Many determined filmmakers embrace the medium early in life. Jon Andrews is one of them. The Middlebury auteur was in the fifth grade when he made his first flick, a 30-second animation entitled The Kosmic Klutz. Now 29, he recently wrote, directed and produced a debut live-action feature, Pursuing Happiness.
Shot in Addison County during February 2002, the drama concerns several people entangled in problematic situations: A married pastor finds himself attracted to a pretty new parishioner; a farmer struggles for economic survival while his son ponders the daunting intricacies of teen romance; an elderly couple tries to come to terms with the ravages of age and disease.
Andrews employs a self-described "minimalist" style for the digital-video project, and had a minimal budget of $10,000 culled from private investors. "My script called for 25 speaking parts and 40 locations -- which was not wise," he acknowledges. "But I thought it would make the movie feel bigger."
In high school, Andrews created work for the little screen through an audio-visual program called Tiger TV. "My friends and I did comedy sketches on local public access," he recalls. "We were going through our Monty Python period."
His sensibility is also rooted in classic films of the 1930s and 1940s. Andrews and his siblings were weaned on "Matinee at the Bijou," a Vermont Public Television movie series that aired every Sunday. "We'd only see the last part of the film after racing home when church ended," he says. Though his father was the minister, Andrews notes: "Eventually, we stopped going to church altogether so we could catch the whole show."
As a Yale University student, Andrews learned the history and theory behind his chosen art form. But he had few production opportunities until his junior year, when a semester at a film academy in Prague introduced him to the wonders of celluloid.
"I made a 10-minute short, The Night Train, with another American," Andrews says. "It was a magic-realism piece about lonely and depressed people who are victims of strange, sinister men. We had a Gypsy band play the music."
The Eastern European experience left him "fired up for my 16 mm thesis project, Short Change, about a robber who be-friends the clerk of a convenience store," he explains. "It won the 1996 Student Academy Award. I was flown out to L.A., wined and dined. I graduated from college that year with a pretty big head."
After resettling in New York, the Oscar winner imagined he could conquer the city. But he was brought down a few notches while working three months as a production assistant at "Saturday Night Live" for a boss from hell.
The initial version of Pursuing Happiness, written in Manhattan, was set in an area much like TriBeCa. But Andrews returned to Middlebury in 2000 to marry former high-school classmate Lisa Rader and "make films cheaply and well with the resources at hand."
The Happiness screenplay was revised to fit a rural setting. Andrews cast professional and amateur Vermont actors -- some of whom are his neighbors -- such as Grace Kiley, John Stokvis, Ted Scheu, Bette Moffat, Jack Runyon, Suzann Mozes and Tara O'Reilly.
The performances are understated and the cumulative effect is low-key -- perhaps too low-key for standard commercial distribution, Andrews thinks. "I don't see it in theaters," he says. "It ain't no Hulk."
Instead, Andrews says he has arranged to sell the tape at Waterfront Video in Burlington, Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury and Bear Pond Books in Montpelier and Stowe.
While editing the picture, Andrews taught a summer film workshop at the Putney School, where he has returned this season. In the fall he plans to commute to Yale for a yearlong teaching gig. Other creative ideas keep bubbling to the surface, such as a new indie that might take shape in 2004. A determined cineaste, Andrews is always looking ahead.
The prolific William H. Macy, who has a getaway home in Woodbury, made news last week. The Motion Picture Association of America threatened to give one of his latest films, The Cooler, a deadly NC-17 rating. A scene he has with actress Maria Bello reportedly offers a glimpse of her pubic hair and implies that oral sex has taken place. After losing an appeal to the MPAA, director Wayne Kramer agreed to edit out a few suggestive seconds.