Filmmaker Jay Craven hopes 'Lost Nation' will reshape assumptions about Vermont's past
Jay Craven’s newest movie, Lost Nation, is currently in production. Craven calls it his most personal and ambitious film yet, and probably his last.
It tells parallel stories that played out during the founding of Vermont. One is well known, the other, not so much.
Craven hopes the film — which has more than 40 speaking roles and was filmed in multiple locations, including Nantucket, Colrain, Massachusetts, and Marlboro, Vermont — will push people to rethink assumptions about Vermont and its history.
When I caught up with Craven, he and his film crew were standing around a small shed that had been made over into an 18th-century blacksmith shop. Light drizzle had turned into a steady rain on the film set.
That was a problem.
Craven needed to film a scene with a horse and wagon, but the antique wagon couldn’t get wet.
“It can’t be in the rain,” explained one of his crew.
“The wagon can’t be in the rain?” asked Craven as he paced across the grass and glanced at his watch. “I’m just wondering how would they get the iron to the guy’s place without the wagon? I think we can do without the horse but, hmm.” His voice trailed off as he mentally created a new way to film the scene.
Figuring out workarounds like this is nothing new for Craven. Lost Nation is his 10th feature film, and he’s known for packing a lot into a small budget.
The founder of Kingdom County Productions, his films include: A Stranger in the Kingdom, Northern Borders, and Where the Rivers Flow North.
Getting help from students helps defray some of Craven's costs, and dozens are working on this project as part of a program called Semester Cinema that he founded at Marlboro College years ago.
“Thirty professionals mentor and collaborate with 45 students from 15 different colleges to make an ambitious feature film for national release,” Craven explained. “That’s the idea.”
Students helped develop the script and set design. And on this dreary Tuesday, they’re helping Craven wrap up seven weeks of filming.
“I tell students, the only thing I can promise you is that on day one we’ll have nothing,” Craven said, laughing. “And that you know, together, we'll figure out what this is.”
“This” is a film about Vermont in the late 1700s and several “real-life” individuals who were making history there.
One is Ethan Allen, the leader of the Green Mountain Boys, who famously captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British at the start of the American Revolution. Craven said he’s wanted to make a movie about the rebellious Vermonter ever since he moved to the state in 1974.
Lost Nation’s other storyline follows Lucy Terry Prince and her husband Abijah. Lucy was born in Africa, and both she and her husband were enslaved as children. The couple bought their freedom and broke all kinds of barriers as Vermont landowners, entrepreneurs, orators and poets.
Craven said the Princes and Ethan Allen were both on a quest to acquire land, power, independence and create a legacy for their children.
“I talked about the lore of the American dream and the promise of an American Revolution as sort of one of the unifying concepts I see that both these characters were motivated by," Craven said. "And it meant different things to them.”
The film is a work of historical fiction, but Craven said he did a lot of research before co-writing the script with Elena Greenlee. While much is already known about Ethan Allen, he says historians are still uncovering fascinating new information.
Fleshing out the Princes' story was more difficult. Craven said Gretchen Gerzina’s book Mr. and Mrs. Prince was a key resource.
“Gretchen spent roughly seven years sort of exploring and trying to discover what she could about Lucy Terry Prince, knowing a little bit because, you know, there were a couple of fragments out there about Lucy and her poem 'Bars Fight,' about the Deerfield massacre, which is the first known piece of African American literature,” Craven said.
"Bars Fight," which is believed to be Lucy Prince’s only surviving work, is not about a tavern brawl. The Bars was a colonial term for meadow. The poem describes an attack by Native Americans on white settlers in 1746. The work was passed on orally for years before it was finally published in 1855.
Lucy Prince lived into her nineties, and was well known for her oratory and storytelling skills.
But because she and Abijah were Black, their family was repeatedly harassed by neighbors in Guilford. Lucy fought back, however, and Craven said she called on the state's highest authorities for justice — and won.
“There is mythology about her going to the Supreme Court,” Craven said. “I don't think there's much evidence of it, but there's no question that she went to the Vermont Supreme Council, which was: Thomas Chittenden, Ira Allen, Stephen Bradley, Jacob Bailey. I mean, you know, really Vermont Founding Fathers, and held forth there and won a unanimous proclamation of protection, an order of protection for the Prince family in Guilford, although it actually didn't stop the harassment.”
In fact, the scene Craven is filming on this dreary afternoon is of a hostile interaction between Abijah and his neighbor, a real-life 18th-century Vermont lawmaker named John Noyes.
“Yeah, this is a really tough one,” explains Matt Orduna, the actor who plays Abijah. “It's a scene about the indignity of having to take work that he doesn't want to." He's called "boy" in front of his sons, and pushes back.
Rob Campbell plays Noyes in the scene, and the crew runs through it several times before moving to a different scene.
Orduna had high praise for Campbell, and said he appreciated the dignity and depth of humanity reflected in the script.
“You know, it's one of those things as an actor, you audition and you're like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna fall in love with this role. I hope I get it,'" he said. "Because it's not often that you see this, this side of history told in the way that it was.”
Part of what Oduna likes about the film is that it’s not about the Princes when they were enslaved — it’s about what they fought for as a family once they were free.
Lucie Green, a student at Bates College in Maine, has worked on the movie since January. She appreciates the film’s honesty and inclusivity.
“Especially the history of Vermont which is a very white place historically, so representation matters a lot," Green said. "And to pair the more well-known figure of Ethan Allen with the important story of the Prince family is a cool way to draw that connection, especially for people who are from the area and may not know the story of the Princes.”
Jay Craven says Vermont has always been racially diverse, with Indigenous people, Black settlers, enslaved people and indentured servants. That fact, he says, is just not talked about. And he hopes his film Lost Nation, which he expects to release next spring, will help jumpstart a conversation.
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