Craven characterizes as “the island's 'ghost period' - after the decline of whaling, before the rise of tourism, and in the New England shadow of the Civil War.”

Brother vs. brother

Peter Roland (Christian Coulson), a Civil War veteran, is a brooding young doctor trying to make a go of his practice on Nantucket. His younger brother, John (Shane Patrick Kearns), is a free-spirited lady's man without Peter's ambition or drive.

When a friend of the brothers' parents (Jacqueline Bisset and Gordon Clapp) leaves his fortune to John, Peter is left understandably confused and upset. Meanwhile, a mysterious young widow, Lucia (Diana Guerrero), arrives on the island, claiming Peter had treated her husband during the war. The Roland boys soon are competing for her attention.

“As with my earlier films, I also found personal connections to Peter and John, mostly through its depiction of an emotionally perilous 'too close' relationship between Peter and his mother, Louise, played by Jacqueline Bisset,” Craven writes in a press release.

“I had this kind of relationship with my hard-drinking mother and it complicated my early years. Peter's relationship with his brother John also mirrors some of what I experienced - and continue to experience - with my younger brother. Like Peter, I needed to reach a point where I could let go of the 'illusions by which I lived.'”

Peter and John is Craven's first film shot in Nantucket.

“I think we established a quite special look and feel of the place, which would not be what you might expect if you've been to Nantucket,” he says. “We sought out more unusual aspects of the island, working to give a period feel to the film.”

As in the novel, Peter is a doctor, but in the film he also had been a medic in the Civil War, an experience that haunts him throughout the film.

“Maupassant often explored the impact of war on his characters, which for him was primarily the Franco-Prussian war,” Craven says. “But I believe that our American Civil War proves to be a fine corollary to that. I found a Civil War diary about a Cuban who fled to Florida where her farm became occupied by Union soldiers. I incorporated that experience into the film.”

Cuban expatriate

Craven based his story's love interest, Lucia, on an actual history of Cuban expatriate and Confederate spy Lola Sanchez, whose family fled to St. Augustine, Florida, before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Craven writes, “I named her Lucia, based on a deeply affecting film I saw in my early 20s by the Cuban director Humberto Solas. Again, I made personal connections and sense memory to guide my work on the character.”

As in many of his other films in the past, Craven has assembled a remarkably stellar cast for his low-budget independent film.

It includes one of the major (and certainly the most glamorous) stars to arise out of late 1960s-early 1970s cinema, Jacqueline Bisset, known for such seminal films such as Bullitt and Truffaut's Day for Night.

Christian Coulson has appeared in The Hours, Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets and Nashville.

Shane Patrick Kearns is known from the film Blue Collar Boys and the television series The Blacklist.

Diane Guerrero has starred in the television series Jane the Virgin and Orange is the New Black.

Gordon Clapp is a veteran of all 12 seasons of the television drama NYPD Blue, as well as two of John Sayles' films, Matewan and Eight Men Out. He took the stage most recently in the Broadway revival of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award.

When Craven asked Clapp if he would like to star in his film with Bisset, the actor said, “I was up for a project with Jacqueline in 1967, I guess the callback finally came through.”

Actually Craven first asked Bisset if she would be interested in Peter and John 10 years ago, but she has no memory of that event.

When Craven finally was able to get the project off the ground and once more inquired if she would like to play the part of the mother, Bisset replied, “Funny you should ask me. I was just going through my papers and found a copy of the Maupassant novel.”

Craven told her it was he who gave her the novel when he first approached her about making a film of it, but she still could not recall any earlier offer.

Volatile secrets

Bisset has always been a very busy actress, both in English and French language films (she speaks French perfectly), so understandably Craven had been worried that Bisset wouldn't take on as low-budget a project as his, especially since she had just won an Emmy for the BBC series, Dancing on the Edge. But she sportingly joined his cast.

“Jacqueline was fun to have around,” Craven says. “She had some complaints about the costumes, which were not quite as stylish and sexy as she would have liked. We changed them for her, and it all worked out fine.”

Craven thought it was a thrill to work with Gordon and Jacqueline and “to shape their characters' unconventional marriage on screen. Gordon strikes just the right notes as the former whaling captain who has spent his life surrounded by a family whose volatile secrets reside just beneath the surface,” writes Craven.

All in all, Craven admits that he has been lucky getting the actors he wants for his films.

“Making a movie is like throwing a party: you just see who shows up,” he says.

So what does the future hold for Jay Craven?

“I stay busy,” he says. “I wish I could afford to retire, but I can't.”

Not that he's complaining: “I enjoy what I do.”

Craven recently completed principal photography on a 2019 production based on Jack London's autobiographical novel, Martin Eden. He also is developing a project about Vermont's Green Mountain Boys and their participation in the American Revolution.

“That should be a treat to cast,” he says. “One of the characters is George Washington, and who wouldn't want to play him.”

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