With Writer/Director Marni Zelnick
Q: What inspired the script?
I had been coming out to Jackson for many years and was always deeply moved by the beauty of the area. When I thought about making my first feature, I knew I wanted to shoot out here. So I was already thinking about Jackson when I heard about a $100,000 production grant offered through the Sloan Foundation for projects dealing with science and technology. It’s incredibly difficult for first time directors to get a feature project off the ground, and I knew the grant could mean the difference between making my first feature immediately and struggling to get something financed for years. There was no way I wasn’t going to apply for it. I just needed the right science angle.
The wolf reintroduction program in Yellowstone had always fascinated me because no matter how you felt about wolves, the program was unquestionably at the cutting edge of the conservation movement. It was the only successful predator reintroduction program in the world and was asking us to think not simply about conserving species but about conserving ecosystems. As soon as you start reading about the wolves, you realize that the restoration of the wolves didn’t just change the future of the wolves, or the lives of wolves and elk, or the behavior of wolves and elk and bison—it changed the entire Yellowstone ecosystem right down to what bugs breed in how many ponds created by what beavers. So it was a program that was pushing the intellectual bounds of the conservation movement, and at the same time was saying something really beautiful about the nature of life on earth: that we’re all connected, every single one of us.
It was an idea I felt passionately about and knew I would always feel passionately about– which is critical when you’re making a low budget indie because you’re going to be living with that idea and pitching that idea and thinking about that idea for a very long time.
Q: You mention conservation and the idea of species interconnectedness as inspirations for the script—are there any other important themes in the film?
Absolutely. This isn’t a documentary about the wolves of Yellowstone. It’s a fiction film about a troubled kid who is changed by his interaction with the wolves and the wild places they inhabit. One of the themes that drives the material is how external geography can effect our internal selves. I think environments are like relationships—different people bring out different things in us and different places can do the same thing. Owen is an angry kid and anger is a classic sign of depression in young males, but Owen isn’t mature or self-aware enough to understand or analyze what he’s feeling. It isn’t until he’s removed from the small town environment he starts out in and set down again in the vast wild wilderness of the west that he starts to feel at ease. He’s a kid with a wild soul who needs wild places to scratch and bare his teeth at and ultimately be awed and humbled by.
On a related note, one of the points we try to make in the film is that every person’s needs are different. I didn’t make this film because I think every person needs to run with the wolves to feel peace. But some people do. And maybe part of what we talk about when we talk about conservation should be empathy and diversity. We preserve these things because somebody out there— maybe not you, but somebody—needs them or wants them or finds them beautiful. I think any time we make choices that acknowledge the diversity of our needs and interests as human beings on this planet, it’s a good thing.
Which brings me rather neatly to the last point the film is trying to make. As much as I’ve talked about wolves, the film is also about ranchers. When Owen becomes involved with the wolves he automatically becomes involved with the challenging politics that surround the wolf issue. So the film isn’t just about wolves, it’s about the effect the wolves have had on the communities where wolves have gained a foothold and the tricky business of navigating the competing interests on both sides. For Owen, part of growing up is understanding that people who don’t agree with him aren’t necessarily bad or even wrong. They’re just people with different backgrounds and interests. So it’s a film about understanding and dialogue– about acknowledging that there’s more grey in the world than there is black and white.
Q: You won a $100,000 production grant from the Sloan Foundation for this project—was that the entire budget for the film?
No. But it wasn’t that much more. We raised some additional funds through private investment, but it was important to me to keep the budget low. For one thing, I wanted to be able to raise what we needed in a timely fashion. The Sloan grant had a one year expiration on it. If I didn’t raise the additional funds I needed and go into production within a year, I lost the $100,000 from Sloan. So it was important to plan for a number we knew we could hit.
I was also aware from my experience as a producer that the realities of the current market seem to favor the extremes—huge 50, 100, 250 million dollar studio movies on one hand and ultra low less than half a million dollar indies on the other. The ones in between struggle to recoup their budgets. I wanted to be in a position where breaking even seemed probable.
Perhaps most importantly for me though, I was very conscious of the fact that this was going to be my first time out as a director. I wanted the stakes to be manageable. I didn’t want to feel so much pressure because of an inflated budget that I was distracted from the real task at hand—telling the story I had the best way I knew how. And if I failed, I didn’t want the failure to be so great that people would be gun shy about taking a risk on me again. So I felt like keeping it small was the right choice personally and for the film.
Q: Did you ever regret the choice to keep it small?
At least once every day. I continue to think keeping the budget small was the right choice for the project, but I would by lying if I didn’t say I wished almost every day that we had more money.
When you make a film with a teeny tiny budget, you know you’re going to have to get a lot of stuff cheap or for free. It means pitching yourself and your script over and over and over again, and calling in a lot of favors from a lot of people. All of that can be exhausting as a filmmaker and increases the workload on your producers and executive producers two thousand percent.
As a director, it also meant I was much more involved with the producing process than I wanted to be or would ever recommend being. I think it’s important for a director to have creative headspace. But a lot of the favors we were asking for were coming from people with whom I, or our Executive Producer Maureen Mayer, had personal relationships. And you can’t ask someone else to call your friend for a favor, you have to call them yourself. So it was ultimately impossible to carve out a space where all I had to think about was my script. I would have liked to have spent more time talking to my actors and less time talking to my friend with two cars who was going to loan us one so we could save cash on a rental…
But I will say that making a film on a tiny budget is also a bit like writing poetry in verse. You’re constrained, for sure, but sometimes limits can inspire great creativity. Also it meant that every single person involved with the film was there because they cared deeply about the project. No one—from our crew to our talent– became involved with Druid Peak for the paycheck. People felt passionately about what we were doing. That was a really nice thing to think about on tough days.
Q: If you had one piece of advice for making a small project like this happen, what would it be?
Hire Maureen! Seriously, you do need at least one person who knows how to move mountains. Ultra low budget filmmaking is a very particular kind of animal. It requires producers and/or executive producers who can think outside the box twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. It required people who are willing to get their hands dirty. You can’t produce an ultra low budget film from inside an office in LA. You have to be on the ground, meeting and talking to people and asking for advice and favors every single day. I credit Maureen not only with the fact that this film got made, but with the fact that the people in the communities where we made it still like us. It’s easy to come in and steamroll a place—bleed it dry and burn it down. I’ve seen productions do that. It’s harder to build a kind of grass roots filmmaking experience where everyone from top to bottom feels involved and feels a kind of investment or ownership over the product. If there are producers who are better at the latter than Maureen is, I haven’t met them yet.
Q: Speaking of talent, you had some high caliber actors involved—how did you get them to sign on to such a small project?
I think it’s a testament to the script that we attracted the cast we did. I had been working for James Franco’s production company, Rabbit Bandini, for a few years, so I knew we could get the script into the right hands and that agents would read it. But beyond that, whether they signed onto the film was entirely up to the agents and actors themselves. We certainly weren’t going to convince them with fancy perks. But I found from the very beginning that people responded to the material. They were excited about the story. We were fortunate that our first choice for all three leads said yes.
Q: The other critical cast members were wolves. The old adage says never work with kids or animals– what were you thinking?
You know, it’s good advice. And yet the first short I ever made at NYU was a coming-of-age story about a thirteen year old girl who sneaks out of the house in her parents’ car and hits and kills a deer.
I’ve always been drawn to animals because I think they’re good foils for humans. They’re everything that’s beautiful and ancient and wise in the world—but they’re also immensely vulnerable, and silent in their vulnerability. They have no voice to explain or advocate on their own behalf. So how we interact with them I think is very telling of who we are as individuals, but also as a species. And of course animals are also great keepers of secrets. Anyone who’s ever cried into the fur of their dog knows that. So I think they can be both witness to and reflection of our most complicated internal selves.
As for kids, nothing has ever really interested me as much as coming-of-age stories. Maybe because I think how we become adults is less about a long continuum of experience and more about a few moments when things really change you. I read a book once that asked you to sit down and list the ten most important moments of your life. But I think most people could do it in three or four and at least half of those would have happened before they turned eighteen.
Q: Were the wolves used in the film wild or trained?
If I learned one thing on this film it’s that there’s no such thing as a trained wolf. The wolves we worked with were 100% wolf—not wolf-dog or wolf hybrid. They were handled by some of the most accomplished trainers in the business: Lynn and Doug Seuss of Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife. But they’re still wild animals. You have to have a lot of patience, a lot of understanding and an ability to adjust your expectations on the fly and use what the animals are ready to give you on that day in in that location.
For me, one of the things I thought was really fascinating about watching the wolves on set was that unlike other animals I’ve seen handled, they didn’t seem to have any particular instinct to please their human handlers. A lot of animals do and you can see it in their eyes and their behavior. The wolves just watched the food. There seemed to be a constant calculation going on about how to get the most food with the least wolf-human interaction. Wolves are independent. They want a lot less to do with us than we do with them.
But that’s one of the things that drew me to wolves to begin with. In the film one of the scientists says, “Wolves are elusive by nature. They’re one of the toughest animals in the world to see.” And it’s true. Here’s this species that takes up so much space in our imaginations. We’ve built incredible myths around them that involve deep fear and sometimes loathing. And yet ultimately they want very little to do with us. There’s a grave misunderstanding there that’s certainly been detrimental to the wolves, and probably to both species.
Q: Is there anything else about the film that you’re particularly proud of?
Yes. This often goes unnoticed because it’s a father-son story so the first thing you see on screen are the men. But I’m proud of the fact that this film was made almost entirely by a team of women. That includes myself as Writer/Director, Executive Producer Maureen Mayer, Producers Dana Morgan and Julie Buck, and our incredible Director of Photography, Rachel Morrison, who has since lensed the Oscar buzzed Fruitvale Station and was the recipient of the 2013 Kodak Vision Award. It’s not often that you see a film where the Writer, Director, Producers, Executive Producer and DP were all women. This is a tough industry for women and I’m proud not only of the women involved—because each one was absolutely instrumental in bringing the film to life—but that we created those opportunities to begin with.
Q: What’s next for the film?
Distribution we hope! We are premiering at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival this fall, where we’re one of four finalists in the Best Theatrical category. We’ll continue screening at festivals through the winter. We made the film independently of course, so getting to festivals is about getting the film in front of audiences, but it’s also about sales. We’ll be speaking to distributors and trying to find a good home for it.