Novices Hew a Rough-Edged Film

Making films in rural Vermont, Caledonia Pictures challenges the Hollywood machine

WHEN Jay Craven and Bess O'Brien began full-time work on a feature film set in Vermont's remote Northeast Kingdom three years ago, they were hoping to realize a long-held dream.

Both husband and wife had spent many years in the state's thriving arts and theater community - he as director of Catamount Arts, based in St. Johnsbury, and she as founder of the Vermont Ensemble Theater in Middlebury. They had in mind making films rooted deeply in their region, not just in subject matter, but talent, finances, and audience support too.

``Where the Rivers Flow North,'' the first feature-length production by their company, Caledonia Pictures, is the offspring of their efforts. It has played for the last three months to full theaters in its home state and in neighboring New Hampshire and upper New York State, despite knee-deep snow and sub-zero temperatures.

It got mixed but generally favorable reviews during a brief opening in New York City (advertising and theater costs were too high to keep it there very long, Mr. Craven says), and it will venture into the Boston area tomorrow at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Mass.

While they're as aware of reviews as any filmmakers, this movie's director, Craven, and producer, Ms. O'Brien, seem above all satisfied that they actually pulled it off - and that the film meets their own criteria for authenticity. `` `Rivers' is the movie I visualized,'' says Craven, seated in the living room of their ancient red clapboard farmhouse, which doubles as headquarters for Caledonia Pictures. Their toddler son Jasper crawls into O'Brien's lap, clearly heading toward nap time.

Craven's plan to make a film based on Howard Frank Mosher's short novel, ``Where the Rivers Flow North'' (Penguin Books), was set in motion in 1986 when he optioned filmmaking rights to the book, which cost him $1,500 a year. ``True, it was a leap of faith - wouldn't it be nice to make this into a movie?'' he reminisces.

Mosher's story is set in the northeast corner of Vermont, right on the Canadian border. That sparsely populated part of the state is known to Vermonters as the Northeast Kingdom, or simply ``the Kingdom.'' The main characters are Noel Lord, a towering former logging-crew foreman who sees his way of life slipping away, and Bangor, his ``housekeeper'' or common-law wife.

The action revolves around Lord's struggle against a utility company that wants to buy his land and build a dam on it. The stars are Rip Torn, an actor with a long string of film and theater credits, and Tantoo Cardinal, one of Canada's best-known actresses and an American Indian.

The whole project was in fact ``a big leap,'' O'Brien says. She had never produced a film before, only theater, and was at first shocked by the ``chaos'' involved. ``There's no straight line. You can be doing the last scene first. You're setting up all day to shoot a three-minute scene.''

Getting money to underwrite the film was a constant preoccupation. O'Brien helped organize parties all around the state to attract investors. Hundreds of people signed on for $6,000 a share, or some fraction thereof. They got firm backing from Vermont residents interested in the arts, including actor Michael J. Fox, who also has a supporting role in ``Rivers.'' Eventually, they raised $1.5 million in Vermont and New Hampshire.

``At the same time we were courted by no fewer than 30 industry types, saying `Have we got the money for you,' '' Craven recalls. None of that money came through. ``It may be hard in Vermont, but what you are told is for real,'' he muses.

People worked for union minimums and lots of time and props were donated. An old friend in Barnet ``wrangled'' all the antique cars they needed to create the 1920s milieu. Collectors drove them up to St. Johnsbury, where the town scenes were shot, for ``gas money,'' says O'Brien. Nearly all the location shoots were free, she adds.

``Ninety percent of `Rivers' was shot within four miles of here,'' Craven says. He points out a window: ``Jewett Pond is just over that hill.'' Many of the woods scenes were shot at the nature preserve there.

Northern Vermont's weather kept the filmmakers on their toes. Sometimes ice had to be broken before a scene with Noel in his canoe could be shot. ``I realized this is what Vermont filmmaking would be like,'' says Craven. The camera work was finished during six weeks of frenetic effort in late fall of 1992. Many months of editing followed.

Craven acknowledges that they broke time-honored film industry tenets by premiering their film in Vermont. But he and O'Brien were determined that the people who had so strongly supported their efforts see the movie on a big screen. ``It became clear that commercial distribution would have put everything in New York and then moved quickly into video,'' Craven says. ``We would have gotten an amount of money that wouldn't have paid back our investors.''

He admits that their strategy of controlling the distribution themselves and aiming the film at regional audiences may not yield enough to pay their investors either, but he thinks it at least has a chance of success. `Rivers' did well, they say, at film festivals in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Vancouver, British Columbia.

It has also won kudos from native American groups, since, Craven says, it's the first feature film with a starring role for a native American woman. Further, he suspects the film's rural setting, and the rugged backwoods nature of its characters, may strike home for a large number of Americans who are tired of the ``urban, hard-edged'' quality of many Hollywood movies today.

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