Recent Vermont visits by Gwyneth Paltrow, Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman were hush-hush -- until now. "We were under a gag order not to speak about it," explains Rutland filmmaker David Giancola, whose Edgewood Studios provided technical support for a star-studded photographic essay published in the November 10 issue of The New York Times Magazine.
The atmospheric portfolio, entitled "Dream House," is the work of acclaim-ed shutterbug Gregory Crewdson. Although based in New York City, the 40-year-old Yale University photography professor apparently feels an affinity for the Green Mountain State's second-largest city. "He has a lot of friends in the area," explains Melanie Willhide, who was production manager for the Rutland endeavor.
One of those friends, Sandra Stillman Gartner, was Crewdson's source for the white house that served as a retro setting for his project. The 1950s ranch had been vacant since her mother-in-law died four years ago.
Crewdson brought a cinematic approach to the eight mysterious scenarios, each of which has a forlorn quality: Plaintive Tilda Swinton stands by a car parked in front of the typical suburban dwelling. A smudged William H. Macy kneels in a pile of dirt and sod in the garage. A third shot puts actor Dylan Baker at the head of a dysfunctional-looking family dinner table.
"Gregory's very interested in timeless, generic environments," Willhide notes. "This is his first semi-commercial project."
The unpaid celebrities were recruited by either the Times photo editor or Crewdson, who had already met Paltrow. She posed in drab underwear for one startling image that incorporates a seemingly disapproving mother portrayed by Susan Blommaert. Julianne Moore -- nightgown-clad and sitting on a bed in another picture -- happens to own a few of Crewdson's earlier pieces.
Each set-up took almost a week to prepare and one or two days to shoot. "We did them mostly in August and September," recalls Giancola, who has worked with Crewdson several times before. "For Macy's photo, we created the same rainy special effects with the local fire department that we did for a movie called Lightning two years ago. And Greg hired the same crew we use here for features, from caterers to gaffers."
-Sandra Gartner, who helped "Dream House" find a home, turns thespian for a half-hour digital video by Bond Sandoe. In Town Meeting -- which screens for free at 1 p.m. Saturday in Champlain College's Alumni Auditorium -- she plays the proud mother of a farm boy chosen as moderator for the annual gathering in a fictitious Vermont hamlet. He's no brooding Hamlet, though. George, played by Jory Raphael, is a pleasant young man who hopes to become U.S. president someday.
Sandoe, 47, is an Indiana native and former struggling Los Angeles screenwriter who moved to Whiting 10 years ago. He researched newspaper and government archives to locate genuine town meeting minutiae throughout the state. "I kept coming across wonderful characters, quotes and situations," he says. "For the script, I figured that I couldn't think of anything better."
With verbatim dialogue and a cast of non-professionals, Sandoe shot the docudrama on a $5000 budget during a March 2000 weekend at the Sudbury Town Hall. "The heat had been turned off," he remembers.
The meeting agenda launches a cemetery maintenance debate that weighs the grass-cutting merits of lawnmowers versus grazing sheep. After a discussion on whether a cluster of abandoned cars constitutes a junkyard, residents move on to the more contentious issue of civil unions. A preacher denounces the same-sex ceremony as unholy, but the townspeople come back with a few surprise twists.
Euclid Farnham, the real-life moderator in Tunbridge, portrays the incumbent that George unseats. Sandoe's wife Jeanne Rogow shows up as part of a two-person camera crew chronicling the proceedings. "Her character is based on me," he acknowledges. "The exploitative filmmaker."
-Julianne Moore's "Dream House" stint revisits the same era as Far From Heaven, which opens in Vermont this weekend. As a confused housewife with a fabulous '50s wardrobe, she learns that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay. The marriage deteriorates, but neighbors in their upscale Connecticut community are more tolerant of his sexual preference than of the warm friendship she develops with a black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). In a nod to snazzy potboilers like Written on the Wind, director Todd Haynes employs lavish production values. The performances don't jibe, though. Some characters convey contemporary realism, while others are locked in the overwrought artifice of mid-20th-century soap operas.