Baranov goes big

Locally produced puppet play adapted for television audience

Posted: Thursday, September 07, 2006


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  Ryan Cannon was enlisted through Brigham Young University to film and direct the movie version of the puppet play. Photo courtesy of Carla Jenness

Ryan Cannon was enlisted through Brigham Young University to film and direct the movie version of the puppet play.

Photo courtesy of Carla Jenness

When Joe Rizzo was supplied a CD for the ride from Anchorage to Nikiski, there was no guarantee for anything other than music and a two-plus hours drive.

But Matt Boyle’s music was a catalyst for the ever-thinking mind of Rizzo. The roots of writing and developing a successful puppet play titled “Baranov’s Castle” has now fully grown into a film production, scheduled to air later this month on NBC affiliate KTUU-Ch. 2 based in Anchorage.

How could a locally produced play even manage to snag a filmmaker, much less pull off the minor miracle of seeing it go all the way to television? A pair of grants were a big step in the right direction, and a professor friend at Brigham Young University who helped put Rizzo in touch with recently graduated Ryan Cannon was yet another step.

As any filmmaker will tell you, that’s just the beginning. The rest of the story — well, its one that rivals many a fish story coming off Kachemak Bay.

“It started as a live puppet show last summer,” Rizzo said. “We got a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts to tour it around to Seward, Nikiski, Soldotna. And then, we decided to make it into a movie, or a television special.


The Kutuzov sails on Hidden Lake last month, where the crew filmed the Inside Passage scenes of "Baranov's Castle."

Photo courtesy of Carla Jenness

“The Alaska Humanities Forum gave a grant for a movie. They gave a grant for air time from KTUU, so that guaranteed a venue to show it.”

The air date is scheduled for Sept. 16 at 3 p.m. Before then, a big screen showing will be held at the Triumvirate Theatre in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna, complete with red carpet premier treatment and puppets greeting the kids.

But the opening days of filming were a long way from the red carpet. In fact, darn near in the bottom of Kachemak Bay.

“Baranov’s Castle” is a tale that includes Alexander Baranov, Alaska’s first governor, and a story that intertwines love, conflict and embezzlement charges in a rousing 45 minutes of film filled with laughter and great songs.

To make the movie version, the 21-foot wooden dory of Mike Steed became a naval ship with 20-foot masts. There’s a castle that was in the original production, a mere 10 feet by 5 feet high, but which when shot on film at Hidden Lake gives a solid impression of — well, a castle.

No problem, right? Well, sort of.

“When we decided to shoot for the movie, we shot the boat sequence out in Homer,” Rizzo said. “It was really quite the undertaking when we sank the boat out in Kachemak Bay. But luckily, we recovered the boat. We got off to a rough start.”

Yes, sank the boat. Seems as they were towing it in after the first day of filming, “Everything was fine until we started to come into the harbor, and the waves were coming up,” Rizzo said.

“The wind started to push the boats together, but the top railing and all the faade, the phony cabin, was taking a beating. Once it broke away and exposed the deck, all the water poured into the dory. We cut all but one (tow) line, and then it capsized. So we towed it into the harbor. It took us a day to repair the damage.”

Cannon was impressed. The 28-year-old said he had gotten into the project because Rizzo mentioned “puppets and pirates on the ocean” and it sounded “like a crazy enough project.” Plus, he had a desire to see Alaska.


J.R. Cox manipulates Angry Jack on board the Kutizov during filming.

Photo courtesy of Carla Jenness

Welcome to crazy.

“That was pretty surprising,” Cannon said of the crew’s ability to repair the damage within a day. “I guess I don’t see boats sink every day. But Joe and everybody handled it like champions.”

With the boat repaired, filming continued and about eight days later was complete. Even with the extra time taken to film the castle segments at Hidden Lake.

“We put it on a rocky climbing hill at Hidden Lake, and that kind of served as our exterior of the castle,” Rizzo said.

The only problem was when climbers came by, dwarfing the “castle.”

“Then we shot a few other scenes at a miniature church,” Rizzo said. “We were able to shoot most of Hidden Lake in one day. One of the biggest blessings is that Alaska has 20 hours of daylight.”

Chris Jenness, who provided graphic design and a few other contributions to the project, was pleased with the experience.

“I haven’t done any making of movies,” Jenness said. “It was interesting to see that from being involved. The director would set it up, do the shot, do it five or six times, move, reshoot from a different angle, do it all over again. I did a bunch of the set building, which I’ve done before, but our director asked us to build a camera dolly. That allows you to make long tracking shots. I guess one of my lasting impressions was that it was surprising to see how much work goes into making a short amount of film.”

Cannon, who has worked with a film that played at New York City’s Short Film Festival, is hopeful this film can go further than just the airwaves of KTUU.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Cannon said. “When I got into it, I didn’t realize where it originated from. Hopefully, it will work its way into the children’s film festival. Joe has a lot of determination, and really pushed it through.”

Rizzo was equally im-pressed with Cannon, noting the filmmaker even rolled the tape while the boat was going down in Homer. Check the film, but word has it you might actually see where that footage doesn’t get wasted.

Jenness said Cannon was incredibly flexible and easy to work with, even adding that in the midst of the sinking disaster, Cannon knew they’d find a way to make things work out.

“I also have been very impressed with this project from the beginning, when it was just a puppet show,” Jenness said. “It’s locally done and has a high professional quality to it.”

Hard work with dedicated individuals on a project can do that.

“I was really pleased with it,” Rizzo said. “It’s one of those projects that was brought to the brink of disaster only to triumph at the end. I really thought we were going to lose that boat, and that would have been tough to rebound from.”

Tough, yes, but certainly doable with this determined crew.


Triumvirate Theatre,

Peninsula Center Mall, Soldotna

· Friday, Sept. 8, at 7 and 8 p.m.

· Saturday, Sept .9, at 3, 7 and 8 p.m.

· Thursday, Sept. 14, at 7 and 8 p.m.

· Friday, Sept. 15, at 7 and 8 p.m.

On KTUU-Ch. 2, Anchorage

· Saturday, Sept. 16, at 3 p.m.


Produced by Joe and Paulene Rizzo and Carla Jenness

Directed by Ryan Cannon

Screenplay by Joe Rizzo

Music and lyrics by Matt Boyle

Costuming by Terri Burdick

Graphic design by Chris Jenness

Ship construction by Eric Willets

Voice talents by A.J. Seims, J.R. Cox, Tatiana Butler, Chris Jenness, Carla Jenness and Mario Bird

Guest vocals by Keeley Boyle

Puppeteers: J.R. Cox, Tatiana Butler, Shaylee Rizzo, Aubrey Rizzo, Karina Lorenzo, Andria Dols, Leora Olson, Sharon Miller, Ramona Baker, Miranda Rizzo, Jayton Rizzo, Savannah Rizzo and Carlee Rizzo.


Alan Wooten is a freelance writer who lives in Nikiski.

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