|Rain in the Mountains Press Coverage|
Joel Metlen isn't in a comfortable place.
He's more than 15 feet off the ground, straddling a spindly Douglas fir limb while wearing a harness attached to the tree's huge trunk.
This, however, is right where Metlen wants to be, holding a 30-pound (rented) camera on his shoulder, giving a series of directions such as "Roll sound!" "Read it!" "Mark it!" and, of course, "Action!" without an ounce of pretension.
Metlen - a North Thurston High School alum and a 2003 graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts film program - is in the middle of making his first feature-length independent film.
Though Metlen is based out of New York, he has come to Washington to film with a cast and crew of friends, family, high school buddies and filmmaking colleagues from NYU, including his significant other, Christine Sullivan, who co- directs the film.
They will film primarily in Western Washington through most of August to make "Rain in the Mountains," which tells the comedic and, at times, dramatic story of Eric Smallhouse, an American Indian who drags his son, Todd, on a series of misadventures, hoping to discover the ways of the past.
The "Rain in the Mountains" cast is mostly amateur actors from Washington and neighboring states, including American Indians from the Puyallup, Colville and Kalispell tribes. Steve "Red Heart" Pierre of Spokane plays Smallhouse. Nick Erb of Omak plays his son. There also are cast members from South Sound cities such as Olympia, Shelton and Yelm.
Filming locales will include sites on the Olympic Peninsula, the Nisqually River and many rural locations in Thurston County, including scenes at Black River-Mima Prairie Glacial Heritage Preserve west of Littlerock, where the cast and crew were filming earlier this week.
"Location can make or break a film and can really add to a story," Metlen said of the specially preserved area, open only by appointment to the public. "It's just a very mystical, mysterious kind of place. It's perfect for our film, which has a little bit of that kind of world in it."
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While the film is on a barebones budget, Metlen and his colleagues aren't totally broke.
In April 2004, Metlen received a $100,000 grant from NYU's Richard Vague Film Production Fund for Alumni.
Two alumni per year receive grants based on a script, a production and a budget proposal, as well as previous work. Though Metlen received the top prize, it's small potatoes for a film budget.
Still, it's a high honor and a great opportunity for Metlen, who knew he wanted to work in film ever since high school.
"It's enough to get you on the road to make it," Metlen said, adding that his script relied primarily on outdoor locations. "That's one of the reasons I wrote it this way, so we could actually make it at some point."
Metlen also has the support of his parents, Kit and Meryl Metlen of Olympia, who are tagging along, helping and watching proudly from the sidelines. Kit even has a small part as an FBI agent.
Kit, who works for the Department of Natural Resources, had extensive knowledge of Washington's landscapes, which proved helpful when Metlen was scouting for locations last year. Meryl, who is an elementary school teacher, is helping out during her summer break.
"It's an awesome movie with excellent actors," said Kit. "I think when this all comes together, you're going to see a movie that's superb."
Kit has seen Metlen's previous projects, including "Rescue & Search," a 12-minute short detailing the travails of two ski patrollers who prove they're "really good at making a bad situation worse."
"Rescue & Search" earned Metlen and Sullivan acclaim when it won the Best Student Short Film Award at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in 2003. It was screened at the Olympia Film Festival last year in addition to screenings at festivals in Los Angeles, Moscow and Poprad, Slovakia.
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Metlen is hoping the universal story of a father fumbling to set an example for his son will draw a wide audience.
"It's really about a father and the son and how they grow closer by their adventure," Metlen said. "He's like anyone trying to find where he came from and to give his son a sense of past and a sense of belonging."
Metlen, who has some Iroquois ancestry on his father's side, pulled from some of his own experiences when writing the story, including a visit he and his father made to the grave of Chief Joseph, a Nez Perce Indian hero and a key figure in Northwest history.
"His grave is this tiny little thing on top of a hill under a tree," Metlen said. "That image stayed in my mind a long time."
Puyallup Indian tribal member Robert Satiacum of Purdy, who is playing a key character, Deputy John, said Joel's script attracted him because it showed the struggle of an Indian who lives in a modern world but who yearns to know the "old ways" intimately.
"It's good to see our people in Indian movies showing contemporary everyday life that we're living now," Satiacum said. "It shows the concept of two different worlds."
Satiacum said Metlen has been open to script revisions. He even helped add more fitting lines to one of the film's most poignant scenes about Indian spirituality.
"Several of our main actors have actually gone through a lot of these things," Metlen said. "It was a very familiar tale to them -- to try to find your roots but not knowing exactly how to go about it."
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Dan Brunell of Olympia, a longtime friend of Metlen's, is thrilled to be serving as everything from gaffer to associate producer. He's taking accrued vacation from the Association of Washington Business just to be involved.
"How many times in your life do you get to make a film?" he said. "I think it's very fortunate we've been able to do something like this."
So far, footage is looking good, said John Ott, who is one of the film's producers. Part of that is thanks to Metlen's ability to film without using a tripod.
"It puts you right there in a scene," said Ott, who is a fellow NYU grad. "Joel is a great photographer. His stuff always looks tremendous."
When the film is complete, Metlen, who works as a park ranger for the city of New York, and his colleagues will get back to their day jobs and begin postproduction.
When it's finished, they'll submit it to numerous film festivals in hopes of a distributor.
"It's a huge chance for all of us involved and a story that everybody really believes in," Metlen said. "It's pretty exciting."