“hollydacks” – top five regional film productions

The following was printing in the Lake Champlain Weekly, January 2011, edited by Caroline Kehne.  Minor revisions have been made here to change some date-specific elements.

As we head into summer, movies that have been already shot 18 months ago and been strategically released for the late-year slots and Oscar nod positions have come and gone.    Budgets are already being been determined for 2012.  Publishers have the books they plan to launch in the next fiscal year clutched to their chests like librarians, studio heads have gathered round the big oak table and discussed the summer blockbuster bonanzas a year from now.  It’s as though the entertainment business has become one of fate.

We live in a time when fewer books are plied by the big publishers, fewer films are put out by the major studios.  The elephantitis of distribution is to blame. The monolithic companies (having absorbed many smaller companies) require big home-run hits to sustain them.  Why gamble on five could-be-successful films when Bruce Willis or Julia Roberts will guarantee the biggest numbers with one sure fire hit?  And if it’s not superstar tactics, it’s the serial.  Get a project together that will spawn two, three, maybe six sequels (note: Harry Potter has passed puberty and is now ready for college) and you’re likely to have something the big guns want.

While the giants loom, churning out rehashed plots and refurbished stories for the mass audience, the little guy is starting up again.  Self-published books and independently financed and self-distributed films are springing up everywhere in response to the monoliths.

Certain technologies have changed the playing field significantly, but the spirit of the indie is nothing new.  It’s true, as you’ll see in a few moments, that even the big studios used to spread themselves liberally around, trudging deep into the woods to make an “authentic” film.  What hasn’t changed since as early as the 1960s, is the spirit of the independent.  In the Adirondacks, specifically in the Tri-Lakes, we’ve had some very interesting regional productions.  And here is what I consider the “top five” of those.

“Top Five” Regional Film Productions What exactly qualifies a “regional production,” anyway?  It means a well-greased Manhattan crew deep in the chilling woods, pulling focus and working the dolly while the director’s call of “action!” echoes through the conifers and evergreens.  That’s a regional film production.  It means when someone you know, like the late, great Fred Sullivan, is seen walking around your home town with a 16mm camera strapped to his back, his family scurrying along behind him carrying title slates and bounce boards.  That’s a regional film production.  And does that top five really signify the best of the best, with immutable exclusivity?  No. Our own ‘top fives’ inevitably evolve over time, reflecting our changing states as human beings.  So this top five here, this isn’t a definitive, all-time best, indestructible list.  But there’s a reason these locally made films are up here, there’s a reason why they do in fact exist in a group like this, and belong there.

Honorable Mention A top “five” list is a nice round number, but this list wouldn’t be complete without Frozen River.  The Oscar-winner was written and directed by Courtney Hunt and filmed in and around Plattsburgh, NY.  Those the Oscar nods are nice, but you don’t need the Academy to tell you that a film like Frozen River, filmed within the same rugged terrain it depicts under harsh conditions, is a work of cinematic art.  Melissa Leo is superb as a down-on-her-luck single mother who befriends a Mohawk girl and begins moonlighting as an immigrant smuggler, ferrying her passengers over the deadly frozen river in the trunk of her car.  Courtney Hunt’s minimalist script and efficient direction pay homage to film classics, understated, atmospheric and thrilling all at once.  If you haven’t yet been swept away by Frozen River, or would like to experience it again, now is the time to see a powerful film and marvel at yet another great regional film production.

Number 5.  The Street of Seven Stars (1918) Before Hollywood became the center of the moviemaking world, film companies shared a nomadic quality.  Around 1910 the motion picture industry was booming, and in order to keep up with demand many major producers had stock companies shooting in various parts of the country – even at the same time.  There was also a great need for creating an authentic atmosphere.  No computer generated landscapes, and no shooting Toronto for New York.  This was the real deal.

From this era came a young girl named Doris Kenyon, daughter of poet and publisher James Kenyon.  Though she was born in Syracuse, Doris frequently stayed with her brother, Ray, who had settled into Ausable Forks and had been drawn to the Adirondacks by a love of hunting and fishing.  Doris visited Ray so often she became considered something of a native.  She performed often with the choir in Fern Lake.  There her exceptional voice caught the attention of world-renowned cellist Victor Herbert, who maintained a home in Lake Placid, as did many of his ilk – composers, musicians and stars of the silver screen.  Herbert wasted no time casting Doris in a stage musical, and a young miss Kenyon debuted on Broadway to rave reviews.  It wasn’t long before she began work on the big screen, and to form her own company – De Luxe Pictures.  She then brought a crew up from the city and mixed them in with regional folks.  Together they stayed at the Lake Placid Club while filming their first project, The Street of Seven Stars in 1918. The film was directed by John B. O’Brien.  To find out how to see The Street of Seven Stars, contact your local film commission.

Number 4.  Switchback (2011) Switchback is a feature directed by Lori Kelley Bailey, was budgeted at about 140,000 dollars in May and June of last year and shot primarily in Ticonderoga.  I sat down with Jordan Craig, who has been working on the film, now in post-production.  The completed product should be on the festival circuit next year, with a chance it will be picked up by the Lake Placid Film Forum.  It will likely be released straight to DVD if it doesn’t get a theatrical run.

TJB:  You’ve worked on Recreator, Switchback and Dancehall.  On Switchback you were…

Jordan Craig:  Camera Assist.  And now I’m sort of rejoining that project in post-production as co-editor.

TJB:  For a million dollars?

JC:  (Laughs) They’d only pay half a mil.

TJB:  You must know the story pretty well.

JC:  I do.

TJB:  Can you give it to me in a nutshell?

JC:  From the contempt of a boy…grew the vengeance of a man.  That’s the tagline.  The story is set in the early 1900s when iron mining was a lucrative industry in the Ticonderoga-Adirondack area.  The protagonists are the coal miners and the antagonist is the big bad coal company and officials and administrators of that company.

TJB:  Who stars in it?

JC:  It stars Richard Waddingham.  He’s a local community theater actor.  The top billing is Paul Sorvino.  From Goodfellas, you might recognize him from.  And kind of interesting – his son Michael Sorvino also had a smaller part in the movie as Paul’s character’s son.  They play Jacob and Michael Laremy, respectively.

TJB:  What was the shoot like?

JC:  The shoot was grueling.  It was a pretty big group of people.  Our gaffer and electric crew was mostly from the Albany area.  It had more of a connected feel.  When the days were over we’d go back to our little cabins and playing card games.  It was a good crew.  Definitely good.

TJB:  Where can we expect to see it?

JC:  I’d say stay tuned for showings in the local area and film festivals around the country.

Number 3. Recreator (2010) Recreator is a feature film from Gregory Orr, an Emmy-nominated writer and director.  The film marks Orr’s first foray into narrative feature, and was shot in and around Tupper Lake, NY, in the late fall and early winter of 2009.  The film portrays three teenagers who are camping in the woods when they uncover a dormant experiment that, when inadvertently activated, generates a clone for each of them.  They must then fight to survive, since the mission of their doppelgangers is to replace them.  Another modestly budgeted feature, Recreator premiered in Tupper Lake and Lake Placid in August this year.  Gregory Orr is building towards wider distribution.  Jordan Craig also worked on the sci-fi thriller, and shares the experience of shooting in the woods outside of Tupper Lake in November, 2009.

TJB:  What did you do for Recreator?

JC:  (pauses)  I was a grip.  Forgot there for a second.  It was such a rush.  Third week of shooting on Recreator it was (tough going).  And (writer / director) Gregory Orr, who is kind, sincere…I gotta say, we weren’t making our shot list for each day.  You know, our daily list was coming up short.  The temperature was dropping and at the same time the anger level was rising. And Greg Orr, at seven a.m. call time, everybody was gathered together in a circle, kind of reminded me of like prayer meetings when I was nine years old.  We didn’t pray, though, we listened to Greg Orr, as he gave an inspirational speech saying, “You know what?  It’s been tough, but we’re here and we’re gonna get it done, now let’s get to work.”  That was basically what he said.  I wish I had a recording of that speech, because he is basically a soft, gentler man, but when the need arises, he can be that strong leader on the set.

TJB:  He put on his helmet.

JC:  He put on his helmet, you know, brandished his sword and let us know that it was still there.

Number 2. Cold River (1982) Cold River is considered by many to be the first modern feature filmed in the Adirondacks.  After films like The Street of Seven Stars and those after it in the 1920s, Hollywood seemed to retract forces from the Adirondacks.  The kinds of films made in the first couple decades of the century seemed to all but disappear from the socioeconomic topography, from the rugged landscape altogether.

Cold River was the first feature shot on location in the Adirondacks after a dearth lasting for fifty years.  The film starred Suzanne Weber and Richard Jaeckel as the children forced to navigate treacherous, ice-cold terrain when their father suffers a fatal heart attack while camping.  Since, in 1980 when the film was shot, the Adirondacks had become an erstwhile district for filmmaking, it’s interesting that the story is set in 1932, right around the time when some of those last films were made during the early century.

Writer-Director Fred Sullivan based the film on the book Winterkill by William Judson.  Judson’s novel explores the sudden and drastic arrival of winter known as “winterkill.”  Sullivan took from the novel and also made the story his own, using it as a vehicle to tell his own contextual story about rapacious land developers and the locals who seek to preserve their beloved Adirondack land.

Cold River may have begun a renaissance of Adirondack-based films and stories, but it was unsuccessful both financially and critically.  It is, however, out of this difficult period between making the film and enduring its lackluster response, the emotional aftermath which such negative feedback can wreak on an artist, that Fred channeled his creative energies into something else.

Number 1.  The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Fitness and Filmmaking (1987) Available on VHS (and, if you can find it, DVD) this was Sullivan’s 1987 film, chronicling semi-autobiographical adventures and misadventures as a filmmaker, family man, and Adirondacker.  The offbeat, quasi-documentary went on to Sundance and to pack independent film houses around the country.  Shot with the Sullivan family as both the stars and the crew, the film and its production embodies and exemplifies the indefatigable filmmaking spirit, which is exactly what the Sundance people thought – they gave Fred Sullivan his own tailor-made award: for “originality, independent spirit, and doing it his own damn way.”

That’s a regional film production.

T J Brearton is a novelist and project specialist for the Lake Placid Film Forum.  He lives and writes in Lake Placid, NY.

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