It's hard to imagine a Player-style pitch for John O'Brien's new film, Man With a Plan. A retired Vermont dairy farmer runs for Congress — and wins — thanks to a remarkably dexterous dog? How about Being There meets The Candidate meets "America's Favorite Home Videos?"
This homespun docudrama operates on the same underdog appeal that carries its candidate-star — 76- year-old Fred Tuttle — to Washington. It mixes documentary and fiction, animal husbandry and art into an organic brew O'Brien describes as "community cinema." A delightfully uplifting antidote to hell-bent Hollywood, it will send you searching ... for your own "Spread Fred" bumper sticker.
The volunteer cast of nonactors is mostly old-time Vermonters — ninetysomething bachelor Kermit Glines is a stand-out. Times Argus reporter Bryan Pfeiffer plays the journalist who narrates the film. It unfurls like a "story," complete with television newsclips, poll results and great foliage footage that follows the course of the campaign. Anyone with an interest in community politics will appreciate the sped-up campaign clips, including a slapstick rendition of Fred footsoldiers leafletting junked cars. There are as many nods to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in this neo-realist movie as there are to Bernie Sanders and Frank Capra.
Oddly enough, though, Man With a Plan is strangely apolitical. O'Brien goes easy on the incumbent, played by Unadilla Theater director Bill Blachly. He also holds back at the debate sponsored by the League of Chicken Pot Pie Suppers. Erring on the sweet side, O'Brien never makes fun of his neighbors. Unless, of course, they do it themselves. In a delightful series of ad-libbed testimonials, O'Brien found two beer-swilling hunters with a fresh buck on the hood of their car. Asked why they planned to vote for Fred, one offers, "Because he likes kibbles and bits."
Tuttle is no rocket scientist. In fact, he's a pretty lousy candidate all around. But you want him to win, anyway. His candor is his charm. He openly admits his candidacy is motivated by money — he owes property tax on his dilapidated farm, and his 95-year-old father needs a hip operation. "Why Fred Tuttle?" Pfeiffer quizzes him in a cornfield. "Why not?" quips the arthritic farmer in a thick Vermont brogue. In one of many clever shots using animals, a voiceover reads, "While Fred lacked experience and polish and savvy, leadership came naturally to him." The visual shows Tuttle pursued by a flock of sheep.
Entertaining as it is, plot is not the main point of Man With a Plan. Tuttle provides a reason to shine a light on the wildlife of Tunbridge — Man With a Plan is the second in a town trilogy that doubles as an anthropological document of a vanishing way of life in Vermont. The first, Vermont is For Lovers, took the same casual approach with a flatlander couple looking for prenuptial advice. In both films, O'Brien conveys a serious message with a lighthearted hokiness that leaves you smiling — all the way to the voting booth.
Interview with Fred Tuttle: from milking to movies
"Who is this Fred Tuttle?" incumbent Congressman Bill Blachly demands of an obsequious aide in Man With a Plan. Viewers will be similarly puzzled watching the 76-year-old dairy farmer ad-lib his way to the Capitol. But Tuttle is for real. The little old man O'Brien describes as the "Rodney Dangerfield of Tunbridge" is suddenly, inadvertently, a movie star. Tomorrow he's scheduled for the gubernatorial press conference. Friday he'll be pressing flesh on Church Street in Burlington. With luck, and with O'Briens Harvard connections, he could very well find himself on a certain late-night talk show. How is the actor-candidate handling all the adoration? Will the real Fred Tuttle please answer a few questions?
Seven Days: You are running on the "regressive" ticket in this movie. How do you vote in real life, Fred?
Fred Tuttle: Oh, Republican. My dad was a Republican. But sometime we vote Democrat. See, I hope Governor Dean gets it again, don't you? He's a Democrat, isn't he?
SD: What about Bernie Sanders? There are a lot of parallels between his congressional bid and your dark-horse campaign in Man With a Plan.
FT: Sanders? He's a good man, too. I think Governor Dean and Sanders are both trying to do something for poor people.
SD: You certainly didn't consult either of them coming up with your environmental policy — something to do with sending garbage into space?
FT: It was pretty good. I come up with that.
SD: What do you think is the single-most important problem in Vermont — in real life?
FT: Oh, the taxes, of course, and the environment and all this stuff. They have gone too far with everything, it is just going out of control. I hate to see all these farmers going out, it's a pitiful thing. Tunbridge used to have 50 — every town had 40, 50. Now we only got in Tunbridge five or six, and most of them are discouraged.
SD: What does your farm look like?
FT: We're on the Strafford Road, big brick house. Nice barns. Of course, the barns are falling apart now because — no cattle. I live in a white house over in the field.
SD: Do you really have all those cats? At one point I counted something like half a dozen.
FT: We had a quite a few at one time — folks used to dump 'em off. We live alongside the main road, see? Now we got five cats, all nice house cats. That white cat was my pet cat — what was his name? I just lost him last year, to cancer.
SD: There are a lot of animals in that movie.
FT: Yes, there was. I think John done good — he got a lot of good animals.
SD: You and John must must have spent a lot of time together.
FT: Oh, yeah, most of the time. We got to be good friends. I wasn't with John when he put that "Spread Fred" bumper sticker on the manure spreader, and when Bill Blachly tore down my sign over ta Randolph — I wasn't over there that day. The rest of the time I was with John.
SD: How did you two find each other — a retired dairy farmer and a Harvard grad?
FT: John's father came here in about 1940. They had people who came out of the city, wanted to learn to farm. John's father came up and he liked it so well, he went and bought a farm. He bought the place where John lives, big farm. They got a wonderful home up there now, fixed up wonderful.
SD: How did you know what to say in the film — John doesn't provide any of the dialogue, does he?
FT: I just said anything I want to. Something that would sound good, you know? Over on the porch, you know, when I was talking about going down to Washington, and the drinking and the women, all the vacations and the airplane rides — I didn't even realize John was taping that.
SD: Did you feel like you were acting?
FT: I was just myself, that was all.
SD: How about the Moxie? Do you still drink that stuff
FT: Yeah, yeah, I like Moxie. But I don't find it now. I guess I have a little sugar diabetes and I don't dare drink it. I think there's some sugar in there.
SD: But you do chew tobacco?
FT: Yeah, yeah, but the old lady won't let me. Mad. Caught me the other day.
SD: What happened?
FT: Oh, everything. The undertaker in the village here, he went to see the movie. He goes to church and was telling my wife about my chewing tobacco in that one scene. And she didn't like that.
SD: How does she feel about your being famous?
FT: About the movie, you mean? She ain't going to go see it. She sees enough of me at home here, I guess.
SD: How do you feel being famous?
FT: I ain't famous, I don't feel famous. Its good, though, to have folks call me a movie star, a lot of my friends come out and shake hands with me and stuff like that.
SD: Well, now that everybody knows your name, would you rather run for Congress or head for Hollywood?
FT: Oh, Hollywood now. Hollywood. I don't know if the movie'll come popular or not, but it's good around here, I know. A lot of people want to go see it twice.
SD: Maybe movies is the way to go?
FT: I dunno. I done it just to help John out. It was fun getting out that way from home. I worked all my life, and it's hard to stop, you know.
SD: Well, I think John has you scheduled for hand-shaking this Friday on Church Street. Didn't you do that once before — for a scene in the movie?
FT: We had a lot of fun on Church Street. We had great fun. I shook hands with this old great big fella, must have been on dope, or crazy or something. He could have murdered John right there on the street. Said you touch me and I'll put "you in jail, I'll sue you for everything you've got. John got really scared, but me and my buddy we were laughing like a son of a gun. 'Course John didn't put that on the movie.