Crazy like a Fox - Synopsis
When big-city speculators cheat him out of his Virginia farm, old time gentleman farmer Nat Banks leaves his family and makes a new home in a cave on the creek, inspiring a community-wide rebellion as he eventually fights his way back home. Nat won’t go down without a fight!
CRAZY LIKE A FOX is the story of a man who can’t take “You’re evicted” for an answer. The pride of possession from so many generations on the same soil simply makes it impossible for him to move. Rather than a rental house in town, he moves into a cave by the creek that runs through the back of his former property instead.
He spends the summer there in a kind of Robinson Crusoe splendor in the wilds of Virginia, until the cold rains of November make the folly of his situation overwhelming. But when new owners leave Greenwood empty to spend the winter in Palm Springs, Nat and his family just move back in, to reclaim their family home until the spring thaw brings about a final confrontation between the dubious forces of progress and the old guard of Virginia.
CRAZY LIKE A FOX stars Emmy Award nominee and Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Roger Rees and two-time Academy Award nominee Mary McDonnell as Nat’s wife Amy. It was written and directed by Richard Squires, an actor, director and playwright with La Mama Amsterdam, the Players Theatre of New England, and Brecht West theatres.
The film was shot over the course of 33 days in Virginia’s famously beautiful horse country.
Q & A with WRITER/DIRECTOR RICHARD SQUIRES
What was the source of inspiration for the screenplay?
I've lived in Virginia for fifty years, and therefore know firsthand both its beauty and its history; important not only to this country but really to the world, since it was here that all the founding documents of modern democracy were written: the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution; and the Supreme Court decisions that established judicial review of the law. Always a rural state, Virginia changed very little until the recent expansion of Washington and the eastern megalopolis, which has overwhelmed its land and curious, courtly culture with the dubious forces of progress. T he wonderful eccentrics who make up the Old Virginians--my daughter was taught kindergarten by Robert E. Lee's great-granddaughter, one of her classmates is a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson and another lives in James Monroe's old home--provide a direct link to the first days of this country, which were the last days of monarchic rule in the world. Many of them remain on their family farms after hundreds of years--a kind of lost English colony--and it seems to me that what they stand for has come to be so different from the country that they founded, that it makes sense to show the two forces together before the new one devours the other completely.
What was the casting process like?
The lead role calls for a gentleman actor with comic ability, a part that would have been fairly easy to cast in this country 50 years ago, but is somewhat difficult now, due, I think, to the paucity of parts for gentlemen. Rudy Vallee, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck: where would you find them these days? So I looked instead to English actors like Albert Finney and John Hurt, both for their level of personal cultivation and for the cultural milieu in which they work. Since English films are seamlessly interwoven with the literary, historic, and dramatic world of English culture in a way that American films have never approached, its actors can not only play gentlemen; they really are gentlemen themselves, with a great commitment to culture.
From that point it didn't take long to find Roger Rees, whose comic genius and natural naiveté remind me of great historic actors like Harold Lloyd. I honestly believe that no one could have better realized this part than Roger did, and it remains one of my greatest thrills in the production that I knew this the minute I first saw him.
We cast Mary McDonnell's part after Roger's, and with the benefit of his consultation. Her combination of earthiness and refinement seemed right for the part to me, and Roger was enthusiastic about his ability to suggest a deep, long term bond with her. She was cast at the last minute, two days after 9/11, and I saw her for the first time when she arrived to work on the third day of shooting. Mary more than anyone else had something to lose by an association with a first-time director and production company. She told me that she took the part because she was impressed by the values in the script. Mary was the luckiest thing that happened to us in the production: I'll never forget her generosity and patience with me as a first-time director, and her friendliness and absence of pretension were an important gift to the whole production.
What were the logistical hurdles during production?
Broadly speaking, the movie was marked by continual crisis and chaos in the production office, and a kind of euphoric enthusiasm on the set. I found this unnerving at first, but after our director of photography Gary Grieg explained that this pattern was normal I learned to block it out.
All of the creek scenes, most of the nature scenes and one of the barn scenes were shot at Francis Mill, a farm I own in Middleburg, Virginia. The house, grounds, and the rest of the barn scenes were shot at a nearby, locally famous farm called Welbourne, whose owner was an old friend that supplied the model for the movie’s hero Nat Banks. Together these two comprised the settings for about eighty percent of the movie: the rest of the scenes were shot at local farms, stores, courthouses and restaurants. I felt from the beginning that having control of the locations would give us a key logistical advantage to help balance out our relative inexperience.
The start date was pushed from 10 September to 1 October, due to casting and production problems as well as the effects of 9/11. We had a six-week schedule, with a five-day week and a twelve hour day, for thirty days total. We had perfect weather the entire time and never had to work on Saturdays.
Although no independent films of our scope had ever been shot in the Washington area, many Hollywood blockbusters had, which meant that experienced character actors and seasoned crew members could be found in the area. Producer Bill Warrell and I both thought it was important to select the director of photography from the local area, and this turned out to be the most important strategic decision that we made. I wanted someone who had the time and inclination to work closely with me in scouting locations and drawing up the diagrams we used in lieu of storyboards. Of the three possible candidates, only Gary Grieg had never done a feature as D.P., but he was locally famous, honestly wanted the job and was an accomplished advertising director himself. It would be hard to overstate Gary’s many contributions to the film. He had his pick of the best crew in Washington, which our producer Patricia Foulkrod pronounced the best she’d ever seen. Only the costume designer, Donna Zakowska, came from outside our area. I worked closely with production designer Kin Remington to pick the wall colors and treatments and the floor and exterior distress work on Welbourne. Virtually all the furnishings in the movie were found on site. The creek-side camp and cave were Kin's alone, with the help of her hippie carpenter crew.
I think the film came together when it did because it really had to: Welbourne was scheduled for renovation and it was our last chance to get it in such poor condition, with its beautiful patina of age in the finishes and its huge porches on the verge of falling in.
The house is practically a character in the film…
I'd always understood that films are so complex to make that it was prudent to make your first one about something you knew very well. I've rented an old sharecropper’s cottage at Welbourne for 25 years, and its owner, Nat Morison--a famous local character--is a friend of mine. Goose Creek runs through the back of the property, where I've spent many hours swimming and canoeing over the years. The birth of the story came from wondering what a character like Nat would do if he ever lost a place like Welbourne, which plays such a huge role in his life, as well as a fairly significant role in the life of his country. Many of the details in the film are true: George Washington really was a friend of Benjamin Dulaney, the builder of Welbourne, and really did ride Dulaney's horse throughout the Revolution. The Yankees really did burn the barns in 1862, but spared the house. When the war was over and all the local plantations fell into ruin, Colonel Dulaney, who'd ridden in J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry, sailed to England, married an heiress, and brought her back to Virginia to fix the place up again.
Both Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald were friends of the Morison-Dulaney family, both were frequent house-guests, and both wrote stories about Welbourne. Fitzgerald's story, “Her Last Case”, was published in the Saturday Evening Post and republished in his final collection of stories. Wolfe spent three weeks at Welbourne on orders from his editor, Max Perkins, to work on a book manuscript that he promptly locked in a trunk on arrival. He wrote a still unpublished story about Welbourne instead, and later wrote to family member Elizabeth Lemmon, "Your America is not not my America and for that reason I have always loved it even more--there is an enormous age and sadness in Virginia--a grand kind of death..."
Houses like Welbourne, which have remained in the same family hands for hundreds of years, through many significant men and events, have an obvious life to them that cannot be found in history books or in the unfortunate family-houses-turned-into-museums that seem to be the ruling trend with living history these days.
Since this is a film about an old southern family and a former plantation, how did you deal with the issue of slavery in this film?
The legacy of slavery raises legitimate issues in any film dealing with the South, and it can be painful for both whites and blacks to see blacks portrayed in subordinate roles in such stories. Often the solution--as in Rambling Rose, a film that takes place in a large house and a hotel in a small town in depression era Georgia; or in Cold Mountain, a film that takes place in North Carolina during the Civil War--is to evade the issue by casting only whites in the film, pretending in effect that blacks don't even exist in the South. This approach seemed not only dishonest to me, but obviously prejudicial in the sense that employment opportunities are therefore denied to blacks because of race.
I hope that the clear legal and moral equality of all the characters in our film, and the close personal relationships between races that is often so characteristic of the South--which is indeed one of the great lessons in racial healing that it has to offer the nation--will contribute to the goals of true, honest, and complete integration in this country.
We added the voice-over to demonstrate the surprising parallel between our story and The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, in which an impoverished aristocratic Russian family is rescued by a descendant of one of its own former slaves. Because slavery, like smallpox, was a worldwide phenomenon that knew no national boundaries in its day. Although it is almost exterminated now, like smallpox some of its scars remain.
This your feature film directorial debut -- any surprises?
As a writer, I was surprised and flattered by how many people were willing to read and critique the script once it was greenlit.
I was surprised when the IRS froze our funding a week before production; and when the union, ignoring the contract we'd just signed with their local, came down from New York to extort another $40,000. a week into production. Then the Teamsters called to ask for the job of driving the big trucks. We explained that we had essentially a two location shoot and only needed to move them three or four times in the next six weeks. But the Teamsters explained to us that moving the trucks wasn’t really the problem. The real problem was that certain people that the Teamsters knew about were apparently thinking about vandalizing the trucks. So we needed them not just to drive the trucks but also to keep an eye out for these crooks. So we hired two Teamsters who spent the entire six weeks eating chips at the Kraft table, at a cost of $12,000. It seemed to come straight from the theme of our film: Virginians really aren't accustomed to such blatant thievery.
But this was really small potatoes, compared to the encouragement and generosity of so many people in the independent film world, many of whom I came to know through my co-producer Kimba Hills. Most of all Patricia Foulkrod, who flew in on a big silver bird from Los Angeles, organized the natives as she found them, and single-handedly willed the movie into being.
As a director I was surprised, as all first-time directors must be, by the hundreds of people it takes to make a film, not to mention the incredible amount of work. As a novice I relied on two old adages: "Casting is eighty percent of directing", and "Well-written scenes play themselves". To see the truth of this in those scenes which were both well-written and well-cast was startling.
I was very surprised by the way the experience transformed the inner compass of my life, which I think is comparable in some ways to mountaineering triumphs.
I was also surprised by the phenomena of post-production. I'd assumed that the editor pretty much did the editing, for example; and I really had no idea, after all the crowds of production dispersed, how to put a film together. For a while it seemed I was learning a new profession every week. Certainly the second luckiest hire of the movie was our editor Sheri Bylander, whose generosity with contacts and unfailing enthusiasm for the project got me through the confusing, expensive, and islolated valley of post-production.
Composing the music for the film had always been the reward that I’d reserved for myself for making it. But when the time came to begin I was so wrapped up in production issues that composing the music on my own was impossible. By great good luck I found local composer David Kane on my first or second try, and we worked out the score together. I’m very happy with the sound of the score but it remains one of my few regrets that I wasn’t free to put more of my own music into it. David deserves the credit for the score.
Finally, I remain surprised that directing--independent directing at least--is considered a young man’s game. It’s sometimes plausibly compared to professions like expedition leader, field general, orchestral conductor, or supervising architect: none of whom would ordinarily get a chance until they were at least forty, an age when multimillion dollar budgets, sensitive artists, Teamsters, deadlines, rain, and loneliness don’t tend to seem so daunting as they might to a younger person.
What do you want the audience to get from the film?
The film is a study of one particular member of those lost-in-time Virginians, whose simplicity, naiveté, genteel poverty and love of learning seem so out of place, indeed irrelevant, to the contemporary world. I hope they get a sense of both the humor and the pathos in his situation, and, through him, see that not only nature but the natural order of life are under assault right now. But all of the above is background, really, to the story of a gentleman with curious ways, who would rather live in a cave on the creek than bow to defeat. I hope the audience finds him to be an unforgettable character.