Peter & John -June 2014
A filmmaker’s vision of early Nantucket
by: Lindsay Pykosz
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Walking around Nantucket can play tricks on the mind.
Just last month, a horse and carriage traversed a downtown street, and people dressed in mid-1800s garb were roaming about. This wasn’t a hallucination, but a scene from independent filmmaker Jay Craven’s feature film “Peter and John," based on French author Guy de Maupassant’s novel “Pierre et Jean” that tells the story of two brothers whose relationship is strained when the younger one receives a strange inheritance. Then, a mysterious young woman arrives, attracting both brothers. Craven has adapted the setting to 1872 Nantucket, after the decline of whaling, before the rise of tourism, and in the wake of the Civil War. Craven, along with a crew of 20 professionals and 30 students, gathered on the island from late March through midMay to bring the film to life.
“Peter and John” stars Golden Globe winner Jacqueline Bisset, British actor Christian Coulson (“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”), Emmywinning actor Gordon Clapp (“NYPD Blue”) and Shane Patrick Kearns (“Law and Order: SVU”).
But the way in which it is being created is unlike most other films. Produced through the program “Movies From Marlboro,” developed by Craven as a partnership between his Kingdom County Productions and Marlboro College where he teaches in Marlboro, Vt., it partners mentors and students in an intensive semester of instruction and filmmaking.
Students earned academic credits for their participation, and as a community-based production, the movie also utilized the services of a number of island organizations like the Maria Mitchell Association and Nantucket Youth Hostel, which housed members of the crew.
A long-time visitor and program director of the Nantucket Film Festival’s Teen View programs and writing labs for several years, Craven has a deep love for the island and the many students who live here.
When brainstorming a location for the story, he said setting it on Nantucket was the perfect fit.
“There’s no place any better to shoot the 19th century,” he said. “This is the biggest collection of preCivil War housing in the whole country. So from that point of view, it’s perfect. And the natural beauty of the island is so fabulous.”
Beyond that, Craven was drawn to the historical and cultural resources available, including the Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket Conservation Foundation and The Inquirer and Mirror archives.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 17 and have worked with teenagers on different projects here. It just felt right from a number of different points of view,” he said.
The group of students gathered at Marlboro College in January for seven weeks of classes, workshops, visiting-artist presentations, student filmmaking and pre-production, learning about lighting, sound, photography and production before coming to Nantucket.
Most of the group arrived on Nantucket March 15, with the rest arriving later in the month before the first day of shooting April 3.
Abra White, a production coordinator for the film, is currently a junior at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. A film major, she had worked on student films before, but nothing as large-scale as "Peter and John." She is one of six students from Wellesley working with Craven, and said the time at Marlboro helped familiarize her with all aspects of the project.
“During pre-production, my role was organizing travel and reservations and things like that, helping everyone get ready for the shoot,” White said under the lunch and dinner tent in the back yard of the Johnson farm off Almanack Pond Road, where many days were spent. “On set right now, I function as a key production assistant, which means organizing the production assistants each day into doing things like setting up food, catering and handling the things that need to get done from day to day to get everything moving that people need.”
Before filming could begin, however, there was the daunting task of finding actors willing to work on a film with a small budget. At $625,000, the total is slightly lower than some of Craven’s other films, but more than his 2013 film “Northern Borders” starring Bruce Dern, which had a budget of $480,000. As a partner, Marlboro College provided $300,000, and an additional $100,000 came from the Massachusetts Film Office. The rest was generated through private fundraising and a Kickstarter campaign for $55,500, which ultimately raised $62,440.
“Casting can be daunting, especially when you don’t have money,” Craven said. “Actors, I mean stars, are used to being paid a lot of money, and so it has to be the material that interests them.”
In addition to auditioning in big cities like New York, Craven did a lot of his casting on-island for both Screen Actors Guild and non-union actors. With the help of Theatre Workshop of Nantucket, he was able to generate significant local interest.
At the time of casting, TWN executive director Gabrielle Gould said that the most attractive part of the process for her was providing an opportunity to give back to the TWN actors who give her company so much.
“The hope is that someone gets cast and noticed and it launches their career,” she said.
Once casting was complete, the actors had to be fit for their costumes. Costume designer Sarah Beers, who won a 2013 Emmy Award for her work on the History Channel’s “The Men Who Built America,” was instrumental in getting the wardrobe rented, gathered and fitted perfectly. She eventually turned it over to Abbey Volmer (Emerson College), Ali Pough (assistant costume designer) and Ellie Peterson (Dartmouth College), who had been working with her along the way.
“What we started with was looking at designs, fashion designs from the time period,” Volmer said. “Based in 1872, we took it back to the ’65 era because the main fashions wouldn’t have reached Nantucket yet. We looked to set the shapes of things: men as tall and skinny, women as more hour-glassy. From there, we went and looked at photographs and documentation from Nantucket because not everybody was dressing like in Vogue magazine. We found some really great characters and great photographers.”
The next step was designing the costumes and making sketches for each character based on what they had found during their research process. They reached out to costume resources in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York City, traveling to costume warehouses that Volmer compared to “hangars full of costumes.”
“We were pulling things we thought would be appropriate for each character,” she said. “We took into consideration background, what we would need for extras, children, what would be age-appropriate for people – men and women.”
Volmer said she learned there is a lot of collaboration between the wardrobe department and the cast. As part of Bisset’s contract, the actress had to approve the pieces she would be wearing, and she didn’t like some of the costumes that had been chosen.
“Part of the process of the wardrobe department is making compromises with actors and the director,” she said. “It’s a super-collaborative process. We actually ended up having to order things from Los Angeles and have them sent. So most of her pieces are from there.”
The crew started filming in early April at the Johnson property, and island resident Joy Margolis, the film’s location manager, was responsible for searching for the perfect spots. This took the group to the moors, Coatue and Polpis Harbor to capture the beauty that Craven is drawn to.
But much of the action took place right at the historic seven-acre farm off Almanack Pond Road. Set back from the winding dirt road and surrounded by wood fencing, the colonial-style main home provided an ideal setting for the story.
Inside, two second-floor bedrooms were transformed. Many days were spent in each room, filming close-ups of Bisset, who plays Louise Roland, the mother of Peter and John, played by Coulson and Kearns, respectively.
While filming was going on in one bedroom, a crowd of people, from make-up artists to sound technicians, huddled into the other. A monitor in the center of the room showed exactly what was being filmed in real time just feet away. Bisset faced the camera, and a “Quiet on the set!” was shouted throughout the house.
But it wasn’t always perfect. On the second day of production, someone forgot their key to get into the hair and make-up building downtown, leaving that person with the unfortunate task of driving out to the Johnson property and back to town. On a separate day, color gels that were placed to screen out some of the natural light began blowing in the wind and making noise, pushing the schedule back about 15 minutes.
“Every minute counts,” Craven said. “But you have to be prepared for everything.”
With such a small budget, each person had to wear multiple hats. But for the students involved, that was part of the eye-opening experience of working on a film at such a young age. The students were able to rotate within different departments to get a taste of what each one does and, hopefully, shape, mold or reform their filmmaking career.
Island native Russell Bartlett, a 2008 graduate of Nantucket High School and the production manager for “Peter and John,” was in charge of overseeing production. This entailed food – which was all catered by Mark and Eithne Yelle of the Nantucket Catering Company – transportation, housing and any other human-resources tasks that needed to be completed. If the cast members weren’t happy, chances are they were coming to Bartlett or Michael Toscano, the line producer.
Bartlett graduated from Emerson College where he majored in film production with a focus on cinematography. He said this was the biggest project he’s worked on to-date, including his own film “In Searching,” that he produced and his friend Jake Topkis directed in Park City, Utah last year.
“It’s up there with one of the positions I’ve had the most responsibilities with,” he said. “For me, it’s been a learning experience, and it will be, I’m sure, for another 10 years. It’s been fun and I’m glad to be back in filmmaking.”
Bartlett met Craven through the Teen View Program where the two began talking about “Peter and John.” It was during this same program that Nantucket High School senior Grace Dineen also met the award-winning director. With only half a credit of English left to graduate, she has been able to take the semester off to devote entirely to the film, where she is a production assistant.
“I’ve shadowed Jay a couple of times,” she said. “That was pretty interesting to see how he handles things with the actors and things that come up within scenes.”
Dineen said the Movies From Marlboro program has opened her up to additional opportunities and has helped her gravitate toward a major in film.
“The industry seems super-intense, but I just really loved it and found my niche,” she said. “Doing this program is helping me find where I need to be in making films. I’ve been exploring more of, do I want to be in grip, do I want to do script-supervising, producing? It’s helped me find where I want to sit in and it’ll help me next year when I want to pick college classes and will help for the next four years.”
These remarks speak volumes about Craven’s filmmaking partnership that helps navigate students and seasoned independent filmmakers through the world of cinema. Staying true to that community feel, the film will be released – possibly in the summer of 2015 – in 200 New England towns, including on the Cape and Islands, and more than 60 in Vermont. At each location, members of the cast and crew will be present to discuss their experiences making “Peter and John.”
“We’re collaborating in ways that go beyond anything we’ve done before,” reads information on the project’s Kickstarter page. “We’re producing a picture that advances the whole idea of ‘community cinema’ by working with hundreds of people, near and far, to help get it made. It's filmmaking in the spirit of an oldfashioned barn raising – making a picture that validates place-based characters, story and themes. We believe that people need to tell their own stories. We believe that indigenous film plays a vital role in defining us.”
Craven honed in on the idea of “community cinema” and directed it toward the Nantucket community, saying that without each and every person who came together on the island, the film would never have been made.
“There’s a saying in the movie business that ‘you’re in good hands,’ and even with the risks and factors of getting it done and getting it done right, you have to feel like you’re in good hands. We feel, on Nantucket, that the partnerships give us that feeling of welcome and cooperation and collaboration, and we’re happy about that,” he said. ///
Lindsay Pykosz is a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.