Professionals and students work side by side to film a scene from ’Northern Borders’ on location in Guilford last March. (Kingdom County
Professionals and students work side by side to film a scene from 'Northern Borders' on location in Guilford last March. (Kingdom County Productions)
Tuesday April 9, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Mary Ellen Franklin remembers the moment the movie people invaded the organic dairy farm she and her husband David operate on Weatherhead Hollow Road in Guilford.

"We were in the barn a little after 5 a.m., and they were right behind us. We were like, 'Oh, my!" recalled Franklin.

Vermont director Jay Craven and a crew of 40 to 50 people quite literally took over the Franklins' farm for several days last spring, filling just about every nook and cranny not occupied by the Franklins, the 50 cows they milk and the assorted other animals that call the farm home. They were there with permission to shoot scenes from "Northern Borders," Craven's latest Vermont-based feature film which will have its world premiere in Brattleboro on Wednesday, April 10, at 7 p.m., at the Latchis Theatre.

"They told us it would be 40 or 50 people, but you really don't know what that feels like," said Franklin. "I think they felt funny that they were really occupying every inch. ... It was pretty wild. I have to say that what really buffered it was that they were such an incredible group of people."

For all of them, the Invasion of the Movie People -- which sounds like a horror movie -- was really more of a love story, as the Franklins and their 40 or 50 guests developed a mutual admiration.

"I look at movies differently," said Franklin. "The amount of times they took the shots over and over again. ... I don't think I would have the phenomenal patience it took to get it right and how meticulous they were.


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"I think Mary Ellen and David didn't know what they were getting into," said Craven, a Northeast Kingdom filmmaker and professor of film and video at Marlboro College. "We love them."

Ditto for Jean Boardman at the Whetstone Inn in Marlboro. The movie people invaded the inn to shoot much of "Northern Borders."

"We totally took over that place and turned it upside down," said Craven. "Jean is a trouper, but I didn't expect that she would be as accommodating and as big a supporter of the film. Jean is unflappable."

On the eve of the premiere of "Northern Borders," Craven is feeling a lot of gratitude for all the people who contributed, but it's an anxious time as well.

Speaking from the train headed back north to Vermont after finishing work on the film on Wednesday, Craven wanted nothing more than for it to be April 10, and "Northern Borders."

"It's only when it connects with an audience that it's complete. The audience brings a lot to it," said Craven. "It's exciting on one level. I feel pretty happy with the film. ... It was a fabulous collaboration, and I'm really pleased about that. ... I'm liking the movie in a way that you like your own kids."

Craven's last feature film, "Disappearances," which starred Kris Kristofferson and is based, like "Northern Borders" on a Howard Frank Mosher novel, was made for $2 million, a pittance by Hollywood standards but a completely overwhelming prospect in the world of independent filmmaking.

To make "Northern Borders" a reality, Craven's Kingdom County Productions teamed up with Marlboro College to create a semester-long film intensive called Movies from Marlboro. Thirty-four students from 15 colleges in the region and along the Eastern seaboard worked alongside 20 filmmaking professionals on every level of production. The students filled key roles and gained experience they would never get through conventional filmmaking channels.

"This is independent filmmaking to the extreme," said Jean M. King, a Wellesley College graduate who served as assistant to the director, last March.

Craven couldn't be more pleased with the results. The students pulled their weight, overcame their lack of experience with passion and grit and got the job done. In the process, many advanced their careers. Craven said 18 of the students have found some kind of film and media industry work since working on "Northern Borders."

Beyond just helping students brush up their résumés, the Movies from Marlboro model created real togetherness on set. Unlike conventional filmmaking where professionals come in, do their specific jobs and leave, the "Northern Borders" crew was together for months, beginning last winter with script work at Marlboro and continuing through the filming and beyond.

"It was the best experience I've had, both in production and in education," said Craven. "It was important that we bonded as a unit, as a family, as a community. We had an opportunity to really develop as a creative community. ... I believe very strongly in this model."

The unique model allowed Craven to make "Northern Borders" on a budget of $500,000. Thanks to some savings in post-production and some donations of equipment and services, the actual cost of the film will be about $473,000. Craven is still raising some of the money.

So Craven is delivering "Northern Borders" on time (even last year he was targeting an April 2013 release) and under budget, but that doesn't mean it has been easy.

"There have been bumps along the road, including some relatively late setbacks that I've had to deal with," Craven said.

Working in digital for the first time, Craven discovered late during the shooting schedule that the first day-and-a-half of filming was corrupted. Fixing that problem cost $5,000.

Shooting on MacArthur Road in Marlboro in late-March last year, Craven and crew found it so muddy that they couldn't get their cars up and had to slosh through the mud a mile and a half on foot.

Plans for shooting snow scenes had to be adjusted when last year's mild winter meant there was no snow to be found. Vermont winter was one thing Craven thought he could count on, but he had to adjust.

There were also personality conflicts in one department that posed real difficulties and had to be sorted out. Craven credited the students with keeping above the fray and getting on with the work in spite of the difficulties.

The end result is a film whose ensemble-, community-style production model mirrored the story being told.

"Northern Borders"tells the story of 10-year-old Austen Kittredge, who is sent by his father to live on his grandparents' Vermont farm, where he experiences wild adventures and uncovers long-festering family secrets, particularly between his grandparents, whose thorny marriage is known as the Forty Years War.

"Northern Borders" was previously in development by Academy Award-winning producer Jake Eberts for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

"Northern Borders" stars Academy Award-nominated actors Bruce Dern ("Coming Home") and Geneviève Bujold ("Anne of a Thousand Days," "King of Hearts"). It also stars Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick ("Moonrise Kingdom"), Jessica Hecht ("Sideways," "Seinfeld") and a supporting cast that features local actors, including 16-year-old Irene Shamas of Brattleboro.

Dern's commitment to the project -- and to the innovative model making it happen -- is particularly crucial.

"Movies like this -- intricate, interesting studies of entertaining folks -- must get made," he said during a break on set last March. "Jay Craven ... he's onto something."

Just what he's onto is still a bit up in the air. The Latchis world premiere on April 10 is the first of five showings in five days to launch the film. The next day, Thursday, April 11, "Northern Borders" will be shown at the Bellows Falls Opera House at 7 p.m., followed by screenings in Montpelier on April 12, Burlington on April 13 and Lyndonville on April 14.

Those screenings are the beginning of a 100-town tour throughout New England that will continue through the summer. Then it's on to festivals, and after that, Craven will work out how the film will be distributed.

In the meantime, Movies from Marlboro proved so successful that plans are in the works for a second collaborative production. Craven has begun assembling his team and recruiting students for work next year on Guy de Maupassant's "Peter and John."

"We're very pleased that the colleges who participated are anxious to participate again," Craven said.

The April 10 screening at the Latchis Theatre is preceded by a reception at 5 p.m., where ticketholders can meet members of the cast and crew.

For more information and tickets, visit www.kingdomcounty.org.