Druid Peak writer and director Marni Zelnick confirms that real wolves were used during filming, discusses her $100,000 production grant, and the locations they utilized for filming.
By Jason Jack Underwood
Last night, I had the honor of interviewing the writer and director of Druid Peak, Marni Zelnick. Our Q&A with her is below.
First, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Here are the basic resume facts: I grew up in Great Falls, Virginia, went to Dartmouth College, then earned my MFA at NYU’s graduate film program. But I think the thing that most defined my upbringing is that my father was a journalist and a great storyteller. I grew up listening to incredible stories from all over the world and thinking a lot about the process of how you put them together. I became fascinated by the idea that you could write about anything if you did your homework. And I loved that my father’s job was different every day. Also, I think being constantly immersed in current events made me very conscious of our capacity as individuals to effect change. Stories resonate. Images stay with you. I was very aware of that from a very early age.
What is Druid Peak about & what inspired you to write Druid Peak?
Druid Peak is a coming of age story about a troubled teenage boy who finds a home for himself tracking wolves in Wyoming. I always call it a coming of age story with a conservation twist. It’s a story about a kid who is given a second chance in a place as wild as he is.
The inspiration for the script was a kind of perfect storm of forces in my life. I spent summers in Wyoming as a teenager, working as a babysitter for a family who had a home in Jackson Hole. The landscape is just breathtaking—awe inspiring. And because it was this island of a place far removed from the rest of my life, I always felt like I could be somebody else there. I could shed things, learn things, try things, and go unpunished by the kind of social pecking orders that govern high school or even college. Being out there felt like real freedom to me, and it made me think a lot about how external geography can effect our internal selves. I think that’s particularly true of teenagers, who are so sponge-like and also under so much pressure.
As I was graduating from NYU, I learned about a 100K production grant the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation offered to projects dealing with science and technology. Getting a first feature off the ground can be incredibly difficult and I knew I wanted to apply for the grant. And as I said, I already knew I wanted to shoot out west. So I started to think about what the science story was out there. I had always been intrigued by the wolf reintroduction program and as I started to do a bit more research I realized it was a perfect fit with these other things I’d been thinking about. Wolves are incredibly misunderstood as a species. They’re a perfect foil for a misunderstood kid. So I developed the script and applied for the grant—and we won!
One of the great cyclic beauties of the whole thing was that when I went to make the movie– with what in filmmaking is almost no money—I knew I was going to need someone local in Wyoming to rally resources for us. I asked Maureen Mayer, whose family I had once babysat for in Jackson Hole, to come on as our Executive Producer and she jumped in without hesitation. So the family who first introduced me to Wyoming, became a huge force behind getting the project made.
This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to foster a wolf hybrid, whose owner was going through some rough times and needed to find a safe home for him. Damien, the hybrid, was probably one of the wisest souls I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. The look in his eyes, the way he carried himself and moved about was just something to be admired. Were you able to work with full-blooded wolfs, or were any of them hybrids? How would you describe your experience with these stunning creatures?
The wolves in the film are all 100% wolf. We partnered with Doug and Lynn Seuss of Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife, who are some of the best animal trainers and handlers in the business. But if this film taught me anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as a trained wolf. Unlike other animals you see handled by humans, wolves have absolutely no desire to please you. They’re very cautious and very skeptical. They work for food treats and a soon as they’re full they don’t work anymore—and that can happen in as little as 15 minutes. As a filmmaker, I had to move very quickly and be very open to what was happening in front of me, not just what was on the page. If they were trained for anything they were trained to tolerate our proximity, and I started to feel very quickly like that was an act of great generosity on their part. As humans we’ve created so much myth around wolves, wrapped them in so much fear and anxiety—but the truth is it’s a very one-sided relationship. Given any kind of choice, the wolves want very little to do with us.
Ultimately that was fine with me though. It was always really important to me that the wolves you see in the film are wild animals—not some softer, gentled cuddlier version of those animals. I didn’t want them to be wolves that seemed like humans. I didn’t want to anthropomorphize them. I wanted the wolves to be wolves, and I think that’s how they feel in the film. Their wildness, I hope, is part of the magic.
How did the casting process pan out for you guys? Did you seek out Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Wilson and Rachel Korine, or did they find you?
Ha! I don’t think a lot of actors go sniffing around for ultra-low budget movies. We were very fortunate though that our first choice for all three of those parts said yes. Fortunately for us, they just responded to the material.
The hardest role to cast was definitely Owen. I needed a really special actor for that part because not only was he going to be in every frame of the movie, he was going to be alone most of the time. So I needed someone who had a rich enough internal life that he could hold the screen by himself and not be dependent on the energy that comes from playing against other actors. One of the other producers on the film knew Spencer from Columbia and set up a meeting for us in New York. As soon as I sat down with Spence I knew he was the right actor for this film. He was watchable no matter what he was doing. Also, he had a warmth to him that I knew would be a payoff at the end of the film. We’d have to bury it at the beginning, but I knew we’d want that as a destination for the character. As a bonus, Spencer had gone to summer camp in Jackson Hole as a kid and was as passionate about the place as I was. When you’re directing an ultra-low budget movie, you want great actors, but you also want people who are willing to go on the intense, chaotic, wild journey that making a movie with no money is. Spencer had ties to the area, Andrew is a surfer who lives off the grid in Maui, Rachel is a mom living in Nashville with her husband and daughter. The other two we approached through more formal channels, but not one of them is your average Hollywood type.
The film making process is unarguably an extraordinarily difficult process to take on. If you’re willing to share; what would you say proved to be the most frightening or challenging task while working on Druid Peak? The easiest?
The hardest part of making this film for me was divorcing myself from the producing side of it. When you make a film for no money, you’re calling in a lot of favors. And all of that takes time and energy. As a director, the best use of your time and energy is talking to your actors, your DP, your designers. It’s very hard to be creative when you’re thinking about catering, or how to get a lens FedExed from Los Angeles to Yellowstone, or where you’re going to park your trucks at night. I definitely found that the biggest challenge on this particular project was just trying to carve out that creative space.
But we also had a lot of smaller and funnier challenges. Like the fact that we had to buy a truck in West Virginia that we knew we were going to wreck. So we bought this old truck for about $400 that literally had weeds growing in it and was barely running and sure enough every time our actors tried to pull out of a scene the thing stalled. I have a whole blooper reel of my crew pushing that truck around town. We finally just incorporated it into the film. In the scene where Owen and Matt leave the party in West Virginia, there’s a shot of Owen under the hood, jiggling some wire. That was actually the only way to make the truck start.
The easiest part—or maybe just the happiest surprise—was the chemistry between Spencer and Andrew. Because we were so low budget, we didn’t have the time or money to do any rehearsal at all before we started shooting. Nothing. Spencer and Andrew had never even met until their first day on set in Wyoming. I knew I loved them both independently, but it’s hard to know how actors will react to one another before you have them in the same room. It was a gamble that paid off. They’d be in the parking lot throwing a football around in between takes. Some of my favorite moments in the film grew out of their natural comfort with each other.
Everyone always says “Location, Location, Location.” Druid Peak is set in Yellowstone – was it really shot there? What other locations did you utilize and how hard were they to secure?
Most of the film was shot in and around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, not in Yellowstone. Yellowstone is very documentary friendly, but it’s hard to take a narrative crew up there because feature crews are inherently larger and more cumbersome. So there was the obvious concern of traipsing all over this very pristine landscape with 45 people and bunch of trucks– and then the less obvious but equally important considerations like, how do you set up craft services in grizzly bear country? Or what happens if you need batteries or a replacement filter or anything else in a hurry? I had nightmares about our trucks idling behind herds of bison on the road while the sun went down.
Ultimately we decided it did not make sense for us to try and shoot inside the park. But because the landscape was so important to the film, we also decided to have two camera crews for the entire shoot.
Our “A” camera with DP Rachel Morrison was shooting the story elements, while our “B” camera unit, with 2nd Unit DP Noah Greenberg, was in Yellowstone getting a lot of the scenic and wildlife footage you see in the film. Every single shot you see on screen was taken by our crews. We didn’t use any stock footage or buy any tape from other cameramen in the park. I’m really proud of that.
We also shot on location in West Virginia, of course, and all of our wolf footage was shot in Utah, because there were no wolf handlers in Wyoming and you can’t transport wolves across state lines into Wyoming. That was an adventure.
You received a grant that went towards funding the film. Can you tell us a little bit more about that process. Did the grant cover the entire budget for Druid Peak?
I received a $100,000 production award from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation for the film. The grant itself wasn’t the entire budget, but it was a significant part of it. More importantly, it gave the project a great deal of momentum. When you win a competitive grant like that, people take what you’re doing more seriously. Even though we were a tiny micro-budget project, we suddenly had something behind us that gave us credibility. You’ll see in the film that we have footage both on a United Airlines plane in flight and on the tarmac. I don’t think United would have taken a meeting with us if we hadn’t had the Sloan Foundation’s stamp of approval. There were a lot of little inroads like that that the grant made possible.
One of the things I appreciated most about the grant though was that it wasn’t just a grant for a finished screenplay– it was a whole development process. The first thing I submitted to Sloan was just a one page synopsis. Over the course of an entire year I then went through several additional rounds of submissions—a longer treatment, a step outline, a budget, etc.—and each time they eliminated more projects. It was like script Survivor. By the time I actually went to write the screenplay, I’d lived with the characters and story for so long and been asked so many questions about both that I felt like it was a world I knew inside out. The screenplay at that point almost wrote itself.
What was it like for you to have to serve as both the writer and director. Was it hard wearing both hats?
The best advice I’ve heard on that topic came from writer/director David S. Ward, who said that as a director you eventually have to fire yourself as a writer. The other way of looking at it is something they used to tell us at NYU all the time: a film is written three times: first when you write it, then when you shoot it, and then again when you edit it. I think that’s really true. We had the experience recently of making subtitles for Druid Peak and it was surprising even to me to go back to the original screenplay and see how much had changed from that document to what you see on screen. It’s like looking at blueprint of your house. It’s the outline of a structure, it’s not the home you live in.
At the same time, I think being both writer and director is a huge benefit when it comes to working with actors. Actors like to ask a lot of questions about their characters. When it’s your script, there aren’t a lot of questions you don’t know the answers to.
How will you surprise us next?
I have three screenplays in motion right now. One is an adaptation of a novel about the sexual awakening of a woman in the 1700s, the next is a romantic comedy based on a true story about the drug addled spiritual awakening of former As the World Turns star, Todd Rotondi, and the last is a coming of age story about a teenage girl in a small New England town. They’re all incredibly different projects. I hope the surprise will be that as my dad used to tell me, you can write anything well if you do your homework.
Jason Jack Underwood is a professionally trained photographer and filmmaker. You can learn more about him by clicking here.