DRUID PEAK: Fest finalist stars wolves, JH scenery

By on September 24, 2013

92513cover7JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Filmmaker Marni Zelnick came to Jackson a month ago to premiere her debut feature film Druid Peak. Zelnick wrote and directed the motion picture, which was shot in and around Jackson Hole in late 2011. The film is a finalist in the biennial Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

Zelnick, originally from Great Falls, Virginia, is a graduate of NYU’s film program. She began work with James Franco’s production company, Rabbit Bandini, after graduation, serving as an AD and producer on various projects. In 2011, she secured a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Feature Film Award.

Zelnick enlisted the services of Wilson local Mau92513cover8reen Mayer, who received executive producer credit for helping Zelnick navigate the valley.

Planet Jackson Hole caught up with the two while they were in town recently.


Planet Jackson Hole: So, I’m imagining you had this idea for a coming-of-age story. They are fairly common. You could have set it anywhere. But you chose to shoot in Jackson Hole and Yellowstone and use the wolf as the movie’s vehicle. Why?

Marni: There were two big factors in generating the story. The first one was location. I absolutely love Jackson. I fell in love with Wyoming many years ago when Maureen brought me out here for the first time. I knew I wanted to shoot my first film out here. I wanted to set something in this beautiful landscape.

The other factor that generated the story was the Sloan Foundation, which supports films that deal with science and technology, was offering a $100,000 production grant. I was looking for a film I could set in Jackson that would use this incredible landscape and would deal with some kind of scientific thing so I could submit it for this grant. And the wolf program was an automatic attraction because I think the animals are fascinating and would provide an interesting kind of conflict. I knew that there would be meat for a story there.

PJH: Can you make a movie on a hundred grand?

Marni: The answer is no. Not without someone like Maureen. This is a micro-budget. You can’t make a movie on $100,000 without pulling a lot of resources from the community you are shooting in, and we did that in both West Virginia and here. Maureen was the one mustering all that support.

Maureen: There was a lot of calling in favors. Having a 20-year history in the valley made all the difference when calling on people and saying, “We can barely afford to pay you, but we really need to use your ranch or your rental house to put up the crew.” It was everything, from securing lodging to getting local restaurants to discount meals. Marni would say to me: “I need three hot meals a day for the crew, and I can only spend $25 per day, per person.”

Marni lived in our house with us for four weeks while they were here shooting. So did cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who was the 2013 Kodak Vision Award winner. Our home became production central.

92513cover2PJH: Who’s in it and what is it about (without a spoiler alert)?

Marni: The film stars Spencer Treat Clark (Much Ado About Nothing, Mystic River, Gladiator) and Andrew Wilson (Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums). Spencer plays a young boy, Owen, growing up in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia. He’s a kid in the wrong place. He feels the claustrophobia of the town, and he thinks it’s a dead end street. He’s lashing out at people and he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know how to solve his own problems. His father is played by Andrew Wilson. He is a biologist in the wolf recovery program in Yellowstone.

The basic story is: After an accident in West Virginia, Owen is sent to live with his father in Yellowstone. And in working with his father and seeing what his father does he starts to develop love of the wilderness and wild animals and eventually finds a peaceful existence in the West.

PJH: And you have Rachel Korine, who is a hot commodity now coming off of Spring Breakers. How did you land name actors with your thin budget?

Marni: A lot of it is due to the script. We had a lot of excitement about the story, and the roles were good roles for actors. It’s kind of a common misconception that actors are looking for the biggest paycheck. They’re not. They are looking for material where they feel they can really stretch their wings.

92513cover1I knew that I could get the script in front of some big name actors because James [Franco], who I had been working for, was willing to get me in touch with some of the agents to those people. I got the script to them but then it was up to actors and their agents to read it and see if they wanted to be a part of it. They signed on knowing we couldn’t pay them a lot. They made SAG ultra-low budget scale, which is nothing; just nothing. But they were excited about the material, and they were excited about coming to Jackson. That was the other thing. What Maureen did was once we got the actors signed on and once they got here, Maureen made them very, very comfortable.

Maureen: I did feel responsible for that. We called it the “care and feeding of talent,” which is huge. I made sure they were well taken care of. On their time off we took them hiking or biking or fly-fishing. Spencer went to Teton Valley Ranch Camp as a youth. So he was excited to come back. He drove from L.A. with his mountain bike on his car. Andrew flew in from Hawaii with his pregnant girlfriend, Kim, who’s lovely and amazing. Rachel Corrine left her little girl, Lefty, home with her husband because she really believed in the script. I enjoyed all of them, immensely.

PJH: How difficult is it shooting in Jackson Hole, especially on a tight budget?

Marni: One of the biggest challenges is the resources on the ground here. Or lack of them. We had to truck everything in we needed. Every piece of equipment came in on a big, five-ton truck we drove across the country from New York. We Fed Ex’d in a lot of lenses and other camera equipment that we needed because that stuff just wasn’t available. If a light went down, you were shooting without it. You couldn’t do like in L.A. or New York where you say we will just swap out this lens that isn’t working. You just can’t do that here.

I guess the tradeoff is you get so much in return. Particularly with a micro-budget feature where you are not going to get a lot of sets; the production design is going to be limited by your budget and by the things you can find on the ground that are already there. If you can deal with some of the hassles of getting the people and equipment where you need it, what you get from the landscape in terms of the quality of what you see on screen pays for all of that. I don’t think our film looks like a micro-budget film. That’s just because of the incredible beauty of the landscape that we used and the cinematography.

92513cover5PJH: You brought your own crew. Western Wyoming provided the stunning cinematography. Feature movies also need extras and bit part players.

Marni: Right. We could only fly in a few people who were our big star talent. Otherwise, we cast locally and there are a lot of local people who you will see in the background. People like TarZan [Campbell] and Bernadette [Cuvalo] and a wonderful local cast in both speaking roles and in the background. We shot a scene at the local high school here and had all the students play themselves as extras. We pulled a wonderful gentleman named Kent [Elliott, from the Chamber of Commerce] off the street to be our chemistry teacher. He was there with his daughter just supervising, and we ended up using him. You are going to see a lot of local people on screen.

You know, one of the other things about doing a film this way – and it’s incredibly hard and takes a lot of passion from everybody involved in it – is the film becomes a product of the community you shoot in. This film very much belongs to the people of Jackson and the people of Mount Hope, West Virginia, who made it possible. And it’s so incredibly exciting to screen the film in these places to see the people who helped make it happen. It’s important to me that we are here showing the film to this audience.

PJH: To get the grant, you had to make a movie highlighting the wolf as a product of conservation science. For that, and other reasons, this is not The Grey, where wolves are portrayed as bloodthirsty man-eaters.

Marni: It was important to me, in contrast to The Grey or something like that, that we made a film where the wolves were wolves, and we were true to how these animals actually are in the wild. I didn’t want to make a film like The Grey where they were all evil and attacking humans. But I also didn’t want to make a film where the animal was too much like a human. There are lots of stories like that where the kid adopts a wild animal and grows up with it and it becomes a pet. I think that’s very important because this film is talking about conservation and the future of conservation, and the challenges of conservation to let the animals be animals.

PJH: Where did you find wolves to shoot?

92513cover6Marni: We did have a second unit that went up to Yellowstone and got some footage of actual wolves in the wild but of course we needed wolves to do some things in the story. So we needed some trained wolves. We thought we might find them in Wyoming or Idaho. Eventually, we realized we had to get them in Utah with Doug and Lynne Seus.

The big misconception though is there is no such thing as a trained wolf. A wolf is a wolf. There’s a wolf that’s hungry and will do a few more tricks, but there’s no such thing as a trained wolf. I think that was a big lesson in this for me.

Maureen: Lynn and Doug own Wasatch [Rocky Mountain] Wildlife. You may have heard of Bart the Bear and Bart Junior. They are the consummate professionals, and they love those animals like they are their children.

Marni: But trying to get those wolves to do what you want them to do was very tough. They are very sensitive creatures. They work for as long as they want to work, which sometimes is 10 or 15 minutes, and then they go do wolf things, and they don’t listen to you anymore. They wander off.

They are also much more timid than you might expect. They are not used to being in close proximity to humans. It’s not their natural environment, obviously. They didn’t want to be near us. So trying to get actors next to them and putting a camera in their face was tricky. We had actually two wolves that played one wolf and we really had to be judicious with our time and shoot that material very, very fast. You don’t get ten takes with your wolf. You get one take or two takes and then you move on.

PJH: The boy, Owen, has his world and eyes opened by wolves. But also, I would imagine, by the vastness and open space of this part of the country. It’s why so many of us were drawn here and remain.

Marni: I think that was a big guiding principle for the film, too. From the minute Maureen and Tom brought me out here, I felt like a different person. And whenever I feel overwhelmed living in New York, I come out to Jackson. When I sat down to write this script I thought about that a lot: how your environment can really change the person you are, whether you are aware of it or not. It happens to people whenever they go on a trip. You come back and you feel like a new person.

PJH: So tell the truth, Maureen. Did Marni ever go ballistic on set?

Maureen: No, I never saw that. I could see frustration at times, some anxiety.

Marni: I will admit I cried at least once. But not on set. Never let them see you cry.

Maureen: But Marni was the consummate professional on set. Because she was living in our house, I did pick up on the incredibly intense level of stress.

92513cover3PJH: You shot here last autumn?

Marni: Actually, 2011. In the fall. At first, we were going to shoot in the summer but it became easier and cheaper to do it after the high season. That turned out working nicely because this film is about change and one thing you see in the environment throughout the movie is the change of season. It ended up working even better with the story line. I think about that every time I watch the movie. About how we are seeing animals moving and leaves changing, and we are talking about this coming of age story.

PJH: So how did it turn out from page-to-screen? Everything you dreamed of?

Marni: I’m really proud of the movie. I think it is 98 percent of what I wanted it to look like. I feel like we captured something largely in the way I envisioned it. Definitely there are some things I look at and think if we had another $100,000, or another $1,000,000, we could have gone bigger and better. We were limited by the size we were. But I think it’s true to the script and true to the story.

Maureen: It’s beautiful, it’s moving, it’s emotional. I was blown away the first time I saw it. And I still am every time.

About Jake Nichols

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