Valley News – 25 Years Later, “Man With a Plan” Saga Shows Real Politics Stranger Than Fiction

TUNBRIDGE – John O’Brien Speaks Modestly About Man with a plan, his 1996 feature film about a Vermont farmer who decides to run for Congress.

For a piece of Vermont art, the film was a smash hit, but in cinematic terms, where success is measured in tens and hundreds of millions, it was as modest as O’Brien is when it comes to it. speak.

“I think it holds up very well in light of the American political scene,” he said in an interview at his Tunbridge sheep farm. “It never seems out of place or out of time.”

But it seems a long way from here, from a time when the soft mockery of electoral politics seemed not only possible, but necessary. On Friday, a certain former president issued a statement that read, in its entirety, “INFLATION NATION!” Try to satire.

Satire may be dead, but Man with a plan remains an indelible cultural marker in Vermont, and it led to one of the greatest episodes of political theater in the history of the state – and possibly the nation.

O’Brien came up with the idea of ​​putting Tunbridge dairy farmer Fred Tuttle at the center of a film while Tuttle had a small role as a stage thief in O’Brien’s previous film, Vermont is for lovers.

At the time, Ross Perot, the Texas tycoon, presented himself as an underdog for the presidency in 1992. Dissatisfaction with the status quo was in the air.

O’Brien is most often identified as a sheep farmer and filmmaker from Tunbridge, but he has a political background. His father, Robert, was a state senator from Orange County and ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1976. He also studied political science and film at Harvard.

On several occasions, O’Brien has stated that the classic Peter Sellers film Be there, and the saturday morning cartoon character Mr. Magoo were also inspirations for the film. Tuttle exuded the same simple ease as these characters.

Man with a plan Introduces Tuttle more or less like himself, a roughly 70-year-old dairy farmer from Vermont with broken knees who is behind on his taxes and needs money for medical bills. What can a guy with few qualifications do that will pay him enough to get by?

The answer, of course, lies with Congress.

“I’ve spent my whole life in the barn,” Tuttle says in the movie. “Now I just want to spend some time at home. “

Tuttle, along with his advisers, Kermit Glines, Edgar Dodge and Euclid Farnham, other Tunbridge residents all appearing in the film as themselves, shapes his campaign as a fictional Regressive Party member. His opponent is a six-term holder, played by Bill Blachly, founder of the Unadilla Theater, in Marshfield, Vermont, and former state lawmaker.

O’Brien shot the film in a loose, improvised style, giving his untrained actors a general idea of ​​what he wanted and then letting them do the talking.

A Valley News journalist who visited the filming of Man with a plan in November 1992 captured Dodge’s account of a conversation with Tuttle:

“Fred wanted to know, ‘What does John want? What does John want? Dodge said. “’Fred,’ I said to him, ‘John is trying to get something, he wants to get something that will be real and tangible. He wants to capture such a different way of life. It’s a passing way of life. “

In this way, Man with a plan is a kind of time capsule. With the exception of Blachly, who is now 90, the old guys in the movie are all gone.

O’Brien edited the film and theatrically released it in 1996. It premiered in the Spaulding auditorium of the Hopkins Center to a full house, and has had extensive appearances in Montpellier, Burlington and Boston. .

O’Brien and Jack Rowell, who helped make the film and take photos during filming, drove Tuttle to the area for the Friday night film openings.

The Spaulding show remains etched in O’Brien’s memory.

“It was a great experience when you have 900 people there,” he said. “It was the start of the whole self-distribution adventure.”

The film was released at the height of independent cinema. O’Brien raised around $ 100,000 to make the film.

But the distribution was a challenge. As an independent filmmaker, he did not have the influence of future films to be used against theaters, making a wider release impossible.

The film has arrived in New York, shown on a screen in Greenwich Village. The New York Times published a review on November 1, 1996, calling it a “light, wacky, charming and satirical film”. O’Brien, the reviewer wrote, “has a keen sense of political madness, but also a sensitive ear for playful musical accompaniment and an artistic eye for the natural beauties of Vermont.”

Typically, films open in New York and Los Angeles so they can be reviewed and any critical praise can be part of a national marketing campaign, O’Brien said. Corn Man with a plan arrived in New York after having already played in the provinces and without a marketing budget.

He and the film’s supporters worked hard to get the film in home video formats before Christmas, and they distributed it to video stores, bookstores, general stores and other places ready to sell it.

In the long run, the film made around $ 1 million, enough to cover costs, reimburse investors, and allow O’Brien, Tuttle, and a few others to be paid between $ 10,000 and $ 20,000. If you were to calculate the hours spent making the film, that was not the minimum wage.

But there was a second chapter which was even bigger than the first.

O’Brien had considered getting Tuttle to show up to Congress for real in 1998 as a way to generate publicity. But Peter Freyne, political columnist for the Burlington alt-weekly Seven days, encouraged O’Brien to watch the Senate race instead.

Jack McMullen, a Massachusetts businessman who became a resident of Vermont in 1997, applied as a Republican for the Senate seat held by Democrat Patrick Leahy. A wealthy Harvard Law School graduate, McMullen emerged as a timid and inexperienced candidate who lacked the common touch. O’Brien and Tuttle have decided he should be in the Republican primary against McMullen.

Their September 1998 GOP debate on Vermont Public Radio was a classic meeting between natives and flatlanders in which candidates questioned each other. Tuttle’s requests for McMullen proved he didn’t know how to get by in a barnyard. “How many pacifiers does a Holstein have and how many has a Jersey?” “” What is a tedder? And “what is the rower?” (All cows have four teats. A tedder is a tractor attachment that turns hay for drying, and rowen is second cut hay.)

He also handed McMullen a list of city names and asked him to pronounce them: Charlotte, Calais, Leicester, etc.

“It was a quintessential moment in Vermont history,” said Deborah Kimbell, a Tunbridge resident who was Leahy’s campaign press secretary in 1986, in a telephone interview.

Tuttle beat McMullen by 10 percentage points and quickly endorsed Leahy and campaigned with him. Kimbell surprised them at a campaign event at a one-room school in Granville.

“If it had been McMullen and Leahy it would have been more or less the same,” she said. “It was so refreshing and fun.”

Tuttle garnered 23% of the vote in November, despite his support for Leahy. He also toured talk shows, including a flight to Los Angeles for the Tonight show. Rowell sold photographs of Tuttle to newspapers around the world.

After Man with a plan, O’Brien made another movie, Nosy parker, completing his “Tunbridge trilogy”.

He once told a reporter that he would like to make bigger movies with bigger budgets, but he didn’t really want to leave the farm either. The farm won. He married Emily Howe, another Tunbridge resident, in 2015, and they run a farm wedding business. He also served two terms at Vermont House, representing Royalton and Tunbridge, as a Democrat, and is also part of the Tunbridge Selectboard.

He shot around 500 hours of film for another mock documentary, this one on environmentalism, but couldn’t find the time to finish it.

American politics have become stranger and more tense since 1996. Man with a plan differs from it, as does Vermont.

“I think the film and its satire hold up pretty well,” O’Brien said. “As with all satire, the real business of American politics is even more absurd.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.

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