April 24, 2003

Spirit of Vermont

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Jay Craven is an award winning independent filmmaker whose new ’60s movie, The Year That Trembled, will premiere this week at Fall Creek Cinema on Friday, April 25. Craven’s films, which cover everything from logging (The River Flows North) to integration (Stranger in the Kingdom), are noted for all being set in Kingdom County, Vermont and most of them are based on books by Howard Frank Mosher. Craven talked to daze about his movies and Ernie Hudson.

daze: When did you decide to become a film maker and why?

Jay Craven: I made my first super-8 film when I was seventeen, inspired by having seen Antonioni’s Blow Up. then more of those, mostly images and music before the days of MTV. I took a couple of film classes, then got a couple of gigs making documentaries. my first ‘released” film was, ironically, a documentary I helped make, about the Vietnam War.

daze: What are some of your favorite films / directors?

JC: Some of my favorite directors are Michaelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, Krystoff Kieslowski, Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Federico Fellini, Francesco Rosi, Francois Truffaut, Atom Egoyan, Martin Scorcese, Pedro Almovodar, Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee, Jean Luc Godard, Victor Nunez, David Lynch, Paul Schrader, Agnes Varda, Andrej Tarkovsky, Satjajit Ray, Zhang Yimou, Akira Kurosawa, Costa Gavras, and Erroll Morris. Some favorite films are Modern Times, Chinatown, Godfather, Talk To Her, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Nashville, Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, White, Red), The Decalogue, The Gleaners And I, Rashamon, Mulholland Drive, Ju Dou, Affliction, Viridiana, Do The Right Thing, Platoon, Mephisto, La Strada, Fast Cheap And Out Of Control …

daze: Most of your films are based on novels. What are some of the special challenges presented by adapting literature to film?

JC: The challenges involve finding the filmic story within one that’s literary, And to find a cinematic language to express it. Of finding the right balance and weight of characters and relationships, which often involves inverting characters, especially since observing characters frequently narrate novels but have little dramatic impact. There is also the challenge of condensing some elements and expanding others, as was required in my new film, The Year That Trembled.

daze: How do you think returning to the same setting influences your films?

JC: I have a strong feeling for the place and characters, having lived there for twenty eight years — and having worked extensively in the arts there. The Kingdom county stories helped me learn feature filmaking, with its larger scope and logistical challenges. I plan to make one more kingdom county film — maybe two. The next one, disappearances, is a whiskey-running adventure set during prohibition. It will include new challenges and chances for experimentation, including the use of magical realism, which I’m looking forward to–in terms of working with similar story elements and themes, but with new visual and narrative possibilities.

daze: Year That Trembled, like Stranger and River deals with major social issues and conflicts. But your films are especially noted for their focus on character and their non-didacticism. How do you balance character and themes and keep both in focus?

JC: Yes, films rooted in an historical moment or surrounded by political issues face the challenge that the politics and history can overwhelm chaighters and relationships. My goal is to keep characters and relationships in the foreground — and to show how political and social pressures and conflicts can animate characters in powerful and unique ways, that force us to respond and change. These stories also touch common experiences and express universal themes that can resonate for all of us.

daze: I apologize for this question in advance, but, when you worked with Ernie Hudson, did you ever make him sing the Ghostbusters song?

JC: Ernie didn’t sing the song, although some kids who came to the set sang it when he was around. The most interesting ghostbusters stories I remember involve Ernie telling me how when he signed on to the project his character, Winston, appeared on page six. When he showed up for production, his character entered about page sixty. Also, he said that he made less money than all the others, so that he was the only one who couldn’t buy a new house, meaning that he was the only ghostbuster where neighborhood kids could figure out his address and come knock on his door and shout, “hey, he’s for real, man! It’s him!” Then there was the time when my co-producer on disappearances approached Bill Murray for consideration of a part on my new movie. She told Murray that I’d worked with Ernie, to which Murray responded, “Ernie Hudson? I invented him.”

daze: Year is one of your first films set outside Kingdom County and not based on a Mosher novel. What made you decide it was time to move outside Vermont, and why choose this project to do it?

JC: I was developing another ’60s film, when this project came to me with another producer attached, which meant I’d have financial support. This was quite appealing, since I’d produced all my other films. So I took on the project, inspired by the ’60s subject matter, especially since I’d lived then. I liked the idea that the main characters were “regular guys” trying to avoid the draft — and that the story gave me the chance to create a film with a strong sense of time and place. It’s an ensemble film, so i could weave a dozen different stories through the picture, including an undercover agent, like the notorious Tommy the Traveller who infiltrated Cornell and other upstate New York colleges during the ’60s.

Archived article by Erica Stein