During this time, I was finishing a documentary film on the Shakers where dialogue and narration were the most important elements. I was tired of talking heads, and I wanted to do a film that told its story in pictures. Days and months passed, and Robert and Matthew wanted to hear "Hansel and Gretel" over and over again. One evening as I snuggled in bed with the boys half reading, half telling the story, it suddenly occurred to me that I could make "Hansel and Gretel" near home on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Here was a story that could be told in pictures!
I imagined "Hansel and Gretel" in images of the 1930s -- the Farm Security Administration photos and the pictures in books like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee. Born in 1939, I grew up with stories about the Great Depression. My mother's and father's political and social consciousness matured during the 1930's and they had a collection of 78 rpm recordings of folk singers like Woodie Guthrie and Leadbelly which I listened to over and over. I was also influenced by the stark, post-war Italian features like Shoe Shine Boy and The Bicycle Thief that came to theaters in Washington DC, where my father worked for the Department of Agriculture during the 1940s. I realized I could make a realistic film literally in my own backyard. The cabins and farms of my rural Virginia community could be "once upon a time" to most modern children who were generations removed from country life. Like many folktales, "Hansel and Gretel" also spoke to my interests in the psychology of the spirit. I had begun practicing Zen meditation when I was a teacher and Chinese language student in the Far East during the 1960s. In the early 1970s I was reading the works of the psychologist Carl Jung and the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Jung illustrated his idea about the collective unconscious with folktales, and Campbell called folktales "the primer of the picture language of the soul."
My wife and co-producer Mimi Davenport and I made "Hansel and Gretel, An Appalachian Version" for under $10,000. I shot and edited it; Mimi did costumes, set design, and sound. Our film followed the story as it appeared in my Pantheon Edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales except for my leaving out some of the magical elements in the tale, such as the duck that ferries the children across the river to their home territory. We did most of the editing without the sound as if it were a silent picture, and the dialogue for the whole movie fits on less than a page.
When we released "Hansel and Gretel, An Appalachian Version" in 1975, it created immediate controversy. The realism of the live-action style and the fidelity to the old folktale upset some reviewers who considered the frightening aspects of film inappropriate for children. However, many other children's film specialists recognized the film's overwhelming popularity with young children, and saw it as a positive breakthrough in children's films.
Emboldened by the success of Hansel and Gretel, Mimi and I produced Rapunzel, Rapunzel (1979) and The Frog King (1980). We continued the realistic, live-action style that I felt most comfortable with. In The Frog King we decided to use a real frog instead of a puppet or an actor inside some kind of oversized frog costume. I visited an amphibian specialist at the Smithsonian Institution who told me that they cooled their frogs in the refrigerator crisper where the frogs would go into a state of hibernation and become sluggish and easy to handle. I figured I would need ten frogs in different stages of hibernation depending on what we wanted them to do.
Now I had to catch them. My first idea was to post ads in all the local junior high schools offering $2 for each frog. Instead, I decided to ask Leon Sommers, a twelve-year-old boy who lived on a neighboring farm, to catch some for me. A couple days later, a discouraged Leon showed up with a sack containing only two little frogs. Just before I left for a Zen retreat in New York, I gave him a flashlight and told him to try at night.
When I called later from New York, Mimi told me that Leon had showed up with a sack of 20 frogs! She paid him $40, and from then on, our refrigerator had no room for lettuce. Luckily, I hadn't posted ads -- we would have spent all our budget on frogs. The Making of "The Frog King" (1981) highlights our frog stars and frog "handlers," and is an interesting account of our early filmmaking efforts.
In 1981, Mimi and I wrote a successful proposal to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and received money to do four more folktale adaptations for release to schools via instructional television. We proposed that our series would appeal to all age groups from kindergarten through senior high and submitted The Frog King as our pilot. The CPB panel was skeptical, but when they saw The Frog King they realized something that I knew: the audience for folktales is not limited to children. Many of the themes and "tale types" they embody are the core plots of popular Hollywood movies and high literature like Chaucer and Shakespeare.
We called the CPB series "From the Brothers Grimm" and continued to follow faithfully the Grimm tales in our production of Bristlelip (1982), Bearskin (1982), and The Goose Girl 1983. We adapted stories with kings, queens and princesses to the democratic American environment translating the royal figures of these European fairy tales into the power symbols of the new world -- an industrial baron in The Frog King and a rich miller/town mayor in The Goose Girl. It was much easier to adapt tales from Grimm like "Bearskin" and "Hansel and Gretel" which did not depend on strong class differences based on birth.
For the last tale in the CPB series, we stretched "From the Brothers Grimm" to include a home-grown variant of a Grimm's tale. Related to Grimm's "The Master Thief," Jack and the Dentist's Daughter (1983) is a trickster tale best known as "Jack and the Doctor's Gal" in Richard Chase's popular collection of Appalachian Jack Tales. Trickster tale types were also collected among rural blacks outside the Appalachian region, and we decided to make the film with a predominantly African American cast. Jack and the Dentist's Daughter dramatizes the challenge of being young and black in society where the middle-class Babbittry and Uncle Tom-ism conspire to keep the young African American man "in his place."
The ease with which Jack and the Dentist's Daughter adapted to a 1930s rural American setting prompted us to consider other American folktales. Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, we released Soldier Jack in 1988. The story is set just after World War II and features Jack as a kind of Everyman. Our film draws inspiration from the optimistic and good-natured films of directors like Frank Capra. We also set our next film Ashpet: An American Cinderella (1990) in the 1940s, this time in the early days of the war when small communities held "victory" dances for soldiers going overseas. Originally I wanted to set the story in World War I, but my costumer said that World War I costumes were hard to find and expensive, so World War II it was. Screenwriter Roger Manley wrote the part of the fairy godmother for the African American storyteller Louise Anderson, who added her own lines to the screenplay and gave the part of "Dark Sally" character development that our previous films lacked.
Finding a lead actress was the major challenge for our tenth "From the Brothers Grimm" adaptation, Mutzmag: An Appalachian Folktale (1992). Set deep in the Appalachian mountains, it required regional accents. After days of disappointing casting calls in Washington, DC, I decided to go to rural western North Carolina and look for Mutzmag and her sisters there. At an open casting call in Asheville, North Carolina, Mimi and I found Robbie Sams, a ninth grader in Madison County High School in the mountains near the North Carolina - Tennessee border. She came with her teacher Sheila Barnhill, who is one of the last authentic Appalachian ballad singers in the United States. I was so impressed with both of them that I asked Sheila to arrange a casting call the next day at Madison County High, and we found most of our other actors there.
Reading or hearing a story is one thing and seeing it fully realized on a screen is another. When you read or listen to a story, your imagination is free to picture it according to your own understanding. A film, on the other hand, pictures it for you. Charlotte Ross, an Appalachian storyteller who had told "Mutzmag" for years, never focused on the fact that the Witch and Giant were cannibals so when she saw my film version, she was shocked. "Why, it's like a horror story!"
Many folktales like "Mutzmag" and "Hansel and Gretel" have dark and frightening elements in them. The plots of these tales are similar to modern horror films, but with important differences. Whereas the modern horror film often ends with the evil thing lurking around for a sequel, folktales celebrate the decisive victory of the protagonist over the forces of evil. The dark side tests the hero or heroine. Without it, there would be no room for courage and heroism. When you hear "once upon a time," rest assured that there will be a "happily ever after."
Tom Davenport, Delaplane, Virginia