A new documentary reveals the man long at the helm of WoodenBoat magazine, who helped revive a dying craft.
Jon Wilson, built Maine’s WoodenBoat magazine into a sprawling brand with a passionate readership.
By Will Grunewald Photographs courtesy of Oleg Harencar
Bay Area filmmaker Oleg Harencar was born in Bratislava, Slovakia, hundreds of miles from the sea. “But I was always drawn to boats and water,” he says. “I think maybe I was born in a landlocked country by accident somehow.” A few years back, Harencar decided to create an indie docs series, Life on the Water, about people deeply connected to the ocean.
“I really like that subculture,” he says. “It’s full of inspiring characters.” One character who caught Oleg Harencar’s eye was Mainer Jon Wilson. In 1974, at a time when fiberglass boats were making their wooden forebears nearly obsolete, Wilson founded Brooklin-based WoodenBoat magazine, still a beloved title among admirers of traditional boat design. Harencar’s new film, The Restorer’s Journey, traces Wilson’s unlikely path from troubled youth to boatbuilder to foremost evangelizer for old-time watercraft. The film’s sparse style pairs nicely with its subject’s monkish devotion to tradition, and the result is candid and uncluttered. Harencar talked with Down East about Wilson’s turbulent background, Maine boat culture, and the art of telling Wilson’s story.
How did Jon Wilson fit into the Life on the Water series?
I’d known WoodenBoat magazine for a long time and thought, “Yeah, okay, let’s give it a try.” We knew there was a story there. It would just be a matter of talking with Jon long enough to get it.
Did it take long to build rapport with him? He seemed really open with you.
It happened pretty fast. I think honesty on both of our sides made it easy. We decided to trust each other, I suppose.
And that’s what got him talking about such personal things — his father’s alcoholism, his mother’s mental illness, his own LSD use?
I didn’t really get him to say anything — there wasn’t any coaxing. Those things weren’t necessarily secrets. A lot was published in interviews before, so someone might well have already heard some of those things about Jon. When it all comes together and becomes a story, though, it’s emotionally stronger. That’s what proper narrative structure does: It evokes. It connects with the audience via emotion, not just fact.
So how did you go about building that narrative during your conversations with Jon?
I gave him permission to tell it as it is — as he wanted to tell it. My questions were just simple, logical follow-up in order to build a full story. In general, I don’t ask psychological questions; I ask questions having to do with actions and motivations. That’s how a story makes sense.
You relied on Jon to accomplish all of that, without any other voices. Why is his perspective the only perspective?
I think it’s about honesty in documentary, because if you have other voices — if I interview other people and ask them what they think of Jon — then I have several views of the protagonist, and I have to choose who gets more or less weight in the story. This way, there is only one point of view. It’s maybe a more primordial way to go about narrative. It’s that guy who went hunting for a bison or a bear and came back to the fire and told everyone what happened.
You put your faith in the reliability of your subject.
Yes, because I want to understand the person, the character. And I want it to be their story.
Maybe related to that approach, you seem to minimize any other busyness around Jon. Is that why everything from the cinematography to the soundtrack to the editing is pretty spare and direct?
I believe in spare directness. When someone is talking, let’s hear what they have to say. For example, some filmmakers like to get several focal lengths as they shoot interviews, but I tend to find a good semi-close-up and just leave it there the entire time. A human face in an interview, when a person is saying something interesting, is enough. There’s nothing more you need. Any zooming, and cutting, and so on is just a distraction.
Besides Jon, the other thing we really see in the film is Maine. Did you discover anything distinctive about boat culture here, as opposed to, say, in the Bay Area?
I really think there’s something to the fact that boats have to come out of the water for the winter. People get to walk around them and think about the craft. There’s a reverence for craft. And there are these incredible, small boatyards, with really smart people who could be teaching at a university but decided to build boats instead.
There’s a moment when you’re crossing a bridge and the camera snaps around to take in the water churning below. It seemed like a nod to the beauty of the place.
This was my first time in Maine, and I must say that I want to come back. Other than the sailing season being short, it’s just incredible, with the variety and richness of all the islands and the coast. I hope it comes across how in love I was with the place.
Other than that, what was your big takeaway from making this film?
For a young guy like Jon to say, “Oh, wooden boats are going extinct, and I have to do something about it,” that’s really astonishing — and then he actually went and did it.
Harencar’s documentary, The Restorer’s Journey (41-minute runtime), is available for purchase ($25 DVD).