‘Shadow in the Trees’ – a study of metamorphosis
September 14, 2005
It’s not every day you get to screen a movie at the director’s house. Actually it was at the producer’s house, but for the past year and a half, both have occupied the same space in order to bring their project to fruition. Writer/director/star Chris Smith and producer Travis Cabral have done what seems the impossible: transforming one man’s painful experience from the written into a feature-length motion picture. This is a story that could only be harvested from the darkest regions of one’s soul and, quite frankly, to bring it to the big screen is just short of amazing. And I do mean big.
This Sunday their coveted baby, “Shadow in the Trees,” makes its premiere screening inside the Caesars Tahoe Grand Showroom.
What first began as a journal of sorts, chronicling Smith’s emotional roller coaster ride following the death of his father, would soon metamorphose into the script that eventually would become “Shadow in the Trees.” It’s important to note that word: metamorphosis. The movie is heavy on symbolism, and the ability to change one’s outcome is evident throughout.
From the opening scenes one finds out right away that this is more than just some kid’s college project. The aerial shots mixed with a serious soundtrack of instrumental orchestration sets the tone and mood right away that this is going to be an adventure. Not just a scenic adventure shot both here in Lake Tahoe and in Oregon, but also a journey into the mind of a young man obsessed over the unanswered questions as to why his father was taken away from him.
In one way, it would be easy for me to simply dismiss this movie as being autobiographical in nature and an exercise in working out one’s demons as a form of therapy. Sure, that would be the easy route. But the story goes far beyond that.
The first scenes, where we see the young Joseph (played magnificently by Chris Smith’s younger brother, Nick Smith) and his best friend, Pete (played by the equally magnificent Kevin Novotny) camping in the woods, we know that the two will be lifelong friends and can share anything with each other. At first you don’t realize what has become of Joseph’s father. We just know he is gone. We assume he died, but it’s not until later that we realize he has disappeared, which is far more agonizing because of the “not knowing” factor. At the time of his disappearance we also learn of an unusual marking carved on a tree where the disappearance may have occurred, and that a comet has appeared in the sky. More symbolism.
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Fast forward six years, and Joseph (now played by Chris Smith) is still haunted by the disappearance of his father. He is a freshman in junior college. The symbolism is still evident and we learn that the mysterious comet has returned after – you guessed it – six years to the day. His best friend, Pete (now played by Danny Tilles), is still with him, but even Pete is frustrated at his friend’s obsession. It consumes Joseph, and Pete is being dragged down every time the subject is brought up. Joseph’s house is turning more into a tomb than a place of sanctuary. Technology for Joseph has pretty much stopped with the invention of the cell phone. When Joseph does research trying to figure out what happened to his father, does he go online to answer some of his nagging questions? No, because there’s no computer anywhere. He buries himself in books to seek answers. When he has a chance to finally capture the mysterious shadow that has been haunting him, does he utilize a digital camera? No, he still uses 35mm and has to take it down to the photo store to be developed. It’s almost as if technology ceased to exist the day his father disappeared. Even the countless pictures around the house have frozen in time. There are pictures of Joseph as a boy with his father everywhere. No mother figure anywhere. One wonders what became of mom. Where was she during all of this? Divorced? Was Joseph raised just by his dad? You’ll have to pay attention and observe for yourself. There are a lot of shots of Joseph either staring out of the window, seeing his reflection, or simply staring into the mirror almost comatose. More symbolism.
I don’t know how much acting Chris Smith has been exposed to, but here he is quite moving. There’s one scene where he is holding a flower in his hand at his father’s gravesite, and when you see the tears flow from his eyes, you know that there’s a place he went that could never be taught in an acting workshop to capture that moment. Producer Travis Cabral would tell me later that they could only shoot that scene a few times because it was taking an emotional toll on Chris. They didn’t need another take. It was right the very first time.
The movie clocks in at over two hours and 22 minutes. It felt like that at times, particularly the middle section. However, Cabral told me that he and Chris were literally going to be editing right up until showtime this Sunday, so maybe they’ll have it edited to where it flows better. Regardless of that, “Shadow in the Trees” is a beautifully shot movie with a soundtrack to match. No doubt that Chris and Travis, if they choose to go down that path, have a promising career in the film industry.
Like most independent projects, the filmmakers rely heavily on those right in their back yard for casting. The cast is very good. I mentioned the superb acting of both Nick Smith and Kevin Novotny. But others here exhibited a knack for the natural as well. Those would include Sean Pawling, Dave Hamilton, Kurt Munger, Doug Midkiff, Tresa Bell, Jorie Turner and Taylor Thomas. All of them were believable in their respective roles.
As for the technical aspects to the movie, I am amazed that only one camera was used to shoot this entire picture. One camera. Do you realize how many angles per scene that takes to shoot? I asked Travis about that. He said it took quite a while to shoot the same scene over and over, sometimes from 12 different angles. One can’t tell, either, that just a single camera captured all of this. High marks for that alone. It’s no wonder it took a year and a half to finish this project.
And the canvas for their movie? Lake Tahoe. Some scenes were shot in Prospect, Ore., because of the urban legends surrounding the sightings of Bigfoot and the alien connection. What? You’ll see. Think “Art Bell,” if you will.
“Shadow in the Trees” was shot on a very low budget, $30,000, and that’s incredible by itself. Local businesses donated equipment and manpower, which helped to offset much of the cost, and Travis seemed blown away at times when people would offer up funds to help finance the movie. The boys have slowly been recouping their costs, but rather than keep any of it they have decided to give back to the community. All of the money raised by the premiere this Sunday is going to remain here in their hometown. The lucky recipient will be the Tahoe Family Resource Center.
You often here the phrase “Things happen for a reason” or “It was meant to happen.” When you look back at the catalyst that started Chris down the road to this movie, it truly is a journey that would involve so many people. One would think it would have been easier to just keep those feelings and emotions locked up inside and, over time, the healing process would have taken its course. But rather than suppress those feelings, Chris Smith involved and exposed his family and friends and, in some small way, involved all of us to share those feelings that ultimately lead to the bigger picture called life.
“Shadow in the Trees” has not been rated, but I would give it a PG-13 for some mild language and intense scenes.
For tickets, phone (530) 314-9316 or contact Smith by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Howie Nave reviews movies every weekend for the Tahoe Daily Tribune.