Vermont director Jay Craven to adapt Zantop story

by Rachel Carter | 11/28/10 11:00pm

Since the murders of Dartmouth professors Half and Susan Zantop in 2001, many storytellers have been drawn to the topic, resulting in several books and a play that attempted to make sense of the tragedy. Now, nearly 10 years after the murders, director Jay Craven is working on the most recent retelling of an event that has largely slipped from campus consciousness: a film adaptation of the book "Judgment Ridge," which chronicles the Zantop murders.

Co-founder of the Upper Valley film company Kingdom County Productions, Craven's screenplay draws connections between the murders and an issue that has become prominent in recent years: budget cuts in schools.

Robert Tulloch and James Parker, the two teens who committed the violent murders, lived in the small rural town of Chelsea, Vt., whose local school was severely affected by budget cuts. Entering their senior and junior years of high school respectively, each of these bright students were signed up for only one class each.

Given the current economic climate of the country, this story largely set in an incredibly underfunded school has become extremely relevant, according to Craven. For Craven, "Judgment Ridge" reflects the problems faced by youth throughout the country today.

"A new UCLA survey that's come out talks about how the traditional structure of schools with teachers and administrators is no longer enough for a large percentage of students," Craven said in an interview with The Dartmouth. "They really require a third force in school whose job would be to help them get through emotional, cultural, psychological, behavioral and social barriers that really stand in their way. I think the story of these kids is partly the story of non-engagement."

Craven said he encountered Tulloch earlier in life when he taught a 30-day playwriting class at Tulloch's middle school.

"He did finally commit to the writing and did a good job, but he was not easy to engage initially," Craven said. "Part of my view about this story is that this was a preventable crime, and that I think that what he needed was more engagement."

In light of their increasing isolation within their town, Craven said he sees Tulloch and Parker not only through the lens of the violent acts they committed, but also as two teens set adrift by a school that could not provide for them.

"They had loads of time and not much adult supervision," Craven said. "Frankly, they tended to develop a pretty low opinion of the school and the town for not engaging and challenging them."

Recent budget cut discussions in schools around the country have led Craven to believe a film adaptation of "Judgment Ridge" is increasingly relevant, he said. As mentoring programs and classes are cut from schools, the risk of such a tragedy happening elsewhere rises.

"I think that what they needed was more engagement," he said of Tulloch and Parker, adding that many adolescents encounter this issue. "There are kids who are challenged, kids who are depressed, kids who are out of whack for one reason or another, and frequently they just continue to float."

Tulloch and Parker were allowed to "float," and it ended disastrously, he said. The motives for the murder were complicated, but Craven said he believes that their disengagement from their surroundings was heavily influential.

Like other artists who have engaged with this story, Craven said he hopes to help heal the emotional wounds from the event, not reopen them.

Craven said he plans to make the film a community project. His previous experience directing "A Stranger in the Kingdom" (1997) in the town of Chelsea, Vt., has helped him establish contacts there, and he is reaching out to nearby colleges, he said.

"I'm about to send out a letter to film departments and drama departments among several of the colleges close at hand," he said. "I've identified 30 crew positions and another 12 speaking parts for young actors. I'm interested in forming partnerships with schools that are interested."

Craven draws meaning from a senseless crime with the hope that his project will increase awareness of the potential consequences of education budgets cuts, he said.

"Inevitably the making of a movie develops a life of its own," Craven said. "It finds narrative and dramatic truths that find their own narrative. This is not an attempt to slavishly recount every horrible detail, but to engage the elements of what happened with the creative process."

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