First Nantucket, then the world!
Director to bring his new film on a tour of Cape Cod, the Islands, and beyond this summer
A writer, director, and film studies professor from Vermont, Jay Craven has strong ties to both Cape Cod and the Islands. As a high school student in the late 1960s, Craven spent a few summers working as an employee at Surf City Cape Cod, a popular shop in East Orleans. He also had a job operating the 35-mm projector at the Harwich Cinema for a period and once let the machine’s carbon arc burn out during the famous chase scene in the Steve McQueen film, Bullitt, resulting in an unexpected 10-minute intermission.
In 1969, Craven’s family moved from Pennsylvania to Wellfleet, and three of his family members—his mother Priscilla, sister Julie, and brother Jody—still live on the peninsula today. Craven has also spent a good amount of time on Nantucket, serving a recent three-year stint as director of the Nantucket Film Festival’s education program.
In June—and for the rest of the summer—Craven will have the opportunity to revisit his old Cape and Islands stomping grounds during a multi-town screening tour of his latest film, Peter and John. Starring Golden Globe winner, Jacqueline Bisset, Emmy winner, Gordon Clapp, and actor, Christian Coulson, the film makes its world premiere at the 2015 Nantucket Film Festival. The screening will be held at the Dreamland Theater on Saturday, June 27.
“This is our most important screening,” Craven says. “There are just so many Nantucket connections.” The biggest connection of all, of course, is the fact that Craven shot his film on the island last spring.
After Nantucket, the 64-year-old director will embark on a lengthy summer of local screenings—what Craven calls “The Peter and John Cape & Islands Barnstorming Tour”—with plans to show the film in every town on Cape Cod as well as on Martha’s Vineyard. Later events will be held in Boston, Hartford, and in various communities in Vermont. The tour features dates at traditional theaters as well as unconventional film venues, including bars and churches. Craven says his goal for the tour is simple: to reach as many New Englanders as possible.
“As a director, my place has always been New England,” Craven says, “and the goal has always been to make New England narratives and to distribute them very intensively throughout the region. I hope audiences support this idea that our own movies made in our own place can be just as good movies and can stimulate us in every way that a movie made in California can.”
Set on Nantucket, Peter and John-—which Craven wrote, directed, and produced—involves a relationship between two brothers that grows stormy when one of them receives an unexpected inheritance—and both take an interest in a mysterious young woman. The film is based on French author Guy de Maupassant’s 19th-century novel, Pierre et Jean, a book widely credited with changing the course of narrative fiction due to its rich psychological characterizations. In addition, the French novel and Craven’s film both take place in scenic seaside communities.
Craven and his crew shot the film in April and May of 2014, with a majority of the scenes filmed on Almanack Farm in the village of Polpis. Craven produced the film through the Movies from Marlboro Project, a program he created at Marlboro College in Vermont where he has taught film studies since 1998. In the program, students who attend colleges and universities across the country can study at Marlboro for a film-intensive semester. The four-month program includes classes and workshops as well as pre-production and production work on a feature film.
Craven says he started the program from a desire to offer students a hands-on and highly collaborative learning experience in the film world. In 2014, 32 students from a dozen colleges were enrolled, and each was involved in every facet of the production of Peter and John, from directing and cinematography to makeup and costume design. “It has been a fabulous experience,” Craven says. “When you work with young people in this way, you know on the last day of the production whether you were successful in terms of the educational aspect of it—and so far the answer to that has been a resounding ‘yes’.”
Throughout the shoot, Craven says the support he and his crew received from the Nantucket community was extraordinary. “The film became the equivalent of a barn-raising,” he says, “with literally hundreds of people pitching in.”
For starters, Hy-Line Cruises donated more than 100 ferry tickets to help the film’s professional crew and the students, and all the equipment, make their way to the island. During filming, the Maria Mitchell Association housed the crew at a discounted rate, while the students stayed—also at a discount—at the Star of the Sea Youth Hostel near Surfside Beach.
The Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) provided Craven and company with access to its vast collection of 35,000 artifacts—some of the pieces used in the film included jewelry, china, and walking canes. The NHA also allowed Craven to film in the historic Hadwen House, a 19th-century residence on Main Street that was once owned by a whaling merchant. Cape Cod Five Cents Bank even chipped in to cover the rental cost of a carriage with horses, which helped authenticate some scenes in the movie.
“I’ve always been focused on this community aspect of production,” Craven says, “but the Nantucket experience went way beyond what I’ve ever been able to achieve before in terms of community participation. This was a very ambitious, 19th-century period piece made with a very modest budget and involving 32 students as a majority of the crew. It would not have been possible without so many fabulous people pitching in.”
Craven says film has been a part of his life since he was a child, and for that he thanks his late grandmother, Dorothy Keith Hatch of Orleans. “I was raised by a Texas grandmother who loved movies—mostly Westerns and Tennessee Williams’ pictures,” Craven says. “So, when my peers were watching Dumbo and Lady and The Tramp, I was checking out Red River and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—anything with gunslingers and distraught Southern women.”
As a student at Boston University, Craven began learning about cameras and shot his first super-8 movie, an early version of a music video. After moving to Vermont in 1974, he says he became interested in the idea of intertwining community and culture, “where,” he says, “the arts—including film—could be a very important part of a community.” The following year he founded a community group in St. Johnsbury, Vermont called Catamount Arts and organized a traveling film series, visiting different towns each week to screen foreign, classic, and independent films.
In 1991, Craven co-founded Kingdom County Productions with his wife, documentary filmmaker Bess O’Brien. Since then, the company has produced the couple’s many New England-based feature and documentary films as well as a radio variety show, a touring musical theater production, and Craven’s Emmy-award winning public television comedy series, “Windy Acres.” “A lot of the last 40 years of my life,” Craven says, “has been based on this idea of both presenting and producing film and performing arts as a vital role in community development, education, and entertainment, especially in small towns.”
And for Craven, those small towns have always been local towns like Wellfleet, Dennis, Orleans, and Harwich, and of course Nantucket. Depicting stories about New England people with New England values, and in authentic New England settings, Craven says, is something that resonates with local viewers. Sharing these stories, he adds, may inspire people to think deeply not only about where they live, but who they are.
“[Well-made regional films] strengthen our own sense of who we are in a way that commercial Hollywood movies will not necessarily do,” Craven says. “We certainly go to those movies—and they are entertaining—but I also feel strongly that we have the resources to make good professional movies right where we are.”
For Craven, the completion of Peter and John has been personally rewarding because the project was many years in the making. In 2003, he was hired to co-write a screenplay for a British producer who was planning to make a cinematic adaptation of Pierre et Jean set in South Africa. Craven worked on the script, but due to financing issues, the film was never made.
While teaching—and working on other films and projects over the years—Craven always kept Peter and John in mind. While attending an event on Nantucket to promote his 2013 film Northern Borders, Craven says many he spoke with, including Nantucket residents and reporters, urged him to shoot one of his next films on the island.
He did not need much convincing. Craven says he feels a connection to the island. He treasures Nantucket’s natural beauty and enjoys the sense of community he has felt during his visits to the island. Craven also recognizes how Nantucket, with its many historic charms, can evoke the sense that one is visiting another time and place, one factor that made the island a great backdrop for the film, which is set just after the Civil War.
“It is nice to be in a place where you feel the presence of the past and where the past is present,” Craven says of the island. He appreciates Nantucket residents’ great pride in their island’s history and the fact they are good stewards of both their natural surroundings and the island’s developed areas. The director concludes that he’s also looking forward to the upcoming festival so he can share his film with the hundreds of Nantucketers who helped make it possible.
For more information about Jay Craven and his work, visit kingdomcounty.org.
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