Twenty-somethings Stu Silverstein and Richard Searls were sitting outside their home in Somerset County one warm day around 1974 when a rickety old Volkswagen bus came up their driveway. Out from the bus came Walter Lane, a Litchfield native who years earlier had left his wife and children to go live in the woods with his best friend, Bob Wagg.
Lane wanted to ask Silverstein and Searls — who moved to Maine as part of the back-to-the- land movement — about marijuana cultivation, and if he and Wagg might learn from them how to grow the plant and make some money.
The weed growing didn’t fully materialize, but Silverstein and Searls made something even better out of the encounter: a movie.
“Dead River Rough Cut,” shot over the course of a year in 1974 and released in 1976, followed Lane and Wagg as they lived on their terms — entirely off the land, in tarred-paper shacks in The Forks that once housed German prisoners of war, with little in the way of material possessions but with all the freedom the woods of Maine allows.
The film has become a bit of a Maine cult classic, though it’s been little-seen outside the state. It’s a vital document of a way of life that’s now all but disappeared — one that had more in common with the Maine woodsmen of the 19th century, rather than the back-to-the-landers who moved to Maine from elsewhere in the country in the 1960s and ’70s.
“We just thought they were so interesting. We wanted to document them and a way of life that at that time was already pretty rare and is now pretty much gone,” said Silverstein, who lives in Waterville, where he bakes bread and makes art.
Lane and Wagg had regular jobs, working as woodsmen and in mills. prior to moving to the woods when they were in their 40s. They grew up together in Litchfield, and had been hunting and drinking buddies since they were teenagers.
Both had grown disillusioned with the demands of modern society, particularly the demands of menial jobs and money. They wanted to do what they wanted, even if it meant being cold, hungry and isolated a lot of the time, and having to spend hours doing back breaking work in order to survive.
Visually, “Dead River Rough Cut” portrays the hardscrabble life of its main characters through long, steady shots, as they live according to the seasons, driving oxen to haul timber out of the woods in the warm months, hunting in the fall and trapping beaver in the winter. It’s occasionally graphic in its depiction of the catching and killing of animals. Wagg and Lane are incredibly charismatic, as rough around the edges and occasionally foulmouthed as they are.
But that’s interspersed with cinematic lyricism, like Wagg feeding the Canada jays that visit their camp, or canoeing down the swollen Dead River in early spring. Though the film was shot in the mid-1970s, Lane and Wagg live in many ways as if it were the 1870s, with their snowmobile and Jeep the only modern elements shown.
Lane and Wagg’s words are full of old-fashioned poetry and philosophy, with an attitude that’s anachronistic and yet sometimes surprisingly progressive. Wagg in particular misses the company of women, though he says he wouldn’t want to be with anyone who wouldn’t want to live just the way he does — and that women care too much about their appearances, and should just look and smell the way people naturally do.
The duo adhered to a sustainable way of living in line with contemporary views on the climate and the environment.
“There is nothing wasted in the plan of nature,” Lane said in the film, reflecting on the materialism of regular society. They both proudly noted that neither owes a dime to any bank or financial institution, and generally have disdain for money — it’s nice to have, they admit, but at the end of the day it corrupts.
“There’s no man ever made that much money and made it honestly. It’s impossible. It can’t be done. He stole that from somebody, through hook or crook or someway,” said Lane at one point in the movie, about the super rich. “I would be all in favor of passing a law saying ‘Hey look, it ain’t right for you to have that much money, you don’t need it.’”
“Dead River Rough Cut” never had a proper theatrical release or distribution, though it was shown on Maine Public Broadcasting in the 1980s and ’90s, and had a screening at the Camden International Film Festival in 2014. It’s available to stream in part on YouTube, or in full on Amazon, where DVDs that include bonus features are available.
For Silverstein and Searls, it started their film careers, with Silverstein going on to make several more documentaries and, in 1978, cofounding Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, while Searls went on to direct shorts for National Geographic, NOVA and others.
Lane and Wagg were two of the last Maine woodsmen. They died decades ago — but thankfully their way of life and story have been preserved.