For seasoned actor George Woodard, filmmaking and dairy farming are not mutually exclusive. The 200-acre Waterbury Center spread his family has owned since 1912 is a key location for The Summer of Walter Hacks, a drama he began directing in late June. And his muse must be bovine. As screenplay ideas came to him while milking his 25 crossbreed cows, the Vermonter jotted them down on Udder Wipes, a paper towel for cleaning the mammary glands of cattle.
"I'd have stacks of them that I taped to the wall in my house," the 52-year-old Woodard recalls. "It was a very long process. They're very patient cows."
The script is an agricultural saga about two adolescent brothers in the early 1950s who are forced to fend for themselves after a tragedy. It was finished with the help of producer Gerianne Smart of Vergennes. The boys are forced to fend for themselves. Woodard expects to wrap the movie, which is also set in Charlotte, Williston and North Ferrisburgh, in the spring. By the fall of 2005, he vows, "I'll try to get the dang thing shot and get the dang thing edited."
Woodard has been shooting primarily on weekends and vacations, largely because the two stars are students: His son Henry, 11, plays the title role. Matthew, 18, is a nephew attending college in upstate New York.
"Both kids are amazingly comfortable in front of the camera," explains Woodard. "Henry can be an 11-year-old boy all the time, until the minute you call, 'Action!' Then he just becomes the character."
The older Woodard, who appears as a troubled artist in Nora Jacobson's new Nothing Like Dreaming, began performing in 1969 high school productions. In 1984, he "found somebody to milk for me" and headed to the West Coast. This Hollywood adventure lasted three and a half years, during which time he added some 30 indie and low-budget film projects to his acting resume.
The Tinseltown experience paid off back home, when Woodard was cast as the hired man in Ethan Frome, a 1992 PBS adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel shot in Vermont. The California sojourn also gave him an opportunity to observe what was taking place behind the scenes. "I really paid attention and I asked questions about technical stuff," he says. That knowledge has contributed to his directorial debut.
Woodard's current cinematic project also owes a debt to his years of stagecraft. A multi-instrumentalist whose singing voice has been compared to that of James Taylor, he started the Woodchuck Theater Company with three friends in 1993. He's at the helm of The Woodchuck Warrior: Journal of a Vietnam Vet, a live one-man show starring playwright Al Boright, which is now touring the state.
The black-and-white Walter Hacks has a budget of around $5000. Woodard already owned a high-end digital video camera, but he raised about $6000 for lighting equipment when the fiddle-playing Henry joined him in some music and storytelling gigs last spring.
The cast includes several adults in smaller parts, and young Francesca Blanchard of Charlotte as a friend of the fictitious brothers. "I've always been impressed by the way Frank Capra's secondary characters were very real," Woodard says of his influences. "Another thing: The cowboy theme is prominent. Walter rides a bicycle called 'Dan,' like it's his horse. I love the Westerns [such as Far Country and The Man From Laramie] that Anthony Mann made with James Stewart. And High Noon resonates in my film's opening scene."
The gun-toting marshal portrayed by Gary Cooper in that 1952 classic is certainly brave, but chances are he never used Udder Wipes.
Although Black Hawk Down is a war movie set in 1993 in Somalia, it has elements of the Wild West genre: Dangerous Mogadishu could be an American frontier town, the Army Rangers could be Texas Rangers, the helicopters could be horses, the warlords could be black-hatted outlaws and the hostile Africans could be Indians.
Barry Snyder, head of cinema studies at Burlington College, will examine the fact-based 2001 release "as an ideological expression that works to hide the U.S.'s real relations with the world behind the image of a small group of soldiers under assault by an overwhelming force of non-white Others." He'll be doing this as part of the Aiken Lecture Series Wednesday, November 3, at 6 p.m. in the Fleming Museum auditorium. A screening of the film will follow.