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Woodstock filmmaker showcases the ‘real Vermont’

  • Ujon Tokarski, of Barnard, Vt., works on a job site in Barnard on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. Tokarski is one of the leads in the film "Major Arcana," which is now streaming streaming on demand on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and other services. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tara Summers and Ujon Tokarski in a scene from the film "Major Arcana," directed by Josh Melrod. (Good Deed Entertainment photograph)

  • Rachel Kenaston, of Brooklyn, N.Y., readies a scene for "Major Arcana" in Barnard, Vt., on Sept. 7, 2016. She is in the art department and script supervisor. In the corner first-time writer/director Josh Melrod talks with actors, Ujon Tokarski and Tara Summers.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ujon Tokarski, left, of Barnard, Vt., works with employee Blaine Shultz on a job site in Barnard on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. Tokarski is one of the leads in the film "Major Arcana," which is now streaming streaming on demand on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and other services. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 12/28/2020 8:45:20 PM
Modified: 12/28/2020 8:53:32 PM

BARNARD — On paper, Dink doesn’t look like a good bet. He’s an alcoholic and former drug user, an itinerant carpenter, a man who’s come up short more than once. When Dink comes home to small-town Vermont after his father’s death, he’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. How many more shots do you give a prodigal son and how many does he give himself? How does a man reimagine his life?

Dink’s dilemma is the crux of the prize-winning, independent feature Major Arcana, written and directed by Josh Melrod, which started streaming on demand on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and other services last month.

Melrod conceived of the film while he was driving through the Northeast Kingdom, one of Vermont’s most remote and economically depressed regions, but also one of its most panoramic.

The state’s cheek-by-jowl landscape of fields and forests, and rural poverty and second-home affluence, was something Melrod hadn’t seen in feature films, where Vermont tends to be depicted in Grandma Moses or Advent calendar terms: pristine villages dusted with snow and peopled with lovable hayseeds.

“I wanted to show the real Vermont,” Melrod said in a phone interview from the home in South Woodstock he shares with his wife, photographer and filmmaker Tara Wray, and their 10-year-old twins.

Like anywhere else, Vermont grapples with problems of substance abuse, domestic violence and cyclical poverty, Melrod said. But rather than focus on Dink’s downward spiral, the film explores his efforts to climb back up, and the reactions from the people he knows best, some of whom are less than supportive.

“What if the spine of the movie was someone trying to build a cabin?” Melrod said.

“I’d had some substance abuse problems in my 20s. ... I thought about sobriety and this idea of trying to make amends through the building of something that would be very arduous and difficult. It was a metaphor that I responded to.”

Wray and Melrod, who lived in New York City before moving to Vermont 11 years ago, previously made the documentary Cartoon College, a documentary about the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction.

Melrod is currently editing a documentary for the PBS series American Experience, consults on scripts with other filmmakers and is mulling over his next screenplay.

Major Arcana was shot in late summer and fall 2016 and again in spring 2017, in White River Junction, South Royalton, Sharon, Woodstock and Barnard.

The cabin was built on land belonging to Fable Farm in Barnard.

“It was definitely conceived as a local project that would involve a lot of people in this place, and would reflect this place,” Melrod said.

Melrod cast Barnard native Ujon Tokarski as Dink. As it happened, Tokarski is a carpenter and home builder who had been doing work on Melrod’s and Wray’s house in Barnard, where they lived before moving to South Woodstock.

“I knew him as this charismatic person,” Melrod said.

Knowing that a major thread in the film would be the actual building of a cabin, Melrod approached Tokarksi. “Had he built cabins before? Yes. Had he acted before? No,” is how Melrod recalled the approach.

He asked Tokarski to read the part. Unsurprisingly, for a non-professional actor, the first read was not a slam dunk. Before Tokarski had even finished the audition, however, he asked Melrod if he could read again.

And so it went, with Tokarski immersing himself in the script and reading and studying it again and again.

Under the guidance of Melrod and Tara Summers, a British film and TV actor cast as Dink’s sometime friend and love interest Sierra, Tokarski became comfortable on camera, and persuasive as a man with everything to lose.

There was a practical consideration for hiring Tokarski. “If we’d cast the part out of New York, we wouldn’t have likely found someone who could do the work of building the cabin,” Melrod said.

The part required considerable physical strength: Tokarski chops down trees, drags heavy timber through the woods, moves milled lumber and frames the post-and-beam cabin. Tokarski didn’t actually build the cabin, however.

Two professional builders erected the cabin in just two months, and, unusually for a film shoot, the progression of the building from start to finish was done in chronological sequence. (The cabin is still used by Fable Farm as housing for its summer interns.)

Major Arcana, which takes its title from the tarot cards that are supposed to predict the dominant influences in a person’s life, was a blend of professional and non-professional actors and crew. Film and TV veteran Lane Bradbury rounded out the ensemble as Dink’s mother, who is less interested in her son’s attempt to rehabilitate himself, and more interested in the money and land Dink’s father left him.

Unlike Dink, Tokarski has not had the same challenges with drugs and alcohol, he said in a phone interview.

However, “we all struggle to some degree as human beings. … Struggle is struggle.”

And, like Dink, Tokarski said, Vermont is the place to which he always returns. “I managed to get out and be cultured beyond the perspective of my hometown,” he said. But Barnard is home.

As the film has found its way on the festival circuit and on streaming platforms, the audience “has grown to a degree now that I get feedback” from all over the country, Tokarski said.

The ensuing conversations, on such platforms as Facebook, have shown Tokarski how many people have experienced the kind of stress that Dink confronts as he tries to claw his way back to some semblance of a normal life.

“People are genuinely moved by the character’s struggle and that I was able to portray (him) with good direction and a lot of help from Josh and Tara,” Tokarski said. If the right part came along, he’d consider acting again, he said.

Major Arcana premiered at the Raindance Festival in London in 2018. It was also selected for, and won awards from, such diverse festivals as the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival and Vermont International Film Festival, the Austin (Texas) Film Festival, the Newport Beach (Calif.) Film Festival, the Byron Bay Film Festival in Australia, and the Ischia Film Festival in Italy, where Melrod won the Best Director Prize.

“Sitting in the theater during the festival screenings was one of the major highlights for me. Hearing the audience respond and getting the reaction I was expecting, whether laughter or signs of distress, was really validating,” Melrod said.

The fact that people are now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, watching the film on smaller screens, such as smartphones or iPads, along with TVs, is inevitable but also disappointing.

“It’s a little bit painful to think about how the movie was intended, and then see it on a tiny little screen,” Melrod said. However, he would rather that an audience find it through streaming than not see it at all.

He knows that the film occupies its own particular niche.

“It’s not a superhero movie. It’s not the kind of thing that everyone’s going to see. But it does have a lot of appeal,” Melrod said.

“When people sit down and watch, there’s something universal about the story, about someone trying to literally rebuild a life. In these times I think there’s something valuable about that.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.




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