Film Notes: Director Eyes a Novel’s Barnard Origins

  • Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson lived in Barnard while Lewis was writing his 1935 novel "It Can't Happen Here." Barnard filmmaker Teo Zagar is working on a film about the novel's background, including the role Thompson, a journalist, played in its creation.

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, December 07, 2018

Teo Zagar’s documentary It Happened Here: Warnings to the West is, well, happening.

Earlier this year, the Barnard filmmaker started shooting his exploration of how Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here came to be, and how it was influenced by Lewis’ wife, the journalist Dorothy Thompson, and by Barnard itself, where the couple were living.

With several interviews and a lot of archival material in hand, Zagar is hunting for time and funding to get back to work on the film.

“I’m a little behind where I’d like to be at this point,” Zagar said on Monday, during a telephone interview from his home in Barnard. “I’m spending most of my time and energy on the fundraising. With documentaries, so many are being made, but you still have to know where to get the money, from foundations and supporters.”

Zagar has drawn up a budget of around $390,000 to document the evolution of Lewis’ novel, much of which the Nobel Prize-winning author wrote while living in Barnard in the early 1930s with Thompson. In his quest to shed new light on Thompson’s influence on the tale, Zagar estimates that he and his Longshot Productions team so far have raised $45,000 from local supporters and from small foundations. They’re also continuing to apply for other grants, and their crowdfunding page on IndieGoGo had raised, by Thursday afternoon, a little less than $1,700 toward a goal of $35,000.

With the proceeds they’ve secured, Zagar and his collaborators have shot “eight or nine” interviews, including conversations with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-novelist Anna Quindlen and with Thompson and Lewis’ grandson, John-Paul Sinclair Lewis.

They’ve also conducted extensive research that, for Zagar, yielded revelations about the era in which Lewis and Thompson were working.

“I didn’t pay much attention to history at Woodstock High School,” Zagar admitted. “I’m learning a lot that I didn’t know before: How close it came to authoritarianism and fascism winning in Europe, and all the sympathy for the Nazis here in the States, from people like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh.”

Lewis noticed enough sympathy on this side of the Atlantic to imagine, and then put on paper, what would happen in central Vermont if a populist demagogue defeated incumbent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936. His ensuing novel’s protagonist, small-town newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, soon finds himself caught up in a nightmare in which those of his neighbors who idolize the new president, Buzz Windrip, don brown shirts and turn their quiet corner of Vermont into a police state.

“I read the novel during the presidential campaign in 2016,” Zagar said. “It really blew me away. The America of 2016 had so many parallels. It felt sort of prescient.

“Then I learned that a lot of it had been written in Barnard, and I started with the idea of making an experimental film about Dorothy Thompson’s influence on bringing the book about. She’d just been expelled from Berlin for writing about what Hitler was doing. She was an incredible person. Her story is amazing, but she’s sort of been forgotten for a number of different reasons. It seemed like the time was ripe for resurrecting her.”

Zagar expects there’s an audience out there for Thompson and Lewis’ story, considering how many staged readings of a dramatic adaptation of It Can’t Happen Here popped up around Vermont during the 2016 presidential campaign. This past summer, the BarnArts Center for the Arts’ performed the full play outdoors several times at Fable Farm in Barnard.

“I filmed a bunch of those performances,” Zagar said, “thinking I could include parts of the play in the movie.”

In the end, however, Zagar still wants to bring Thompson to center stage.

“She took a lot of heat as such a strong voice against fascism,” he said. “And her writing after the war was so powerful. It feels like it was written for modern times. I think people are really going to be blown away by her.”

To follow the progress ofIt Happened Here: Warning to the West, visit ithappenedherefilm.com. To make a tax-deductible contribution to the film-making expenses, visit indiegogo.com/projects/it-happened-here-warnings-to-the-west#.

Seasonal Cinema

As part of Wassail weekend, Pentangle Arts is screening four love-’em-or-hate-’em movies with Yuletide themes at the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre.

The cinematic festivities begin tonight at 7:30 with The Holiday, a 2006 rom-com in which two women (Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz) on the rebound during late-December vacations strike unexpected sparks with baggage-laden men played by Jack Black and Jude Law.

On Sunday afternoon at 3 comes Home Alone, the 1990 blockbuster that introduced (or inflicted upon?) us one Macauley Culkin, as a kid who, with a mix of moxie and ingenuity, fends off burglars while left in the title predicament by his distracted parents during Christmas vacation.

On Sunday night at 7:30, Pentangle shows 2003’s Love, Actually. The story, set in England at Christmastime, might have imploded under the weight of its many stars (Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Keira Knightley and Liam Neeson chief among them) if not for the deadpan performance of Bill Nighy as a jaded, aging rock star who figures out just in time that the love of his life has been right in front of him for decades.

The series ends Monday night at 7:30 with a screening of Elf, a contemporary fable that swings between the North Pole and New York City, and that probably wouldn’t work without Will Ferrell playing the titular elf with utter sincerity.

Tickets to the screenings cost $5.

■The Mascoma Film Society nods to the holiday season on Dec. 19 at 6:30 p.m. with a screening, at Mascoma Valley Regional High School’s auditorium, of a movie that my wife, Goodie, and I missed during its brief run in 2017. The Man Who Invented Christmas explores how Charles Dickens (played by Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast heartthrob Dan Stevens) emerged from deep financial straits by conjuring his 1843 novel A Christmas Carol into being — and, in the process, setting the template for how the holiday would be observed in much of the English-speaking world for the subsequent century and a half.

While admission to film society screenings is free, donations are welcome.

Looking Back

Even after 25 years, I’m not sure I’m ready to see Schindler’s List on the big screen again, even though the Nugget in Hanover will be showing it for at least the next week. Most of those harrowing scenes in a Nazi death camp in eastern Europe haunt me as vividly today as when I saw it at the Nugget on Christmas night in 1993.

But if you think of that time as distant history, go. On the cinematic level alone, director Steven Spielberg established his dramatic bona fides by bringing the best out of Liam Neeson, who plays title character Oskar Schindler, an industrialist profiting on slave labor from the camp’s Jews, and winds up helping one of his workers save hundreds of them from liquidation. And it’s a welcome wake-up call for a new generation that can’t imagine such horrors happening again.

Vertiginous Viewing

If Free Solo didn’t send you over the edge earlier this fall, the Woodstock Vermont Film Series dares you to vicariously follow yet more daredevil rock climbers on the slopes of Yosemite next Saturday, Dec. 15, at the Billings Farm and Museum. This time it’s the 2015 documentary The Dawn Wall, which won the audience award during the 2015 South by Southwest Festival for its depiction of American spidermen Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s effort to free climb a 3,000-foot rock face. In addition to the ascent itself, the movie explores the climbers’ planning process and inspiration.

To reserve tickets ($6 to $11) for the 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. screenings, call 802-457-2335. Billings Farm recommends calling no later than the morning of the Dec. 15.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304. Film news also can be sent to highlights@vnews.com.