Arts December 22, 2017

Beyond Hollywood

Filmmaking takes off in the Treasure Valley

The first thing Clint Eastwood said to me was, “Your pants have holes in them.” We faced off on a red carpet amidst flashing bulbs and Sun Valley’s snow-dipped mountains. I’d carefully chosen these grossly-aspirational jeans for our meeting, hoping shredded Abercrombies confirmed that we Idaho filmmakers have an ironic capacity for hipness, no matter how far from Melrose Avenue. Obviously, I was going to need bigger guns than trash-fashion to impress Dirty Harry, a.k.a. Josie Wales, a.k.a. High Plains Drifter, a.ka. many other iconic characters.

At 87, Eastwood remains the master-blaster of bad-ass, box-office heroes. An Oscar-winning director of 42 films and counting, he is also the only major-league filmmaker to shoot a movie in Boise. “Bronco Billy” is a 1980s relic, packed with PG-rated brawls and cowboy ethics that Eastwood describes as his “Capra-esque film” and a personal favorite. Nearly 2,000 Treasure Valley-based locals played extras in the film and many still share the star’s nostalgic fondness for that Wild West dreamer with an 82 percent “Rotten Tomatoes” rating.

Fandom includes Melinda Quick, Executive Director of Boise Film Festival (BFF), approaching its third annual event, September 21-24 at JUMP. “Boise has a unique filmmaking community,” said Glick, who voluntarily spearheads BFF. “Audiences may be smaller, but locals are loyal and supportive to Idaho films and filmmakers.”

Besides a jam-packed, four-day festival running shorts, documentaries and features from obscure filmmaking hubs like Yugoslavia and Garden Valley, Idaho, BFF’s dedication to community and cinema can be evidenced all year in their “Movies That Move” series. Screenings offer a monthly love-fest of film classics in local venues. Not surprisingly, the most popular night of the summer series proved to be “Bronco Billy” at the Dutch Goose. The audience ate steak fingers and bellied up to the same bar where Eastwood was throwing punches in the film. September offers three movie nights leading up to the festival, including “The Cider House Rules,” showing at Longdrop Cider Company with brew included in admission.

Personally, I have a shameful weakness for bittersweet truffles and pre-embittered Johnny Depp, so I’m pushing for “Chocolat” at the Chocolat Bar. Besides being a salted-caramel addict, I’m a fulltime filmmaker and single mom to a six-grade second baseman. Between goat feeding, little league and algebra homework, I’ve directed 16 documentaries that have screened around the world. Scheduling can be brutal, but I’m 100 percent Idaho-proof that being a film director does not require moving to L.A. and running in heels to fetch nonfat-no foam-extra hot-lattes for the assistant to the assistant of the show-runner. At 3 a.m. Obviously, those people eat their young.

I can also attest that there exists an enchanting and enthusiastic appreciation for Idaho films not only in the Treasure Valley, but throughout the state and around the world. My 2016 documentary, “Girl From God’s Country,” revealed the history of bold, female film pioneers like Nell Shipman, a writer/producer and star of her own movies at Priest Lake in 1919. Filmed by an all-female, Idaho crew, on a micro-budget, the documentary nabbed Best Documentary at the Cannes Artisan Festival. The film screened in festivals in London, China, Buenos Ares, Hollywood, and New York. It will show this fall in Berlin, Paris, and on Idaho Public Television. The movie has been incorporated into women’s and film studies in 100 universities. Netflix next.

This tiny film’s big success explains why industry outliers in Boise have seen an explosion of cinematic talent and festivals in the past five years. Easy access combined with beautiful locations, digital camera technology and social media allows anyone, anywhere, with diligence and creativity, to start a DIY filmmaking revolution seen round the world.

Zach Voss, 28, is just such and example. Self-taught, this Boise native’s latest web-series, “Volcanoes!” was a finalist in National Geographic’s “Wild to Inspire” competition. Voss’s Retroscope Media is a one-man produce-shoot-edit operation. Documenting molten lava has taken him to Ecuador, Chile and Guatemala. “I got my start at i48. I wouldn’t be a filmmaker if the competition hadn’t screened my first short in 2009.”

i48 is the longest- running festival in Idaho. Founded by Andrew Ellis in 2003, the competition works like a cauldron, boiling new talent until the best rise to the top. Contestants have 48 hours to produce, shoot and edit a short film.

“We don’t make a dime,” says Josie Pusl, the director, another Idaho-born filmmaker and volunteer. The payoff is watching sparks fly onscreen when aspiring artists, like Voss, catch fire with a camera.

Such altruism is refreshing on the festival circuit. A few years ago, a friend of mine won the Sundance Audience Award. This year, they misspelled her name on a standard email rejection of her new film. Bottom line: studios and film festivals are not in the business of making movies. They’re in the business of making money on movies.

Surrounded by family, friends and fans, Boise filmmakers have the luxury of ignoring this oily, materialistic machinery—but artistic freedom has its price.

Award-winning writer/director, Christian Lybrook says it best. “The difficult thing about making movies here is there’s nobody to tell you, ‘Yes!’ At the same time, the great thing is, there’s nobody to tell you, ‘No!’”

Lybrook and Greg Bane, an equally prolific Idahoan, recently finished post production on their highly-stylized, noir comedy, “The Six Dynamic Laws of Success—In Life, Love and Money.” Starring Jennifer Lafleur and Ross Partridge, the feature begins its marketing life cycle this fall buoyed by relentless crowdfunding, hometown hopes and submissions to Tribeca, Sundance and SXSW.

Bane and Lybrook are natives of the Treasure Valley. They and their episodic TV series, “Zero Point,” have already been to Tribeca and Austin. They know that selling a film feels like corporate warfare in New York and Los Angeles and Sundance. “You have to be your own engine here,” Lybrook insists. “Or you go nowhere.”

“There’s a definite tradeoff,” says Boise-born producer, Will Von Tagen. “If your goal is to direct the next “Batman,” you need to go to L.A. and start at the bottom. But if you want to be an independent filmmaker, you can start anywhere, including Idaho, and go everywhere.”

Von Tagen, 29, is busy capitalizing on his 208-bred autonomy and success. He spoke to me via Skype from his home in Berlin, where he’s shooting his second feature film, a crime-thriller called “After Walpurgisnacht” (Walpurgis Night.) Shot in the Harz Mountains of East Germany and starring two Boise natives, Jake Koeppl and Drake Shannon, the storyline reflects the contextual opposite of Von Tagen’s first feature, “Almosting It,” a romantic comedy filmed in Idaho.

“Boise did a lot to kick start my career. From the release of “Almosting It,” at the Egyptian, to the three-week run at the Flicks, it’s a community that asks, “How can I help?’ instead of “Why should I help?”

Still, working off-grid also presents distinct challenges. “Boise is such a comfortable place,” says Von Tagan. “It makes it easy to forget there’s a whole world out there—which can create a bit of an “Artistic Island Mentality.”

No filmmaker is an island when a plethora of public platforms actively compete to showcase his or her work. BFF, FilmFort, Wild and Scenic, Backcountry, Idaho Horror and i48 are a few among many movie-thons populating marquees from The Egyptian to The Shredder every single month. Predominantly run by cinephile volunteers, these festivals exist to serve the growing Treasure Valley hunger for fresh films. And blood.

“I don’t even like horror films,” admits Molly Deckart, Executive Director of Idaho Horror Film Festival (October 12-14) and founder of Idaho Film Foundation, the first organization to offer nonprofit sponsorship for filmmaker fundraising. “But scary is where many filmmakers begin, including Oliver Stone, Joel Coen and Spielberg. Boise has invested in its artistic community and ignored investing in the art industry. It’s time to fiscally nurture our film talent, or they’ll leave.”

With so much local film-mania and pretty scenery, one wonders why Hollywood hasn’t come to us? The stars have certainly aligned here. Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Clint Eastwood are our part-time neighbors. The answer is politics.

Every state of the six bordering Idaho provides tax rebates, grants or tax credits as incentives for movie productions to work on their soil. Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Montana may have more, or less, stunning mountains, rivers, wilderness than we do, but their economies enjoy more Hollywood green.

Nevertheless, a classic Western
is currently shooting in Idaho City, albeit, molded into a neo-horror-thriller titled, “Pinewood.” “We’re proud that it’s an all-Idaho cast and crew,” says Jennifer Levy, Executive Producer and partner, with Matt Mudd, in Clear as Mudd Films. Cinematographer, Mike Tetro is also on board. “Even our extras were enlisted locally, via Facebook.”

Idaho City police immediately reassured the public that no extras would be harmed in the making of this film. Gunshots were flying, but bullets were fake.

Among the bright lights, cameras and action, producing a film requires an array of crew members that audiences forget until the final credits. Screenwriters, like Boise-based, Samantha Silva, do not pen scripts so everyone else in Hollywood can have a job. “You can’t make a good movie out of a bad script.”

Directors of photography, like Andy Lawless, make the film roll, literally. “A director of photography creates the look and feel of the film in collaboration with the art department, the cameras and the filmmaker. I’m lucky to work in Idaho. One day, I’m filming President Obama for CBS News, the next, a documentary about Gold medal cyclist, Kristen Armstrong, and then, flying off to Mozambique to film the Gorongosa Restoration Project.”

The bigger the budget, the larger the crew. The headaches remain the same. Most Idaho filmmakers, myself included, work miracles with five-figure budgets. The pay is commensurate, but the expertise is resourceful and unlimited. Editors are as essential as cameramen. Lighting can win Oscars. Without audio, a film is empty. Music enhances every scene. Executive producers sign paychecks. Associate producers manage details down to the breakfast bagels. Makeup, gaffers, key grips—it takes an organized army to make the magic we call movies.

And that’s why we do it. The magic. And in this magical realm, Clint Eastwood is as capable as Merlin, casting spell after spell over millions of people, keeping them in the dark, silently mesmerized. In real life, however, he’s a practical guy who is not impressed by designer jeans.

“What’s your favorite thing about making movies in Idaho?” I asked him.

“Rolling out of bed and riding a horse 20 minutes to the set. You?”

“Lloyd Johnson. He’s 100-years-old and was the first smokejumper in Idaho. I interviewed him for my latest film, “Destination Idaho.”

“Wow,” said Eastwood. “Tell me more.”

That’s why I make films in Idaho.

This article appears in the Issue of Territory Magazine.