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Wilderness Survival for Girls

Local filmmaker Kim Roberts gets her big-screen debut.

Denver-bred filmmaker Kim Roberts describes the maiden theatrical run of Wilderness Survival for Girls, which can be seen this week at Starz FilmCenter, as "a really risky venture." That's appropriate, since the movie, which she wrote and directed with her husband, Eli Despres, was a gamble from the beginning -- a self-financed production that attempts to twist genre conventions. No wonder its journey from script to screen has taken so long.

Roberts (no relation) and Despres, who currently reside in the Bay Area, are hardly cinematic novices. She's an editor of documentaries including Lost Boys of Sudan, while he got his start as an apprentice editor on Roger Corman exploitation epics such as Bloodfist V before contributing to the likes of the PBS series America's Investigative Reports. But despite being in-demand cutters, they aspired to make a film of their own -- one that could be shot for a modest price yet allow them to explore personal themes. They settled on a fictionalized tale inspired by one of Roberts's most traumatic childhood memories.

"I grew up in Park Hill, and there was a very popular babysitter in the neighborhood who was murdered in the mountains in a cabin with two of her friends," Roberts says. "This happened when I was maybe seven, and it had a big effect on all of us." Her family had a cabin outside Fairplay, and she notes that "even after we became teenagers, our parents were really reluctant to let us go up to the mountains alone. And growing up female, you have all these fears from watching horror movies and reading newspapers. Combined with that real event, it got me curious about the power of those kinds of fears."

Because Roberts and Despres had just $90,000 to realize their dream, they honed the narrative to its essentials. They created four main characters (three girls and a male intruder they capture) and set all the action in or near a cabin so they could use the Fairplay property as the main location; this allowed them to spend a little more on talent. Instead of hiring novices, they staged a casting call in Los Angeles and wound up hiring three young actresses with professional experience -- Ali Humiston, Jeanette Brox and Megan Henning -- and veteran character actor James Morrison. This last choice proved fortuitous, since Morrison is now well known to millions of TV viewers as Bill Buchanan, the special agent in charge of L.A.'s Counter Terrorism Unit on 24.

Survival was filmed in eighteen days in September 2002 and took much of the next year to complete. It began making the festival rounds in 2004, and during a Denver Film Festival screening, it impressed producer Ed Pressman, whose credits include the recently released Fur. Pressman took on the project and subsequently made a deal for theatrical and DVD rights with London-based ContentFilm. Yet the company is only now bringing the movie to multiplexes, and is doing so slowly: a week-long commitment in Denver, then a week in Chicago, and from there, who knows?

Creatively, the film is only a middling success. The acting is better than what's on view in many indies, and the production values belie the budget. Too bad the girls aren't believable as friends; rather than coming across as full-bodied characters, they seem like types forced to temporarily cohabitate, Real World style. Moreover, there are too many static scenes, not to mention the sort of plot contrivances (including a mild copout of an ending) that might pass muster in a splatter flick, but not an offering with larger ambitions.

If Roberts and Despres don't accomplish every goal they set for themselves, however, they've got plenty of reasons for optimism. ContentFilm inked them to a first-look deal that extends beyond Survival, and they're already at work on another script -- this one also about a young girl. "I guess we're arrested in our teenage years," Roberts says, laughing.

Sounds like some risky business.

 
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