Academics A New Way to Make Feature Films?
by Jay Craven
During the fall of 1988, I made my first dramatic film. I didn't know what I was doing but I heeded advice I received in a postcard from indie film pioneer, John Sayles. "When the sh - - hits the fan," Sayles wrote, " just keep your eye on the ball." Sayles predicted an onslaught of thorny complications that he said go along with any film shoot. He was right. I did the best I could to stay in the saddle. We survived.
My first narrative was based on Howard Frank Mosher's short story, High Water. It tells the story of an irrepressible teen-aged farm boy battling the odds to get his bright yellow '37 Plymouth to a stock car race across the Quebec border in Sherbrooke. Everything goes wrong. The plank bridge he must cross in his lower field gives out; a torrential downpour threatens to drown his herd of heifers; and the boy's mulish father opposes his every move. Our production faced an even greater number of obstacles. We needed to create a swollen stream that threatens to wipe out the plank bridge, so we constructed a chunky timber dam below it, so we could back up water to create the desired affect. Then, as we prepared to shoot, an actual deluge swamped us with heavy rain. Our entire set nearly floated off into oblivion.
Even with dozens of complications and setbacks, the intense experience of this first film whetted my appetite for more. I loved the adventure-the sight and smell of early mornings and late nights when we all had to remain sharp, the charged collaboration with actors and crew that made our weeklong shoot feel like two months-even the unpredictable twists and turns. Time raced by while seeming to stand still. Even today, I'll catch the whiff of a late October breeze carrying a trace of wood smoke or pick up the hint of a coming rainstorm-and I'll be transported back to the set of High Water.
I made my first film with a young crew. Some had no experience with lights and cameras but could tinker old cars or figure out how to construct our bridge and dam. One young woman had taken college art classes and had an eye for set design and costumes. We all learned a lot.
Next January, having now made five feature-length films, I'll launch a new mode of production that in many ways takes me back to my very first narrative filmmaking experience. I'll partner with Marlboro College, where I teach, to create a Film Intensive semester where we'll gather eight skilled professionals to collaborate with twenty college students to make a dramatic feature film using professional actors. We'll make the film for national release. Students will work in substantial roles to earn college credit AND professional film credit. They'll share in the challenge, camaraderie, occasional frustration, and excitement of the venture.
Some people ask me why I'm now turning to this more improvisational mode of film production. But I've worked in film and education for 35 years and I know that motivated young people can work at a high standard. Whenever I give Marlboro students the chance to take their place alongside film professionals on one of my crews, they rise to the challenge and come away with experiences they never could achieve in a classroom or student film shoot. In nearly every instance, they reach beyond their grasp and develop fresh instincts - in nearly the same moment that they must put them to work. We provide these students with the opportunity to learn through trial and error and develop new perspectives on imagination, collaboration-and stamina. Nothing accelerates an emerging filmmaker's path more quickly than this kind of intensive exposure - which can otherwise take years to achieve.
I have several new scripts that I considered for our Film Intensive. But I've decided to return to my longtime collaborator Howard Mosher for his haunting and unconventional coming-of-age story, Northern Borders. I see Mosher's stories as "Vermont westerns" and love how he animates larger-than-life characters and archetypal themes in a rough but distinctive northern frontier setting. Northern Borders has only three main characters and one primary set but it tells a compelling story of strange family relationships, a fading way of life, and the loneliness of growing up. It's funny, dramatic, and emotionally resonant. Actors will have a field day with these characters and a clever art department can enjoy the fun as they conjure a magical world. Northern Borders was previously in development by producer Jake Eberts (Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Dances With Wolves, The Killing Fields, Chicken Run, The Illusionist) for actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Sadly, the film never reached production but I'm pleased to now take it on.
My twenty-three years in narrative filmmaking also convinces me that our new Film Intensive is the right mode of production for this time-from a financial perspective. I've been lucky to make films that are widely seen and distributed. Still, the financial bottom line is problematic and has only gotten worse. My last picture was Disappearances, a whiskey-smuggling adventure that starred Academy Award nominees Kris Kristofferson and Genevieve Bujold. It performed well in the marketplace, sold 100,000 DVD's, did fine in pay-per-view, played in 23 countries, and beamed into homes on Starz and Showtime. Despite this, the film has returned only a fraction of its $1.7 million production cost. Chip Hourihan, my collaborating producer on the Film Intensive, had the same experience with his 2009 film, Frozen River, which was even nominated for two Academy Awards.
So, let's make movies a new way—aiming high to make Northern Borders the best film we can in a unique collaboration that partners students and professionals who combine learning with craft. Together, we can break new ground.