Editor’s note: Filmmaker and arts presenter Jay Craven recently completed filming of his newest picture, "Northern Borders," based on a novel by Irasburg writer Howard Frank Mosher. This tribute was written for the occasion of a recent Burlington Book Festival which was dedicated to Mosher. Because of his work adapting Mosher novels into films, Craven was asked to deliver the dedication speech. The following is the first of two installments of Jay’s tribute.
In pondering what it is that Howard Mosher has contributed to my life, I sorted through a steady stream of ideas, then realized that it’s really quite simple. Howard taught me to read — and write. Not in the going-to-school kind of way, though he’s put in plenty of time teaching English at Orleans High School and coaching basketball at Lake Region.
Howard taught me in the way that has simply come from reading and re-reading his stories, from spending thousands of hours working his lines of dialogue, tuning my ear to his character voices, and visualizing action through his descriptions — to the point that I felt confident enough to add and subtract from his novels without feeling that I was taking anything away from their essence. My scriptwriting collaborator on the earlier projects, Don Bredes, also helped guide me. How well I’ve done that is for others to say.
But this twenty-two year apprenticeship has taught me more than I can articulate – about opening characters and story to a hundred dimensions – all rooted in hard-earned emotion. For working color and texture into a dramatic moment, shaping an ironic turn of a phrase, and using action to articulate theme.
This collaboration has taught me how to look deeper into story themes and subtext. In the case of his book and my film, “Disappearances,” I’m still looking, and finding new gems, alongside audiences willing to explore. Howard has introduced me to the power and the glory of imagination in ways I had never experienced before.
So what do you say to the guy? Thanks? Or damn it, I’m in this up to my neck — and still in debt — all because of you.
But, I assure you, it’s been a treat.
People sometimes ask what attracted me to Howard’s work. The truth is there was no other choice. I spent sixteen Northeast Kingdom years committed to the idea of merging “community and culture” through my work establishing the Catamount Arts film and performing arts presenting organization.
After that, when I moved to make narrative films through Kingdom County Productions, Howard’s books were a natural for their deep roots in that same Kingdom, that exquisite, unyielding, damnable place bordering Quebec and New Hampshire.
I loved the irrepressible characters Howard dug out of the woods and hills: the Yankee log drivers, whiskey runners, farmers, deer-jackers, con men, cock fighters, strippers, live-in housekeepers, and even the suspected bank robbers that populated the dusty back roads — rebels still rooted in19th Century Vermont who needed plenty of elbow room and resisted change. You may not find them in the files of the Historical Society, but they are part of Vermont. Think of Quebec Bill’s quick summary to his young son, of the whiskey smuggling Bonhomme family’s proud contribution to local progress.
“Without a reliable supply of liquor, Wild Bill, Kingdom County wouldn’t be what it is today.”
With his keen eye, fly-trap ears and vivid imagination, Howard has rendered an account of living here that is at once larger than life and firmly rooted in the specificity of character and place.
I’ll tell you two quick stories:
Several years ago, I screened “Disappearances” in Woods Hole, MA, and afterwards a man rose to speak.
“I just don’t get the character of Quebec Bill,” he said. “He’s smart and cunning but also reckless and doomed to failure. Why?”
An oceanographer sitting in the front row beat me to the punch. “Have you ever lived in the Northeast Kingdom,” he said. “I have.”
But you don’t need to know the Northeast Kingdom to appreciate these turns of character. I’m reminded of the time I coaxed legendary maverick film director Sam Fuller to a “Rivers” screening in Avignon, France. I sought out the old cigar-chomping Hollywood tough guy who said he’d been coming to the festival for ten years and never seen a good American independent film. But I got his attention when I told him my lead character was a logger as tough as Fuller was.
Sam stopped and looked at me. “You got trees in that picture?” I told him we did and he showed up on time for the screening.
Afterwards, I was nervous but Sam collared me immediately. “Now that’s a picture,” he said, tears in his eyes. Behind us, a young woman chimed in. “But the lead character, Noel Lord, he’s so politically incorrect. He destroys the trees; he cares nothing about the environment.”
Fuller turned on a dime. “What, are you a moron?” he asked. “The man’s a hero.”
So, Howard’s compassionate rendition of deeply flawed characters fascinated me and intrigued actors, from Rip Torn, Kris Kristofferson, Tantoo Cardinal, Bruce Dern, and Geneveive Bujold to Anthony Quinn who lobbied to play Noel Lord but proved not to be right. These actors and I loved Howard’s characters – as stubborn, spiteful, irresponsible, enigmatic, and self-destructive as they were heroic, noble, irrepressible, and transcendent. How could I resist? This would be fun.
To be continued.