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Another Time, Another Place: A Director's View of 'Frontier House'

By Maro Chermayeff

<em>The Frontier House</em> families. Photo: Audrey Hall/Thirteen/WNET New York.

Land in the American West was once advertised as free for the taking. Under the Homestead Act of 1863, nearly two million families came to settle virgin territory—the frontier. Last year, PBS station WNET/Thirteen and Wall to Wall Television (U.K.) selected three modern families from over five thousand applicants to travel back in time and live the homesteading experience, in a “hands-on” history experiment. Could 21st century pioneers endure the hardships of the past? How would this experience compare to films and television programs such as Little House on Prairie? The year in which our families would live was 1883, when the railroad linked the East and West, and the location selected was the Montana Territory, the most homesteaded region in America, where over three million acres of land was claimed.

Frontier House is a co-production between Thirteen/WNET New York and Wall to Wall, in association with Channel 4 (UK)—the same team behind The 1900 House, the acclaimed series that aired on PBS and received a 2001 Peabody Award. I came on board in December 2000 as one of two producer/directors of the six-part series; the Frontier team—Executive Producers Beth Hoppe (WNET) and Alex Graham (Wall to Wall) and Series Producer Simon Shaw (Wall to Wall.)—was looking for an American filmmaker to be a part of this project.

It was incredibly inventive opportunity—a hybrid between drama and documentary, where three families would be followed in a cinéma vérité style as they lived out the daily dramas of their real lives, yet in an imaginary world. After discussions about intimacy and intrusion on the lives of the families, we decided that the series would be shot with a single camera, Digi Beta 16x9 in PAL, by British cameraman William Edwards, and recorded by one soundperson, American Eddie O'Connor. Following the model of 1900 House, we would also provide each family with a camcorder to record their thoughts and feelings; this footage could then be incorporated into the program. One of the most challenging elements of the series came at the beginning—setting the context in which the families would live for five months. The only rules by which the families had to live were the rules of history—what would have been available or possible in 1883.

Initially I was one of just a few Americans in this British invasion, but eventually American and British crews came together, including American-born director Nick Brown, who lives in England and had been working for Wall to Wall. I would direct Episodes One, Three, and Five, and by alternating programs we would each have time to prepare for the upcoming program while the other was in the field. As the cultures collided, we found that we all shared the same goal, and basically the same language. To my surprise there were few stylistic differences in terms of the language of filmmaking, and on most of the major themes for the programs and methods of production, we saw eye to eye. Interestingly, the nature of the project tapped into feelings of American pride and tenacity that at times illuminated the cultural gulf. However, what ultimately won out were individual relationships, the power of trust among the production team, and our mutual feelings of responsibility towards the participants in the project.

The challenges inherent in a production of this magnitude came quickly, and Associate Producers Mark Saben (UK) and Micah Fink (US) were integral in setting up the actual workings of the project with us. Major tasks included choosing families, deciding the themes of each program, finding a crucial team of experts and historians in the field of living history, researching and locating period breeds of livestock from around the country, purchasing period-accurate canned goods and grains to stock our re-created general store, having authentic clothing designed and made for each participant, and teaching our families to build log cabins with period tools and craftsmanship. Among our fears: Would the families starve? Injure themselves accidentally? Be trampled by cows? Fall off a horse? Freeze in cold conditions? Regret their decision to travel back in time?

We all quickly established that some things had changed, and although this experience was to be as authentic as possible, some exceptions would have to be made. Of particular concern were issues of health and safety. All team members were trained in emergency medical response, and our production house, which was about half a mile of the land where the families lived, had emergency vehicles and 24-hour EMT support.

Happily, no major accidents or illnesses occurred; unhappily, this necessary support created a dent in our budget. The more everyday concerns that we had to address were water purification, as the rivers and creeks are now filled with bacteria, and sunscreen, as the ozone has been continuously depleting over the last hundred years. The last major issue was whether to break from the past and use birth control, since the period alternatives—wood pessaries and pig-intestine condoms—seemed too much to bear. We decided to put this personal decision, which we filmed as part of Episode One, into the hands of the families. For everyday ailments, we provided each family with a medicine box containing herbs and remedies of the time.

The three families chosen were the Clune family from California, the Glenn family from Tennessee and the Brooks family from Boston. As modern-day people, these families were not acting or re-creating the past, but living as themselves in a period setting, with full knowledge of what they had left behind. The Clunes—Gordon, a business executive, and his wife Adrienne, both of Irish descent—brought their niece and three children. The Glenns, a Caucasian family from Nashville, represented a more common 20th century family model: Karen, her second husband Mark, and her two children from a previous marriage. Our third family included Nathan Brooks, an African- American teacher, and his father Rudy, a retired corrections officer. Together they built the cabin in preparation for the arrival of Kristen, Nate's fiancée, who joined in Episode 3—and they married on the frontier.

In our research we found that many early history books ignored the presence of African-Americans on the frontier; in fact, nearly half a million black Americans were living in the West by 1880. Also, Nate and Kristen's interracial marriage, while permitted in the 19th century, might have proved difficult for them. Diaries indicate that such couples may have gone west seeking freedom from prejudice. Sadly, after the turn of the century in Montana, interracial marriages were declared illegal, and the existing marriages were made null and void. These racial issues were of interest to Nate and Kristen from an academic point of view, but their first-hand experiences both on and off the frontier did not mirror this conflict. The other families accepted them at face value, and there were no negative racial overtones on the project.

The reality that was most difficult to address accurately, however, was the American Indian’s role in the frontier experience. Dale Old Horn, the Native American consultant on the project, had told us that for the Crow Indians who had once occupied this land, the word “homesteader” was a dirty word. Those who were offered “free land” in the 19th century must have known that it was not free, but taken by force from the Indian people. Karen Glenn and Nate Brooks both had some American Indian ancestry, and all the participants were interested in this part of history that would never be realized. In a twist of historical fate, we were able to introduce Dale to the families as a provider of much-needed fresh meat. In fact, during the 1880’s the Crow Indians were starving, having been driven off their land and unable to hunt freely. Contemporary hunting laws forbade our families from hunting during a majority of the program’s time frame, while hunting was permitted year-round on the reservation.

It was impossible to fully explore every arena of the pioneer experience, so we ultimately chose to highlight certain elements and create a theme for each of the six hours. The small production team then began to create an isolated universe, down to the last detail, in which the families could live and respond to their environment. Their emotional and intellectual arc ultimately became the focal point of each program. We were prepared at the start to continually shift gears, knowing that what the participants said, felt and did in any given moment would drive and alter the direction of the programs. Events in each episode included cabin- building, visits to the country store, a frontier wedding, five weeks of classes in a one-room schoolhouse, and a country fair. Our challenge was to make sure that events be organic to what was happening in their lives, and was intended to provide a loose framework in which the critical emotional, personal and psychological truths could emerge.

Ultimately, we faced unbelievable challenges we never could have expected, including a wagon train wreck—a common occurrence in the 1880s. The weather was also unexpected, with spring snowstorms, torrential rain, and hailstones the size of walnuts.

The end results exceeded our expectations, and the programs are filled with emotional intensity and dramatic sequences that actually bring you back to the 19th century. Our subjects learned an incredible amount about themselves; their personal lives were greatly stressed under the pressures of frontier living, and one of the families actually decided to stray from the rules of the program and seek 21st century solutions, much to the frustration of the other participants.

For me, the end result of working on this series was the unique opportunity to slip into another time. It was a new experience for me to create the world in which the subjects lived, and in that sense it felt, during preparation, like a drama. What always remains fascinating however, are real people, and their ability to thrive and survive in remarkable circumstances. One of the most important and critical relationships for me is between the subjects and myself, and the intimacy and trust developed while working on a film. During this process I remained fascinated and engaged, and really loved every person who dared to take up the challenge.

Frontier House premiers nationally on PBS April 29, 30, May 1 2002 at 9:00pm –11pm (check local listings)