Bringing "Disappearances" to the Vineyard

By Jay Craven - August 10, 2006

I've been on the road with my new film, "Disappearances" for six weeks now - as part of a pre-release Summer 100-Town Tour. Most of the screenings are in Vermont, where I made the film, but the tour includes several non-Vermont dates, including screenings next Monday and Wednesday nights at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

Set during Prohibition, "Disappearances" tells the story of Quebec Bill Bonhomme (Kris Kristofferson), an impossible dreamer and schemer who needs fast cash after a freak lightning storm destroys his barn. Despite forebodings from his skeptical and mystical sister, Cordelia (Genevieve Bujold), Quebec Bill hatches a plan - to steal 20 cases of whiskey from Canada's most notorious bootlegger (Lothaire Bluteau) - and smuggle it back across the Vermont-Canadian border. He takes along his 15-year-old son, Wild Bill (Charlie McDermott), his inscrutable brother-in-law (Gary Farmer), and his cranky hired man (William Sanderson). Together, they cross the border into vast reaches of Canadian wilderness for three magical, mysterious, and unforgettable days "full of terror, full of wonder."

Award-winning filmmaker Jay Craven.
Award-winning filmmaker Jay Craven.

The film completes my trilogy of "Vermont frontier films" based on novels by Howard Frank Mosher. I played the Katharine Cornell with my first two pictures, "Where the Rivers Flow North" (with Rip Torn, Tantoo Cardinal, and Michael J. Fox) and "A Stranger in the Kingdom" (with Ernie Hudson and Martin Sheen). But my Vineyard connections go deeper. I hammered out the working draft of my "Rivers" script while holed up at a friend's place in Edgartown. And my wife Bess and I put together the business plan for that film a year later in West Tisbury.

This 100-Town Tour invokes memories of the New England vaudeville circuit and it has also prompted dozens of unforgettable moments, like one in Irasburg, Vermont, when a farmer drove to the screening on his John Deere tractor and another guy and his girlfriend hopped out of an 18-wheeler.

In Enosburg Falls, a five-year-old walked out of the show explaining the film's magical realism to his parents. At the Haskell Opera House, along the border in Derby Line, an usher in spit curls hawked lavender seat cushion rentals for 50 cents. The screen was in Canada while most of the audience sat in the United States. After the screening, debates raged in the lobby about whose relatives had been most central to the local whiskey smuggling trade.

In Grafton, I stayed two nights at the gracious Inn where the lineage of former guests is stenciled on a white plaster wall above the reception desk. Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne stayed here. Their hovering presence permeates the place as you walk the ancient plank floors.

In Wellfleet, a woman lingered after the show. She liked the film, but she was shocked to see me, the writer/director, folding up chairs and hauling speakers out to my car. "Is this really what you have to do?" she asked, "as an independent filmmaker?"

"Yes," I said with a laugh. "I mean, you don't have to. But the movie business is so centralized and distributors just take the money and run. You have to stand behind your picture. I'm okay with it."

If I'd had more time, I might have told her about a comment that a leading industry distributor made to me at the Sundance Producers' Conference in 1995. I explained to him the success we'd had self-distributing "Rivers" and asked if that proven track record would help us get industry support next time out.

"A Vermont film doesn't even register on our radar screens," the executive said. "It won't play to our urban demographics."

"How do you know?" I said. "And how can you characterize a "Vermont film" without considering its own merits?"

"Look," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, there's a brick wall eight miles outside of Manhattan. And I don't care what happens on the other side of that wall."

Hey, I love New York and I see plenty of Hollywood films, especially since I have kids. But Hollywood does not have a monopoly on all the stories that are worth telling. Think of all that John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Annie Proulx, Flannery O'Connor, Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, and others have contributed to our collective culture through their rural narratives.

As in literature, America's most resonant film narrative can only result by fostering a cultural fluidity that values regional and rural voices and allows them to develop, achieve maturity, and interact with broad audiences in every corner, including small towns and places like Martha's Vineyard.

Jay Craven will present "Disappearances" at 7:30 pm, Monday and Wednesday, August 14 and 16, at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are available at the door.

Award-winning filmmaker Jay Craven, a longtime Vineyard visitor, has written and directed five feature films, six documentaries, and the Emmy-winning Vermont comedy TV series, "Windy Acres."

Awards include two National Endowment for the Arts Film Fellowships and the 1995 Producer Guild of America's NOVA Award for Most Promising Motion Picture Producer of the Year.