Film and TV

First-Time Director and Two Amateur Actors Debut With "upekkha" at Denver Film Festival Tonight

"upekkha" premieres tonight at the Denver Film Festival.
"upekkha" premieres tonight at the Denver Film Festival. Charlotte Hodges
A woman walks through the snowy wilderness of the Colorado mountains, naked and alone. Her long, dark hair sways back and forth with each step. She appears calm, almost meditative. A man with a kind, bearded face treks through the same woods, unaware of the woman with whom he is about to cross paths.

These are the thirty opening seconds of "upekkha," a twelve-minute short film from a first-time writer/director, starring two non-professional actors and premiering at the Denver Film Festival on Monday, November 8.
click to enlarge "upekkha" premieres tonight at the Denver Film Festival. - CHARLOTTE HODGES
"upekkha" premieres tonight at the Denver Film Festival.
Charlotte Hodges
Darren Alberti spent most of his twenties in Los Angeles pursuing acting without much success while holding various writing-related day jobs. In 2014 he decided to change his career trajectory by applying to a screenwriting program at the American Film Institute, one of the most prestigious film schools in the country, and also the law program at the University of Colorado Boulder. AFI waitlisted him, but he was accepted by CU, so he moved to Colorado.

While in law school, he created a theater program for incarcerated women at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. "I had never directed before, then all of a sudden I was teaching acting, directing scenes, acting in scenes with these women, sharing the beauty of this art form with women inside the walls of this maximum-security facility," he recalls. "There I started to develop instincts and confidence as a director."
click to enlarge Nathan Hutcheson welcomes snow on the set. - CHARLOTTE HODGES
Nathan Hutcheson welcomes snow on the set.
Charlotte Hodges
After a particularly bad breakup during his third year of law school, Alberti traveled to Texas for a ten-day silent meditation retreat, where he crossed paths with Nathan Hutcheson. Attendees at the retreat were not supposed to make eye contact with others during their eight or more hours of daily meditation, so their communication was minimal. At the end of the retreat, however, Alberti asked Hutcheson for a ride to the airport. On the way, he brought up acting, which Hutcheson said he had never done. But a few months later, Alberti reached out with the script for an untitled short film that became "upekkha."

"This doesn't happen," says Hutcheson. "Someone doesn't just find you on the street or at a retreat and say 'Hey, there's something special about you.'" But Alberti did, and in the winter of 2019, Hutcheson took a plane and a two-hour van ride into the mountains to film for three days.

His co-star was Alondra Paz Kingman, a Boulder creative who'd come to know Alberti through mutual friends several years earlier. While other members of the nine-person crew were also amateurs, there were two accomplished filmmakers: cinematographer Trevor Hawkins and assistant director Andrew C Fisher. Hawkins's debut feature, Lotawana, which he wrote/directed/photographed, is being released to video-on-demand services in February 2022. Fisher is producing, writing and starring in the web series Thanatos, the first episode of which has over half a million views on YouTube.

The crew stayed in the mountains for three days, shooting on private property in the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests. Kingman took on the challenge of her nude scenes with gusto; while doing an automated dialogue replacement session in Los Angeles a year later, she revealed that she had taken mushrooms the day of the shoot — not just to help reach the mental state of her character, Max, but also to deal with the cold.
click to enlarge Alondra Kingman stays bundled between takes. - CHARLOTTE HODGES
Alondra Kingman stays bundled between takes.
Charlotte Hodges
Before coming to Colorado, Hutcheson had spent several months on a special diet similar to the one that his character, Cedar, would eat living in isolation in the mountains. He even went on another silent meditation retreat.

Alberti's choice of non-professional actors was not totally intentional. While he based both characters on the people who eventually played them, he approached them not as performers or characters, but as humans searching for connection. "Even if people had never acted before," Alberti explains, "I could have a sensitive, deep-feeling person who's open to creative collaboration, I can help them discover and guide them to an affecting performance."

Shooting in the mountains created a plethora of challenges, like limited access to electricity, minimal gear usage, and batteries draining faster in the cold. The only restroom was a two-person outhouse with no door that the team took to calling "the epic poop situation." At night they slept huddled in a cabin, though not the one seen in the film.

Hawkins opted to shoot the film using only natural light. Although he brought some battery-powered LEDs, he never even set them up. It wasn't his first time filming in mountains, and he knew the perfect image was all about finding "ways to make Earth look great with what it gives you."

The shoot lasted right until the final minute. Alberti recalls finishing the last shots as a new front moved in, then scrambling to get the van loaded and heading down the mountain.

After the three-day shoot, the film was in post-production for a year, with work scattered throughout the nation. Boulder served as a home base for most of the process, with picture editing handled in Austin by Fisher. Color-correcting was done in Lake Lotawana, Missouri, Hawkins's hometown; sound editing and mixing was done in Los Angeles.
click to enlarge Trevor Hawkins captures the Colorado landscape. - CHARLOTTE HODGES
Trevor Hawkins captures the Colorado landscape.
Charlotte Hodges
The experience of creating "upekkha" was so satisfying that most of the team members joined on a new project. In August, Alberti, Hawkins, Fisher, Hutcheson and Kingman, along with others, ventured to Guatemala for two weeks to film a new short, currently titled "Sonado." This time Kingman and Hutcheson worked as a crew, but Alberti again used mostly non-actors in front of the camera; only one cast member was a professional.

Though "Sonado" won't be completed for "a year or more," according to Alberti, "uppekkha" is on its way. The Denver Film Festival is the first festival that accepted "upekkha" after Alberti submitted it, and the cast and crew are rightfully stoked. "I swim in it," says Hutcheson. "It's my favorite thought."

The cabin where "upekkha" was shot was decimated by the Cameron Peak Fire in 2020, but the cast returned to the land three days ahead of the film's premiere for a reunion. The first screening of "upekkha" will be at the Sie FilmCenter with eight other films in the "Colorado Shorts: Narrative" program, with key creatives present.

Although Alberti says there is no grand distribution plan for the film, he's content with seeing wherever "upekkha" takes him during the next few months. And if it's anything close to the trail so far, it will be the journey of a lifetime.

"upekkha" premieres at 7 p.m. Monday, November 8, at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. For more information about the film and the Denver Film Festival, visit the Denver Film website.
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