Movie director Jay Craven, tired but exuberant, is delivering thank-yous from a podium before this, the fourth of five “premiere” showings across Vermont of his new film, “Northern Borders.”
“And here is my partner in crime!” says Craven, gesturing toward novelist Howard Frank Mosher, who just entered the filled theater of Burlington’s Main Street Landing, where earlier he had been in the lobby selling copies of “Northern Borders” and his other titles.
Partners in crime?
They are partners in the sense that in the past 26 years five of Mosher’s stories have gone from page to screen under Craven’s direction.
Among Mosher’s characters are assorted rumrunners, deer poachers, moonshiners, gamblers, public drunkards and brawlers.
They are a colorful lot, some noble and endearing, some downright nutty, most drawn from real people whom Mosher met or heard about over the years.
“I guess Jay and I are kind of like my old outlaws,” says Mosher with a laugh during a later visit, last week, at his home in Irasburg, where he writes his stories at the kitchen table in longhand on a yellow legal pad.
Embellished or not, Mosher’s characters for three decades have both reflected and molded Vermonters’ notions of the Northeast Kingdom.
A legend has it that the region, comprising Essex, Orleans and Caledonia counties, got the Northeast Kingdom designation 64 years ago from U.S. Sen. George Aiken in a speech he delivered in Lyndonville. Aiken had a special appreciation for the area’s rugged beauty and remoteness, and he recognized the resiliency of its residents.
So too, Mosher and Craven.
Mosher’s characters live in the early to mid-20th century, during Prohibition, the Great Depression, and into the ‘50s, surviving chronic hard times on wits and hard work but sometimes stooping to break the law to find cash to pay the mortgage or buy hay for the cows.
“I think both Jay and I admire the independent spirit of the Northeast Kingdom,” says Mosher.
“Howard’s characters are often larger than life, highly connected to place, sometimes self-destructive, sometimes heroic,” says Craven. “His work always suggests a strong visual palette.”
To paint a scene or find a theme, Mosher never had to look far beyond his front yard. His novel, “A Stranger in the Kingdom,” published in 1989, is a tale based on an actual incident of racist violence that occurred in Irasburg and shocked the state in 1968. An African-American minister had moved to town from California looking for church work, and his home was shot up one night by a band of bigots. State police were called to protect the minister but wound up arresting him for adultery.
Mosher wove his own story from the incident, developing a plot involving a murder of a young white woman, followed by a trial with strong divisive racial overtones.
“A Stranger in the Kingdom” became a Craven film a decade after the title reached bookstores.
Though the Kingdom was never known for employment opportunity, Mosher and his wife-to-be, Phillis, arrived in the area in 1964 to answer an ad for schoolteachers.
They had quite the welcoming committee.
“We drove up to two drunks in the middle of Orleans, who were having a fistfight near the railroad tracks, and we asked for directions to the high school, and they just piled into the backseat,” recounts Mosher. “They gave us a long tour of town until we finally reached the school.”
The couple thanked their guides, dropped them off, and then checked the rearview mirror to note that the men had resumed throwing their wild and ineffective punches.
“I knew this would be a goldmine, a place to write about,” says Mosher.
The couple were hired as teachers, but Howard soon wound up becoming a student himself, working for a logger by the name of Jake Blodgett, an inveterate and talented storyteller. Blodgett taught Mosher a thing or two about cutting trees, skidding and using horses in the woods – good material for his fiction.
“Jake was a tough guy, but he had heart too,” says Mosher. Blodgett proved an inspiration for two of Mosher’s best-known characters: Grandfather Austen Kittredge in “Northern Borders” and Noel Lord in “Where the Rivers Flow North.”
Craven’s arrival Vermont was less dramatic.
After his undergraduate years at Boston University and filmmaking experiences in New York City, he arrived in the state in 1974 as part of the wave of anti-war, counter-culture young people.
He resided in Caledonia County, where he taught school and launched Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury, which started as a sponsor of a five-town film series and morphed into the full-fledged producer of musical, theatrical and visual arts programs that it is today.
Through Kingdom County Productions, the company he later started with his wife, Bess O’Brien, also a filmmaker, Craven over the years has produced nine films including documentaries.
His other movies from Mosher stories are “High Water,” “Where the Rivers Flow North” and “Disappearances.”
In all his films Craven has shown a knack for finding accomplished actors, among them: Michael J. Fox, Rip Torn, Kris Kristofferson, Tantoo Cardinal, Genevieve Bujold, Treat Williams, Martin Sheen, Ernie Hudson and Bruce Dern. Actor Rusty DeWees of Stowe seems to pop up in most Craven movies.
At the Burlington premiere, the director called the making of “Northern Borders” a big step in his effort to create “sustainability” in regional film production. What he did was bring together elements of Kingdom County Productions and the nearly three dozen students involved in the special filmmaking program he conceived and directs at Marlboro College.
It’s a new educational model, or experiment, one that invited students from colleges around the Northeast for a stay at Marlboro to work on producing “Northern Borders,” to learn hands-on by working as assistant directors, costume designers, script supervisors, camera operators and location managers.
The filming of “Northern Borders” occurred over 26 days in and around Marlboro.
As partners, Craven — who buys rights to any book — and Mosher have over the years gone on the road dozens of times throughout the Northeast to promote their works.
They occasionally have dinner together, says Mosher; and, he admits with another laugh, they sometimes whine in phone conversations about the challenges of making money in their chosen fields.
Mosher praises Craven’s screenwriting skills but admits to having winced at least once – when a scene he worked hard to create failed to make the cut in Craven’s film.
It was the opening of “A Stranger in the Kingdom,” a scene in which the young protagonist is playing catch with his brother, while they and their father listen to a Red Sox game on a car radio on a mountaintop overlooking their town.
“You have 350 to 400 pages in the book, but I have just 90 minutes to tell the story,” Craven reportedly said. “I need a scene to (quickly) get the story off the ground.”
And so it has gone with “Northern Borders,” where a viewer-reader will note a missing fair and canoeing scene, and will see a snake sub for an owl as the marauder in the chicken coop.
Some elements dropped, some added.
But Mosher’s poignancy, humor, and the sense of time and place remain in this tale of family struggle and feuding in the wild Northeast Kingdom.
In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/. Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance writer and editor.