By Marsden Hartley

The Director's Perspective

   

In February 2003, I read the text of Marsden Hartley’s prose poem Cleophas and His Own for the first time. Within a day or so, I read it to my wife, Terri Templeton. We decided to make an audio recording of this great work. After the recording of Cleophas and His Own was released, although neither of us had ever made a film before, we decided that we had seldom encountered a text that lent itself to the making of a film more than this one.

 

Terri and I met with the graphic artist Jay Piscopo to lay out storyboards for a film based entirely on this monumental work by one of America's foremost Expressionist painters. Shortly after the storyboard ideas were laid out, I met, by chance, the videographer Geoffrey Leighton, while I was in Bermuda on business. Leighton, as it turned out, worked in Maine, and invited me to visit him in his studio, just outside Freeport.

 

In August 2003, we test-filmed the entire narrative in Geoff’s barn. After viewing my performance, I decided to proceed with filming the entire narrative. My original concept was akin to a one-man play idea…tell the story directly to the camera while seated inside a reconstruction of Hartley’s studio…with brief cutaways to paintings by Hartley, and even briefer cutaways to members of the family. I then contacted my friend Louise Young, who had been an intimate of Hartley's, and who still spent summers in Maine, on the property owned by her parents, who had taken in Hartley as a lodger in 1943 the last summer of his life.

To hear Michael Maglaras as Marsden Hartley CLICK HERE

 
 
     
 

In September 2003, sections of the opening footage of the film were shot behind Louise's house using an old brooder house that was identical to the one that Hartley had used in the summer of 1943 as his studio. Further footage was shot that weekend, along the rocky coast of Grindstone, near Corea, and it was from this initial footage that the film began to take shape. Using Hartley’s text as my Bible, and the concepts laid out in the storyboards, I decided to film the entire narrative over two days in a reconstructed version of Hartley’s studio. I hired the prosthetic makeup artist Jimmy Soltis…who made a life cast of my face and from that created a prosthetic nose and chin, which, having been applied and re-applied, became the bane of my existence for the next 16 months.  This was in October of 2003.

 

At the time that we filmed the narrative in its entirety, I had no idea what the film would look like. We had not selected the paintings to be inserted in the film, and had not auditioned any actors. In short, every moment in the narrative sequences was filmed with the idea that it would have to stand on its own. This was a financial as well as an artistic consideration. 

 
 
     
Once Terri and I viewed the raw studio footage, the esthetic of the film began to take shape in our minds. It also became clear that the original budget we’d been presented to make this film was, how shall I say it, wildly off the mark, through no fault of anyone’s except my own. We auditioned actors to assume the roles of the Mason family, as well as others mentioned in the narrative.

We had a particular problem casting Cleophas, as we wanted someone who embodied the visceral magnetism of the Hartley painting…but whose strength was tempered by dignity and reserve…and we were extremely fortunate to find Dan Harris.

Once I decided on Dan, magically, the casting for the other family members began to fall into place.

 
 
 
     
  Because I had decided to use a number of Hartley's paintings interspersed throughout the film in particular, the paintings that Hartley did of the Mason family I felt it was important for the actors to be photographed in such a way that only small portions of their faces would be shown, in order to place emphasis on the painted portraits themselves.

However, once I chose Dan Harris for the role of Cleophas, and saw the other actors who would play the members of the family, and began working with them as a director, it became clear to me that I was going to need to show the depth of the humanity and individuality of each member of the family, and that I had found the actors able to portray these people and to suggest their depth and the extent of their influence over Hartley.

 
 

I was determined to shoot this film entirely in Maine, and equally determined to use Maine actors and a Maine crew of technical professionals...I achieved both of these objectives, with one exception. Just as I was beginning to despair, after many auditions, of finding an actor who could portray the tempestuous elder son, Adelard (with whom Hartley was in love), I discovered Michael Roberge one day in a diner in Stamford, Connecticut. I walked up to Michael, informed him that he was going to appear in a movie...and the rest speaks for itself in the footage you will see.

 

The final shots in the film (the cemetery sequence at the very end of the movie) were shot in November 2004, at Peak's Island, in Portland Harbor. The sequence where Hartley walks through the snow in the Bavarian Alps was shot only a couple of weeks ago. Thus, we progressed from August, 2003 to February, 2005, shooting each sequence independently of the other and completely out of order…the only consistency and continuity being the studio footage filmed in October 2003. I am pleased with the result. We stayed true to Hartley’s text and very true…drawing by drawing…to Jay Piscopo’s story boards…and I think we have told this beautiful story in a way that I hope Hartley would have approved of.

 

I carefully chose the music for the film: the main theme coming from Richard Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration." I also decided to use a piece by Charles Ives, as well as the 19th century hymn tune "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." Fans of Schubert will also notice that we use one of his most famous songs set to a text by Goethe.

 

I am pleased, at last, to be able to say that Cleophas and His Own premiered to a sellout audience on June 22, 2005, in Marsden Hartley's birthplace - Lewiston, Maine - and that it is currently being shown in select theaters and museums around the country.

 
 

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