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“We have no room in our county for men who murder reason. Save your own neck, Parson Creffield, and the quicker you go the better for you.”

— The Corvallis Gazette, Jan. 1, 1904

CORVALLIS — When ex-Salvation Army officer Franz Edmund Creffield came to town in 1902, Corvallis was, in the words of writer Charles Oluf Olsen, little more than “a sleepy farming village.” Between 2,500 and 3,000 people called it home.

Despite its modest size, the community was served by two newspapers: the Gazette and the Times. Neither seem to have acknowledged this man’s arrival. But both would print plenty about him in the coming years. In fact, the whole world would know his name.

As a near-lifelong resident of the Willamette Valley and ardent student of history, I’m ashamed to admit that until I saw Edward P. Davee’s “How the Fire Fell,” I’d never heard of Edmund Creffield and the Brides of Christ. Now, after obsessively poring over websites, books and documents — each a multitendriled labyrinth of meticulous research or panting hearsay — I can think of little else.

Even 115 years after his death, Creffield remains a fascinating if despicable figure. The newsprint that cursed him has yellowed and faded, but its disgust burns red-hot still.

He called himself “Joshua,” a prophet, and his primarily female congregation the Church of the Brides of Christ. A few Corvallis residents had a less-reverent name for them all: Holy Rollers, a cultish collective of minds controlled by a libidinous charlatan who endorsed the destruction of material possessions, the institution of marriage and even relationships beyond the sect. Outsiders were wicked, nonbelievers to be regarded with suspicion.

The townspeople, for the most part, felt the same way about them, and especially about their leader. They expressed their concern by threatening him, arresting him on allegations of insanity, jailing him for adultery and driving him out of town. They even subjected him to tar-and-feather humiliation the night before his 1904 marriage to Maud Hurt, one of his followers and the eldest child of O.V. Hurt, who had welcomed the group into his family’s Corvallis home and soon came to regret it.

Creffield’s teachings, which had roots in the 19th century holiness movement, called for the selection of a “second mother of Christ” — the father, of course, being himself. For this privilege he chose from his flock the teenaged Esther Mitchell, much to the horror of her older brother George, an outsider. George would later follow the preacher to Seattle, where, on the morning of Monday, May 7, 1906, he exacted his deadly revenge. Creffield’s notoriety was such that his assailant was declared “not guilty” by a Seattle jury.

The story of Edmund Creffield and the Church of the Brides of Christ has informed at least four books in the last decade alone: Linda Crew’s novel, “Brides of Eden: A True Story Imagined”; Jim Phillips and Rosemary Gartner’s “Murdering Holiness: The Trials of Franz Creffield and George Mitchell”; Gerald J. Baldasty’s “Vigilante Newspapers: A Tale of Sex, Religion & Murder in the Northwest”; and Robert Blodgett and Theresa McCracken’s “Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon’s Love Cult,” the 2002 volume that prompted Davee to write and direct “How the Fire Fell,” his first feature-length film.

Davee, a 1990 Corvallis High School graduate now living in Portland and working in Reed College’s audiovisual department, goes to great lengths to clarify that “Fire” is “inspired by true events” — that is, neither literal biopic nor painstaking documentary.

Instead, it’s a quietly poetic, dreamlike contemplation of the scandal, told in a style reminiscent (in my memory, at least) of Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” (1995) or Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007). Its dialogue is primarily naturalistic and minimal — everyday chatter, really, exchanges you’d hear on a passing breeze. The camera often serves as a distant observer, lacking in omniscience, filming moments as if surreptitiously eavesdropping to avoid detection. The effect is that of ordinary lives caught unknowing in history’s grip.

Shot in Super 16 on color negative and released in stunning black-and-white (the photography at times evokes tintypes in motion), the Local Sightings Film Festival award-winning feature is mostly set at the home of O.V. Hurt, where Creffield and his followers stayed for months. Davee secured permission to use the William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge’s historic Fiechter House, an optimal location for reasons other than its similarities to the actual Hurt residence.

“I had it in mind right away when I started writing the script,” Davee said. “The refuge has always been one of my favorite places. I have fond memories of it. The house is isolated and quiet, and the sound of the wildlife creates a nice texture. The sense of isolation is just perfect for the story. I was lucky that they let me shoot there. They were very generous to do so.”

“How the Fire Fell” was filmed over 23 days, from the fall of 2009 through the spring of 2010. Accommodations were made for schedules and to allow time for Joe Haege, the production’s Creffield — as well as co-composer, with John Askew, of its spare, blood-chilling soundtrack — to grow out his hair. Its budget: a meager $50,000. “It’s hard to make a feature film for that much,” Davee said. “But I started with nothing. I don’t know how it all happened, but it got made.”

Central to “Fire” are the contrasting performances of Haege as Creffield and David Poland as O.V. Hurt. (It should be noted that the entire enterprise is well-cast, deep in even its subtleties.) Poland’s Hurt is a fair man of few words; his wonderfully stoic countenance speaks silent volumes of experience, pain and weariness. Like Davee’s camera, he, too, is an observer, maintaining a distance from unfolding events. We first meet him standing for a family portrait. Behind those eyes is a goodness that requires no histrionics to convey.

The same cannot be said of Creffield, essayed in a captivating inhabitation by Portland musician Haege (Tu Fawning, 31 Knots, Menomena). At a shade over 6-feet tall, he dwarfs the real Creffield, who topped off at 5-foot-2½, according to his Oregon State Penitentiary record. But Haege’s is a portrayal that demands size and dominance, and he pulls it off in monologues/sermons that rise in fervency and righteous froth until every violent syllable’s launched his body forward, propelled by divine spirit — or something perhaps more sinister. He treads a fine line between “holiness or hell,” charisma and madness. No matter how uneasy he makes you feel, whenever he’s onscreen, you can’t look away.

Ultimately, “How the Fire Fell” gives this century-old tale an urgent humanity. Davee strips it of its accumulated tawdriness, drains it of salacious sensational pulp. It remembers that people — real people — suffered. Lives were damaged and destroyed.

When Creffield was killed, the pain did not subside. There were repercussions. Some of his faithful were institutionalized. Others committed suicide. And there was an epilogue that tore a family apart.

A jury may have acquitted George Mitchell. His sister Esther, however, did not. Just days after his July 1906 exoneration she met him and their brothers, Fred and Perry, at Seattle’s Union Depot. The men were scheduled to leave for Portland by train. As the siblings made their way to the platform, Esther kept a steady pace directly behind George. Then, without warning, she produced a pistol, took aim and fired.

Three decades later, Charles Oluf Olsen wove the story’s scattered pieces into an historical account. The result was 1937’s “Creffield’s Kingdom,” a vital document of this awful period. “After thirty years,” Olsen concluded, “families concerned are living secluded lives and trying to forget.”

But we mustn’t forget, ever. And thanks in part to “How the Fire Fell,” these long-quelled voices lost to time can now be heard again. 

 

What made you want to tell this story on film?

Edward P. Davee: It’s compelling on many different levels. It’s a tragic story and it could be told in a really gratuitous way. There were a lot of rumors about nudity and sex. But there was a lot of mystery too. I wanted to tell it in a way that kept that sense of mystery alive. Things are kind of obscured. You don’t know what’s going on. You see things through windows. I wanted to keep that feel throughout.

The original title of the movie was “Story of Hurt.”

It centers on the Hurt family. Most of the story took place in the Hurt household. That’s where Creffield hid for four months. He was wanted for adultery.

The story of O.V. Hurt, the father, was really interesting because he stood by his family through the whole thing. He was trying to pull everyone back to reality. I thought that was a good starting point to focus on.

Then I decided I wanted a title that was a little less direct. “The Story of Hurt” seemed a little obvious and I got tired of it after a while. (laughs) “How the Fire Fell” is an old hymn from the time that they may or may not have sung, and the story does have a lot of fire — they burn their possessions. It’s a good metaphor for the story and the way the film was made.

What attracted you to O.V. Hurt as opposed to, say, George Mitchell?

That’s what grabbed me right away. There are so many levels to this story and so many interesting characters. I would love to someday go back and make a whole separate movie about George Mitchell or any number of the characters. In my film, I didn’t really get into a lot of them. I guess part of me wants to possibly save them for something else in the future, maybe the idea of turning it into a trilogy. I don’t want to use up two hours on all the characters and not give them the full treatment that they may deserve.

Let’s talk about casting Edmund Creffield. What qualities did Joe Haege possess that qualified him to play this charismatic figure? 

Early on I thought of him based on his look and the way he dressed and the way he carried himself. He just has a really strong presence to begin with. When I started seeing him perform around town, I knew right away that he was good for the role. Physically, he’s different from the real Creffield, but I don’t know who else could have captured that essence. I had him in mind for a couple of years, and then I found out he’d actually done some acting and was just starting a feature film. That seemed like a good sign. I approached him and he was really into it. He and I have been really good collaborators with a good working creative relationship.

What was your read on Creffield?

I think he was a sociopath. I can’t say for sure if he started out with that intention. But he probably lacked any kind of real feelings for other people. Like any other cult leader or that type of personality, he was out to get things for himself. Somehow along the way he developed an ability to manipulate people. As these things happen, it spiraled out of control.

Why did you choose to shoot the film in black and white? It obviously lends itself to a story like this.

It seemed appropriate right away. I’m a big fan of old movies and I’ve always been influenced by silent movies, so I have a love of black-and-white to begin with. It seemed like the right way to create a timeless film quality. We wanted a fine grain with a slightly visible grittiness to it. It was grainy and sharp at the same time. We worked really hard to achieve that.

I love how Creffield is introduced. For at least the first few minutes, you hear him, but you don’t really get a good look at him. He’s obscured by other people or by groups walking past him. And in that first sermon, you initially see him only from behind. Yet you recognize his importance immediately.

That’s something I had scripted and was important to me. I wanted there to be kind of a slow development and then all of a sudden, he’s in your face. You’re kind of a fly on the wall during the movie, like O.V., in a way: you’re part of it, you’re stuck with it, but you’re separate from it. You’re observing it. That seemed like an effective way to introduce Creffield. And then slowly he overwhelms.

Do some of Edmund’s sermons still exist, or did you have to re-create them?

Most of what we have Joe saying is based on a couple of articles that Creffield wrote for a publication. Those are his only known writings. I took some of what he said and built on it, and Joe actually did a lot of improvisation on top of that.

What was it like for you to write in that voice?

It was interesting. It’s weird to put yourself in that mindset. But like I said, the articles pretty much gave you the full picture of what he was telling these people. I figured there would be repetition: “It’s holiness or hell” — there are certain phrases he repeats over and over again.

You were saying earlier — and I completely agree — that O.V. is an observer himself. He doesn’t really participate in all of it but, like the camera, watches.

Yeah, I think he was trying to be supportive, in a way. At one point he did throw his family out. In real life, actually, he joined the group or at least tried to be a follower of Creffield. There are certain things like that we just couldn’t cover in the film because of time constraints and budget. We wanted to have some things in town, like the reactions of the townspeople. But because of the small budget, we had to scale back on some of the ideas. We couldn’t explore everything we would have liked to.

The actual story is a lot crazier. In real life there was talk of them throwing a dog on the fire, waiting for Creffield to come out of the grave — things like that. Sometimes things were just too unbelievable to put into the film. It would seem silly. That’s why I tell people that the film was inspired by true events, because there’s so much missing.

You actually filmed parts of “Fire” in Corvallis. Did anyone have a problem with the subject or its place in local history?

I’ve heard stories about people not being thrilled with the story or embarrassed by it, but I haven’t encountered any problems, qualms or concerns. People believed in the way I approached it, I guess, or just think of it as a tragic story. It’s a story that needs to be told.

So what’s next? Do you have another project?

I won a big grant (an Oregon Media Arts Fellowship grant) to make it, so there’s no turning back now. Apparently, there were somewhere around 18,000 U.S. soldiers that went AWOL in World War II, after the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. That seemed like a good starting point. The idea is that there’s a soldier, a chaplain and a 16-mm. photographer working their way through the forest. They don’t know exactly what’s going on, but the photographer’s a bit shell-shocked. It’s not a World War II film in the sense of having battle scenes; it’s more of a psychological character study of these three men and why they are the way they are. (The project is titled “Lost Division.”)

How do you feel about not only returning to your hometown but also about coming back to the place that sparked this chain of events?

It’s pretty exciting. I’m kind of nervous about it, for some reason, but I think it’ll be fun. And what better place to show it? I love coming back to Corvallis. It’s a very unique town.

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