12 May Walking The Trail – The Making of Sundown Trail
it’s been a while since I’ve done a behind-the-scenes blog… a big part of that is that it’s been a while since I’ve made a new project! most of my creative work the last few years has been writing… and there are only so many photos of script pages that a person can take. haha. but there might be some more I can do with the writing… stay tuned on that.
if you haven’t watched the film… take 14 minutes and check it out!
as the title suggests, this is about the making of SUNDOWN TRAIL! this film was finished during the pandemic and had a mostly “virtual” festival tour, which had some nice moments, like longer Q&A’s where they asked more interesting questions than “what’s your inspiration?”. but I really did miss the audience interactions and meeting other filmmakers in person.
the film was my most successful one to date, winning over 35 awards & nominations at festivals around the world. earlier this year it was released on Omeleto’s youtube page. you can read a very nice write up they did here.
for this blog I thought I’d write about the location. first how it played a part in the inspiration, then how we searched for the right spots to tell the story, and finally how we were able to make the locations do what we needed during the shoot.
for a number of years my family has been hiking and birdwatching at a place called Ueland Tree Farm. it’s a private forest that is managed for lumber. at some point in the not-so-distant past, they made a deal with the county to open it up for recreation. you can hike there, ride your bike around, pick berries, and more.
when my sister and I visited, it was one of our favorite activities to go there with our folks and explore. then when Sofya and I started dating–she also got brought to the ‘park.’
on one such trip, we passed a road that caught my eye. there was just something about it. the way the firs created a canopy over it, the dappled light on the ground, and how the road disappeared in the distance… I could imagine it in a scene, a group of people walking down it together. where were they going? what were they doing? I didn’t know… but there was something about the image that captivated me.
a couple of years later I had the opportunity to participate in a filmmaking lab & grant. they were looking for adaptations and there was a short story that I had wanted to make a film of for YEARS. the organization running the lab liked the story and we started the process of trying to secure the rights to the short story.
unfortunately… well, actually maybe it WAS fortunate, the people who controlled the rights to, let’s call it “Short Story X” didn’t care about making a short film. it was kind of strange to me. the author had passed away at a rather young age, and his estate had an agency in charge of licensing his work… and it wasn’t like “Hollywood” was knocking down their doors to get the rights to his work–according to his wikipedia, none of his works has been adapted into a film or TV show. but the agent in charge would barely respond to us. they showed zero interest in our desire to promote their client…
so I pulled the plug on trying to adapt that story. part of my goal with this project was to make sure I had the ability to make a LONGER version of the story if it was successful. if it was going to be this hard to just option the rights to “Short Story X”, I couldn’t imagine how hard it was going to be get the rights to “make the TV show.” if I was going to spend the time, effort, and probably money in order to make a short film–I at least needed the chance that it could lead to something bigger.
the people running the grant liked the core nature of the story and wondered if I had anything similar — anything with a father/son relationship, set in a sci-fi world, that featured an ethical dilemma? I wasn’t sure… but I told them I would think about it. I had a lot of sci-fi ideas, but most were too complex for the grant… by which I mean the budgets would have been too big. but I really wanted to make a new film, so I kept thinking…
for some reason that photo of the trail came into my mind. it was such an amazing location, with so many different types of forest… it was close to Seattle… and because they logged it, there were decent roads through out it. you could get a cast and crew to something that looked very remote… and still be 30 meters from the vehicles. could I find something to shoot there?
I looked through my old projects and ideas and found a sci-fi short that I’d written for a competition a number of years ago. the story was a riff on the Western trope “Pa got snakebit, I gotta go for antidote!” the idea is that you take a parent and child into unfamiliar lands, something happens to incapacitate the parent, then as the child goes for help–faces an even bigger challenge and is forced to grow up fast.
this script took place on an alien planet with a ton of special effects (VFX) and specialized props… so I wondered could I change it to a forest? what would be sci-fi about it in a “normal” location? and how could I tell the story with as little VFX as possible?
the short answer is “yes.” but since I’m writing a blog about it, you probably already guessed that haha. the story that would become SUNDOWN TRAIL went through a number of revisions in the lab, getting stronger each time. it’s a better story than the script I’d written years ago… and is much better than what I came into the lab with. so YAY! for collaboration.
once the script was done, I talked to my Dad about the various locations we needed. he knew the tree farm and went there often, so I asked if he could take some pictures. he would send me photos, I’d give feedback, then he would refine his search.
eventually it was getting close to the shoot date, so I went up to Washington for a week of preproduction and casting. my Dad (Larry) showed me a number of spots and when I’d say something like “I need something more like “______”. he almost always had an answer. at the end of the day we had a pretty good list of potential locations. there were a few that I was still debating — so later that week we came back to Ueland with Doug Hostetter (our cinematographer) and Brandon Knapik (our production designer). together the four of us went back to our “select” locations.
here is a scan of the map and notes we used for that location scout.
after the day of scouting we had a pretty good list of where we wanted to shoot each scene. and for all but one scene, the locations we scouted are the locations you see in the film.
the final scene of the film has the Boy emerging from a dark woods. when we had done our scout, there were several different “daisy roads” that we thought could work well for the film. I had emailed the manager of the property and asked him not to mow them. because of fire dangers they can’t let the grass and weeds grow in the roads… but because this was a “post apocalyptic” film, I couldn’t have a scene with a freshly mowed road.
here’s what the location I wanted to use looked like.
unfortunately… between the time of our scout and the shoot. the road was mowed. in fact, all the various roads we’d want to use had been mowed!
we had to find another location… and quickly. luckily Larry had some ideas, and one of them paid off. it was a clearing full of seeded dandelions! this looked just as good, if not better than the ‘daisy roads.’ the clearing was at the top of a hill, and about two-thirds of the way up, a tree had fallen across the road — which might have been what saved it from being mowed. I asked the manager if he would be able to remove the tree and he said that wouldn’t be a problem. with the tree gone, we’d be able to get our vehicles up the hill, which would be great for moving all of our gear, and people.
on the day of the shoot we got to the location and they’d removed the tree we requested… and several more further up. that was nice of them! but after they cut the trees, they proceeded to drive up the hill and through the clearing. not only “through” it, but they did a multipoint turn flattening almost all of the flowers. the flowers that were the only reason we’d wanted to go to this location.
so now instead of a “mowed” road, I now had a “truck track filled” clearing. not sure that was a step forward.
I let myself get angry for just a moment, then pushed past the feeling and came up with a solution. we’d put the camera low at the very back of the field so we could shoot through the small remaining patch of dandelions. it limited how we filmed the scene, but the end result gives the impression of what I wanted.
problems will always arise in filmmaking. no matter how much you plan, there will always be some things out of your control. so it’s not about making a production free of obstacles, but more being able to adapt and deal with those obstacles when they arise. a good plan will help lessen the severity of the problems… but you still need to be able to focus on the end goal of a scene or line of dialog or location — what is it ultimately doing for the story and how can another route get you there?
it’s interesting how much locations played a part in making CERTIFIED, TIME TO EAT, and now SUNDOWN TRAIL. in CERTIFIED looking for the location took me over a year. TIME TO EAT might not have ever been made if my boss hadn’t had the perfect home for it. and SUNDOWN was inspired by the location we ended up filming at.
filming in the Ueland Tree Farm was quite a blessing. I felt extremely fortunate to be able to make a film in my home town with my family helping. growing up, I spent a lot of time playing make-believe in the woods… that freedom to explore and imagine is a big part of why I decided to become a filmmaker and storyteller.
making SUNDOWN TRAIL was, in many ways a return to those roots. I was in the woods using my imagination to tell a story. but now, unlike when I was a kid–I’m able to share that story with all of you.
thanks for being a part of it,
p.s. here is a bonus photo of my favorite location that we didn’t shoot at. I really wanted to film something here, but it was so bizarre looking none of the scenes fit… and it was too far out of the way to justify driving there just for a few shots of the Boy running through the woods.