The movie set bustles with all the controlled chaos of a loading dock. Crew hands haul thick spools of wire, massive lights and heavy tripods while actors in nineteenth century costumes talk on iPhones before their next scene. A cop holds up traffic as a horse and buggy takes off up Main Street, followed by a $600,000, state-of-the-art movie camera. Props are flying. People are yelling into radios, climbing up ladders, and handing out refreshments. Even the few who are just standing around manage to look busy. Amidst all the hustle and bustle, director Jay Craven strolls around casually with his hand in the pocket of his peacoat. One look at him and there is no question that he is the captain of this ship.
Hollywood should not have a monopoly on telling stories,” Craven says in between answering questions from four different people on the set. “There are plenty of good stories to tell throughout New England.” Indeed, Craven’s love for region-specific storytelling found a natural outlet here on Nantucket this spring with his newest film Peter & John, a feature film based on the classic French novella, Pierre et Jean, written by Guy de Maupassant. Craven adapted Maupassant’s novel of two feuding brothers to be set in post-Civil War Nantucket. Luckily for him, turning back the clocks to 1872 only required changing a few store signs on Main Street.
“The film involves such a distinctive seaside story that would mean less if it were shot anywhere else but Nantucket,” the director says. “My films are rooted in places I know and love. That’s what this is about.” Craven has been coming to the island for nearly fifty years, and several of the scenes in Peter & John were inspired by specific locations he’s always wanted to shoot. Today’s scene takes place in the brick alley between Vis-à-Vis and Met on Main in downtown Nantucket. “This scene wasn’t in the original screenplay, but I wrote it in to use this location,” Craven says as his team scurries into the alley like ants onto a Popsicle stick. The crew is made up of twenty professional filmmakers and thirty students from Craven’s new apprentice filmmaking model, where they are mentored by seasoned professionals in the Movies from Marlboro program at Marlboro College.
The set comes together like a pop-up circus. Lights are brought in along with flags and skrims to block and diffuse the sun. Fake ivy is strung up along the alley’s brick walls, and wooden barrels are rolled in along with other props. Fuzzy microphones hang on long poles held up by men wearing gloves and headsets. A high-definition flat screen television is wheeled in and then enveloped in a black fabric-viewing tent. The actors change wardrobe and receive touch-ups from teams of makeup artists. Finally, the half-million dollar camera is plunked in the middle of it all.
“Quiet on the set!” the production manager yells. Craven takes his seat behind the flat screen with his director of photography, Brad Heck, and calls out, “Action!” The two actors scamper down the alley, pause, and then run off the set without saying a word. “Cut!” yells Craven. And that’s it—an hour of set up for fifteen seconds of film. Still, Craven shoots the scene over and over and over again, changing camera angles, moving props around, redirecting the actors. Truth be told, being behind the scenes of a movie is as tedious as it is exciting.
Peter & John features a celebrity cast who are co-starring alongside local talent selected from the Nantucket Theatre Workshop, including Susan McGinnis, Chuck Gifford, Blake Lazarus and Vince Veilleux.
The cast is led by principal actor, Jacqueline Bisset, who stars as Louise Roland, the beautiful but tormented mother of rivaling sons, Peter and John. Bisset is a 2014 Golden Globe winner with film credits that include the Academy Award winning Day for Night and Roman Polanski’s Cul- de-Sac. The lead role of Peter Roland is played by Christian Coulson, known worldwide as Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Today’s scene takes place between actors Shane Patrick Kearns of Law and Order: SVU and Dianne Guerrero from HBO’s Orange is the New Black.
Kearns plays the unsuspecting younger brother, John Roland, while Guerrero is the beautiful starlet that tears the Ro- land brothers apart. The scene is playful and charming. Guerrero drops a handkerchief and Kearns snatches it up, chasing her down the alley to return it. Even though the scene lasts but a few seconds, the two actors achieve an authentic chemistry that comes through the flat screen in the viewing tent.
Most directors will spend much of their time behind this flat screen, but not Craven. He pops out of the tent and gets right in the mix, directing Kearns and Geurrero while also navigating his crew of twenty-eight student filmmakers that hail from ten different colleges. Despite erratic weather, a breakneck production schedule and the inherent challenges of shooting a feature film on an island out at sea, Craven is remarkably calm. Even after a lifetime in the biz, Craven still comes across as a guy who genuinely loves what he does.
His approach to filmmaking and its distribution traces back to his activist days in college when he toured anti-Vietnam War documentaries across the country and organized weekly peace-concerts for John Lennon. “John would muster a rock n’ roll boogie band to play out of the way places that the Beatles would never play,” Craven remembers. Drawing upon this early activism, the director has chosen to ignore box office industry standards in favor of regional filmmaking. By setting up temporary screening events in local firehouses, town halls, church basements and high school gymnasiums, Craven provides unprecedented access to folks who rarely attend movies but might appreciate seeing a film about their com- munity. He seeks to turn every nook and cranny of southern New England into a pop-up venue for “seaside cinema. ”Peter & John will premier at the Dream- land Theater a year from now. Craven will then take his Nantucket film to every conceivable outpost, hostel, and casino on the island before touching down on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Thereafter, the director has planned a year-long “200- city barnstorming tour” to every pocket of New England followed by larger venues in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and beyond. Craven hopes Peter & John will enlarge the dialogue about New England by showcasing its rich culture and social history, and of course, the island’s spectacular setting.