Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven brings sci-fi thriller to the Hop

  • Kay (Morgan Wolk) and Jack (Bret Lada), appear in a scene from "Wetware," a sci-fi thriller from Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven. (Courtesy Jay Craven)

  • Kay (Morgan Wolk) and Jack (Bret Lada) in the "growing room" at Galapagos Wetware in a scene from Jay Craven's film "Wetware." (Courtesy Jay Craven)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/4/2019 10:00:16 PM
Modified: 7/4/2019 10:00:06 PM

Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven has specialized in period pieces. His first eight feature films were set in the years between 1872 and 1970.

For his ninth, Craven turned from the past to the near future. His adaptation of Wetware, a science fiction novel by author Craig Nova, comes to the Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hanover on July 19.

Looking at the future isn’t so different from looking at the past: Both allow an artist to “strip away the details of the present,” Craven said in a phone interview this week. And while the future is hard to examine, people seldom look closely at the past, either, he said.

“We’re so consumed by the present,” Craven said.

Wetware reflects on the present moment by asking questions about what makes us fully human. Nova’s novel, published in 2002 and set in 2026, deals with a future in which genetic engineering has enabled the creation of human beings in laboratories. They are created to perform menial tasks and are not allowed to be invested with emotions. But Hal Briggs, a designer working for a company called Galapagos Wetware, breaks that rule and creates a man and woman with more complex qualities.

Craven came at Nova’s concept at a slight angle. Instead of creating humans in a lab, Briggs and the company he works for alter people who are down on their luck, making it easier for them to perform difficult, hazardous work by improving their focus and stamina and instilling in them a sense of well-being. Briggs takes his work a bit further, and the film, like the novel, explores the unintended consequences of tinkering with something as complex as the genetic code.

The idea of “wetware” predates Nova’s book, which isn’t even the first sci-fi novel to bear the word as a title. Author Rudy Rucker’s Wetware came out in 1988. The idea dates from the 1950s but gained currency in the 1970s as computing grew more powerful. Rucker described the concept in a blog post when he felt the definition had gone astray: “The whole point of the word ‘wetware’ is that it’s meant to make you look at the world in a new way, and to try and see biological systems from a computational standpoint.”

That construction — “biological systems from a computational standpoint” — is a chilling one, and Craven, in thinking about the film, raised some troubling questions.

During the making of the film, which involved around 30 professionals and around three dozen college students, the cast and crew realized the truth behind sci-fi novelist William Gibson’s notion that “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

“Indeed, through our extensive weekly deliberations, we concluded that the future is now, especially in the rapidly shifting worlds of climate, technology, politics and intensifying conflicts at home and abroad,” Craven wrote in an essay about the film.

On the genetic engineering front, already there have been discussions of modifying soldiers to eliminate the traumatic response to violence and erase emotional memory, Craven said. “How does that alteration affect people after war?” he asked.

In the case of Hal Briggs, whom Craven describes as “an awkward romantic in a transactional world,” modification of one subject includes the capacity to love.

“It’s very much a work in progress and things go awry,” Craven said.

If the future is “unevenly distributed,” it seems safe to say that Vermont has less of it than Tokyo or Silicon Valley. Yet Craven shot much of the film in Burlington and Brattleboro, with some interiors shot on Nantucket. Wetware is a noir thriller, and Craven found the atmosphere he needed in some of Vermont’s more desolate urban corners.

“I’ve always had a sense that Brattleboro had a ’50s noir feel to it,” he said, citing the Latchis Theater, where some of the film was shot, as an example. He also used the former Estey Organ factory as a location, along with Burlington’s Echo Center and Union Station. In addition to familiar scenery, the film also features actors with local ties, including Rusty DeWees and Gordon Clapp, as well as former Cornish resident Matt Salinger. Nova also lived in Vermont for many years.

Shot on a budget of around $800,000, Wetware is a product of constant innovation. Craven, 68, works with recent graduates of New York University’s Master of Fine Arts in design program. Designer Alina Smirnova created a futuristic world of cool, blue light that sets the film’s emotional temperature. Craven called the film’s characters “emotionally stranded,” disconnected from each other, regardless of whether they’ve been genetically modified.

That sense of disconnection is also a feature of contemporary life, Craven noted. When he reads that immigrants are living in camps near the southern border, “I see there’s been some fundamental disrespect for what it means to be human,” he said.

Since making Wetware, Craven has wrapped up shooting on another feature, one that takes him back to the past: Martin Eden is an adaptation of a 1909 Jack London novel.

Wetware will screen at 7:30 p.m. July 19 in the Hopkins Center’s Spaulding Auditorium in Hanover. For tickets, go to hop.dartmouth.edu. Director Jay Craven will be on hand for a Q&A after the film.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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