News Column

Film echoes director's childhood

October 10, 2013


Oct. 10--PLATTSBURGH -- Director Jay Craven's latest film, "Northern Borders," echoes his unique relationship with his maternal grandparents, who raised him from the first through fourth grades.

Set in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, the film -- based on Howard Frank Moser's award-winning novel -- stars Bruce Dern (Best Actor, 2013 Cannes Film Festival) and Genevieve Bujold (Academy Award nominee) as Austen and Abiah Kittredge. No marital bliss here; their union is labeled the "Forty Years War."

Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick ("Moonrise Kingdom") stars as 10-year-old Austen Kittredge III, who comes of age in his grandparents' siege juxtaposed with back-country adventures and skeletons-deep family secrets.

"He has to navigate that difficult, emotional terrain and, in doing so, is challenged and grows up a bit," said Craven, an award-winning indie filmmaker. "It's really a character-based film. It's an intimate chamber drama of these characters."

"Northern Borders" is unlike any movie Craven has made before. It was the product of a daring partnership between his nonprofit Kingdom County Productions and Marlboro College, where he is a professor of film.

"Movies from Marlboro" is a semester-long film-intensive collaboration between young filmmaking professionals and 34 students from 12 colleges in the Northeast.

"We go to the Sundance Film Festival for a week and have eight weeks of workshops, pre-production, academic classes, film classes, and then there are six weeks of production," Craven said.

"We began filming in the spring of 2012. We decided on casting as part of the process. We cast Bruce Dern and Genevieve Bujold, and we needed a boy. We found Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick in an audition in New York. I don't know of anything quite like this. It was definitely a novel program. We're actually planning to do another one ('Peter and John,' based on Guy de Maupassant's 1887 novel) next spring. We felt very positive about it, and students, in many cases, found it to be really transformative."

There was an application process for the students who earned academic credit in the semester away from their home school.

"Every one of them, I met personally and had an interview with them and met their faculty members," Craven said.

He is the director of three other films based on Moser novels: "Where the Rivers Flow North," "Disappearances" and "A Stranger in the Kingdom."

"The idea for this film was granted fairly quickly," Craven said. "What I know to do best and quickly is working with Howard Frank Moser, and that's just what I did."

Like any other movie, financing was a hurdle. Marlboro College put up $250,000, and Craven matched it.

"It's always a very strenuous activity shooting a film," he said. "Getting the money in place and making sure that's going to hold is the biggest challenge."

Craven was not nervous about the project.

"We have plenty of professionals to mentor the students. They have very strong, close support."

The film is on a 100-town tour. The 69th stop is Saturday's screening at The Grange in Whallonsburg. The 70th screening is on Sunday at the Strand Theatre in Plattsburgh.

"It's the first public screenings in New York state," Craven said. "During the summertime, two students did 65 screenings. They are back in school now."

He made the film for a couple of reasons.

"I like the intimate scale of it, about character, emotion and really close observation," Craven said. "I also was raised by my grandparents. I found a lot that I had in common with the story and the characters, and that was cool."

Like Austen III, Craven was sent alone on a train from a summer-long camp on Cape Cod to his grandparents in eastern Pennsylvania.

About his grandfather, Craven writes:

"My grandfather Phil Hatch was not unlike old Austen Kittredge in 'Northern Borders.' He didn't suffer fools gladly. And he was considered to be a pretty tough character. Toward the end of her life, my grandmother hinted that she would tell me a deep secret about him -- but she never did. Instead, I recently discovered it by searching for my grandfather's name in The New York Times archives."

About his grandmother, Craven writes:

"My grandmother also introduced me to movies. She loved westerns and Tennessee Williams films -- anything with gunslingers or distraught southern women. So while my second grade peers were checking out Disney's 'Dumbo' and 'Lady and the Tramp,' Geema and I were cruising Philadelphia and the suburbs in her red '54 Chrysler to check out weekend matinees of 'Red River,' and 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'"

Period pieces like "Northern Borders" is not a complicated feat in the Northeast Kingdom and requires only a little art direction.

The film's cast includes Jessica Hecht (2010 Tony Award nominee, "Sideways" and "Friends") as Liz Kittredge James, and Rusty Dewees, "The Logger," portrays Bumper Stevens.

"I love working with actors," Craven said. "Every actor is different. Every film is totally different, so it's an adventure to engage with the actors to shape these characters in each moment. It just becomes such an endless improvisation. It's really cool. I have got Academy Award (nominated) actors to do this project. Wow, what an opportunity. Telling a story on film is a particular pleasure and always a challenge. You got something huge to try to undertake. You have the privilege and responsibility of trying to do a good job of it. Every actor speaks in a different language, and we have the responsibility to articulate and have a conversation, and that is always just a thrill."

Dern and Bujold were the first choice for "Northern Borders."

"We don't normally get first choices," Craven said. "Bruce Dern went on to win Best Actor at Cannes. He credits our movie to getting him in shape to do that."

Email Robin

IF YOU GO WHAT: "Northern Borders" with pre-screening talk by director Jay Craven. WHEN & WHERE: 8 p.m. Saturday at The Grange, 1610 Route 22, Whallonsburg. Admission is $5 adults, and $2 under 18. 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Strand Theater, 25 Brinkerhoff St., Plattsburgh. Admission is $10.


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