Small town silver screen

Locally-produced film 'Echo Lake' was community effort

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2004


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  Eli Eagle and Alden Ford talk while waiting for Mario Bird to compose a scene in a small airplane for the movie, "Echo Lake," Ford and Bird were working on last summer. The film is now complete and being screened. Clarion file photo

Eli Eagle and Alden Ford talk while waiting for Mario Bird to compose a scene in a small airplane for the movie, "Echo Lake," Ford and Bird were working on last summer. The film is now complete and being screened.

Clarion file photo

Do you know anyone who's been in a movie? If you live in the central Kenai Peninsula, chances are you do.

They could be just an acquaintance, or might be a close friend, neighbor, co-worker, relative or your high school English teacher. They may not have names like Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and their celebrity status may not be immortalized on the Hollywood walk of fame, but about 100 area residents have been in a full-length feature film.

Don't believe it? There will be several opportunities in the upcoming two weeks to see for yourself.

"Echo Lake," the feature film that was shot and produced in Alaska — and mostly in this area — in the summer of 2003 will be screened once a day excluding holidays Friday through Jan. 2 at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School.

Mario Bird, a Nikiski High School graduate, who wrote, directed, co-produced and acted in the film — as well as serving as the director of photography and co-editor — has finished the ambitious project and is ready to share it with the community that helped him make it.

"The reason 'Echo Lake' was successful is we had so many community members who where willing to help in so many areas," Bird said, from opening their homes and businesses as filming locations to holding microphones and being extras.

The film has been two years in the making and began when Bird and fellow Nikiski grad and partner in short-film crime, Alden Ford, decided to make a full-length film. Bird finished the first draft of the screenplay in October 2002 and eventually secured $11,000 in grants through Notre Dame University, which he graduated from in May, to finance it. Several revisions, actor recruitments, open auditions, 60 mostly 16-hour filming days last summer and months of editing and polishing later, the film is ready to be released.

For its first debut, Bird screened "Echo Lake" at the Anchorage Film Festival on Sunday. The response he got was positive, he said. Mainly people were amazed that Bird and his associates were able to complete a feature film, especially since many of the people who watched it had been attempting the same feat for years without success.

"This was coming from people who have made their livelihood in film, primarily," Bird said.


Ford performs in a scene from "Echo Lake."

Photo courtesy of Mario Bird

The audience seemed to get into the film, even to the point where they stayed after it was over to talk to Bird about it.

"That told me people were engaged with the film and wanted to know more after seeing the film, not because it wasn't on the screen, but because they were thinking about it when it was over," he said.

The film is not one where the audience can expect to turn their minds off and be entertained by things blowing up, Bird said. He wanted the film to be based on interesting characters doing intriguing things, rather than thrill-factor special effects. Besides, even if Bird had wanted big special effects, the film's budget didn't allowed for much more than judicious use of homemade explosives.

So, the story had to be the centerpiece. In searching for a theme that would be meaningful and captivate interest, Bird didn't mess around. He went straight for the mother lode — human existence.

"My goal from the beginning was to take my view of human life and put it on screen," Bird said.

This comes in the form of Seth, played by Ford, an unsettled recent college graduate who tags along with his roommate, Johnny, to the fictional Echo Lake, Alaska, for the summer to make a film. As Seth spends time in the small fishing village, he learns that all is not as it seems. Luc, the town's powerful founder and patriarch, isn't as benevolent as he tries to appear, Johnny isn't as glamorous and something more sinister than a bear is to blame for the death of a young man.

Bird bills the film as part horror flick and part morality play that ultimately is a comment on the ways people find meaning in their lives.

It starts with humor and a light tone as Seth arrives in Echo Lake and becomes increasingly more complex as he delves into deeper layers of reality and unreality, discovering the true motivations and nature of the people around him, and himself in the process.


Ford performs in a scene from "Echo Lake."

Photo courtesy of Mario Bird

The film leaves viewers questioning what is real and who was telling the story. Even though the movie doesn't wrap up in a neat little clear-cut package like many Hollywood films do, Bird said the reaction he got at the Anchorage Film Festival makes him think it is compelling to viewers.

"I thought that the response it received at the film festival was that it was a quality piece of art, and I hope that is a trend that will continue," he said.

Art aside, the film will have plenty of hometown appeal to central peninsula viewers. "Echo Lake" is a chance for people to see their community, acquaintances and perhaps even themselves on the big screen.

"I think that's going to be one of the draws of the film, going and recognizing the locations and people in the film," said Joe Rizzo, who plays "Tony" in the movie.

"I think it's a great opportunity for people to see the local talent and support a very talented man who has developed a lot of his skills here in Nikiski and improved them through college and the experience of making this film," Rizzo said.

Of the 29 main actors in the film, only one is not from Alaska, and none of them, including the 80-plus extras who turned out for the movie's pivotal Fourth of July scene in the film, were paid for their work, unless you count the barbecue during that scene. Bird hopes seeing the finished film helps repay them for their devotion to the project.

"The people involved in the film suddenly become celebrities, hopefully," he said. "They could get more than they bargained for signing up for the film."

The film was shot in 39 Alaska locations, the bulk of which was in the central peninsula. The other locations were in Nin-ilchik, outside Homer and Hatcher Pass, north of Palmer.

"It will be fascinating, almost in a puzzle-like manner, to go and watch the movie and see where these locations were," Bird said.

"I think it is a crime that a state as beautiful as ours and with different climates and locales is not used in more feature films. Then when we see (movies) from Hollywood concerning Alaska, (they are) riddled with cliches and aren't really filmed in Alaska."

Though named "Echo Lake," the movie was not shot at and has no association with the real Echo Lake. There also are no plot points or characters based on real people, although some issues in the film are relevant to the area, like commercial fishing.

The screenings in the next two weeks will wrap up the years Bird and others have put into this project. The experience — good moments and bad — of creating a feature film have taught Bird a lot about the film business and what he'd like his future in it to be, he said. He wants to write, act in and direct films. The other hats he's had to wear —producer, promoter, etc., have taught him respect for those roles, even though he didn't enjoy doing them.

"I now admire the people who are able to do that because I am not able to do it with any sort of proficiency or passion," he said.

The last few months spent marketing and promoting "Echo Lake" have just made Bird all the more anxious to get back into the creative aspects of movie making that he does enjoy. Ideas for future projects include a musical, a sports movie, a romantic-drama-comedy, and possibly even a sequel to "Echo Lake." Bird hopes to continue submitting "Echo Lake" to film festivals and to ultimately recoup enough of the money he put into it to get him started on another film.

Whether that one is done on the peninsula and uses hot dogs and hamburgers to pay actors, remains to be seen. Whatever the details, Bird is sure to recruit the talents of others to compliment his —since he said one lessons he learned well from "Echo Lake" is filmmaking is a collaborative process. The movie wouldn't be what it is without all the help he received in making it, he said.

"They have taken it from being a quality piece of digital photography and made it into a legitimate film. It's really been great to see it develop."

For dates and times of screenings, see the What's Happening column on page B-1. Though not officially rated, Bird said he considers the film PG-13.

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