By Jenny Neyman
In making the film “48 Below,” the question wasn’t whether students, their church and the community in Alaska could put together a Hollywood-scale film with no prior acting or film production experience.
The question was, why can’t they?
“We didn’t know how to do it, but we didn’t have any idea we couldn’t do it. We just got going and doing it,” said Verissa Walber, senior pastor at Ministry of the Living Stones, a nondenominational Christian church in Sterling, which sponsors the Academy of Higher Learning kindergarten through 12th-grade school.
The film is full length, shot on high-definition cameras with a director from Hollywood, and has a final price tag of just under $1 million, Walber said. They’re looking at distribution options now, and at the very least plan to release it on DVD on the central Kenai Peninsula. The film had its first screening as part of the school’s graduation ceremony May 24, complete with a red carpet entrance for the six lead student actors — Josh Butler, Kalee Brunven, Travis Gage, Tiffany Persinger, Sarah Morris and Keenan Wegener.
“It’s still not quite comprehending. My brain’s still not there yet. But I like it. I can’t believe we did it. It’s absolutely the most amazing experience,” Persinger said.
The film was one of those accidental extravagances borne of modest intentions.
The academy’s grad-uation generally includes some sort of schoolwide activity, like a play. This year, the plan was to do a school movie.
“Every graduation the school does a little something special. It turned out to be a lot bigger — a lot bigger. This is just crazy unexpected,” Butler said.
Walber said she asked the kids what they wanted to do for graduation this year and suggested a movie. She has a history in Hollywood herself, having acted in the 1978 film “The Fifth Floor,” under a different name with Bo Hopkins, Mel Ferrer and Robert Englund, who went on to play Freddy Kruger in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
“I said — I know, me and my big mouth — ‘Let’s make a home movie.’ We bought little cameras at Fred Meyer and tried to make our little home movie. Well, that didn’t work, so my husband and I went out and bought these big, high-definition cameras, and then I said we have to have somebody go to school to learn how to edit. … As we filmed I looked at day’s takes and said, ‘This isn’t working. I have no idea what I’m doing.’ It’s been 40 years since I’ve even been in a major motion picture.”
The project was spiraling far past its initial scope and well beyond anyone’s experience level in Sterling, so Walber called a friend in the film industry in New York and asked if they knew of any directors who would be willing to come to Alaska in the winter to help with their project. The friend recommended Mike “Archie” Archambo, who has a career in the enter-tainment industry.
Walber’s sister, Celeste Rodgers, — who helped produce the film along with Walber’s husband, David, — and Walber got on a plane to Los Angeles, rented a car and parked outside Archambo’s house until his lights came on. Walber knocked on the door and explained her situation, starting with about the only introduction possible in that situation:
“Hi. You don’t know me, but…” Walber said. “Well, something touched his heart. I believe the Lord touched his heart.”
Archambo agreed to direct the film, came up to Sterling in November to meet everyone and do logistical work, came back in January for six weeks of filming, returned in February for some retakes, and was here at the end of May for the screening.
The script, written by Walber, Archambo, Tina Wegener, Phyllis Allmond and Michelle Gage, is about six teens who go snowboarding in the mountains without telling their parents, run into trouble and have to get themselves out of it.
The larger message of the film is one of perseverance. Problems, even seemingly insurmountable ones, are solved by sticking with it and working together.
“It took a lot of courage for these kids to step up and do what they did. They never had acting before. I just wanted to give them something different that you can attain if you try, if you don’t give up, because so many kids just give up on themselves. If they don’t give up and keep pushing, they can attain anything,” Walber said. “It shows them how to put their hand to the plow and stick to it and make it happen. They can achieve great things if they stick together and don’t give up, and that’s really what the movie is about.”
There were plenty of obstacles on which to test this message. The glaring one was a lack of experience in filmmaking, but the students-turned-actors were willing to give it their all, although it took some creative tactics on occasion. Walber said some of the best takes came from telling the kids to just practice the scenes, then turning the cameras on without them knowing it.
“We didn’t think acting was this hard. All the actors up there make it look easy,” Butler said of one of the lessons he learned from participating in the film. “The whole experience has been amazing.”
“I was surprised that we were able to come out of our shells,” Brunven said. “We learned to persevere and come together.”
The students had to keep up with their schoolwork, as well as fit in long days of shooting this winter.
“It’s hectic but it’s understandable,” Persinger said. “I love being busy. I think it’s better to be busy than bored.”
The filming itself posed challenges, especially with the plot being about a snowboarding trip in Alaska in the winter. Suffice it to say, the title was appropriate.
“It was 48 below, literally,” Persinger said.
Filming included a series of mishaps, any one of which could have derailed the project. Persinger hurt her ankle, Wegener had a spectacular snowboard crash, Butler crashed a snowmachine, and Morris had a bout of hypothermia and was getting over back surgery during filming, the students said.
“We all had to overcome a lot, but it made us stronger. It makes us feel like we can overcome anything,” Persinger said. “You definitely have to have faith. I thank God I learned all these lessons now. Teamwork is a huge lesson. You can’t always do it by yourself.”
The adults in the school, church and Sterling community demonstrated that lesson themselves. Several businesses and individuals contributed to the project, both monetarily and in volunteering support. Whatever the challenge, someone stepped up to meet it, Walber said.
Scenic aerial footage at the beginning of the movie was shot by a woman from the church who rented a plane, took a camera and filmed. When filming the winter mountain scenes, the cold started affecting the equipment, with monitor wires breaking on the cameras. Women from the church crafted coats for the cameras, complete with pockets to hold chemical hand warmers to keep the equipment functioning.
“But that’s how it came to be,” Walber said. “It’s just one of those things. You start moving and it’s like a snowball. It starts at the top of the mountain and by the time it gets to the bottom it’s just a wall of snow. That’s how it happens. The whole church and community came together on this.”
Walber said she plans to do another movie and has already started working on the script. This one will be “No Way Out,” based on a true story about young adults being unnecessarily held in a mental institution against their will. She said she hopes to get kids from across the peninsula to participate.
“I thought, ‘If we could do it in Sterling, what about kids in Kenai, Soldotna, Homer and Seward? These kids, there’s not much for them here. We can hunt, fish, skateboard. But they get to be 14 to 18, they start thinking differently. There’s no dances for them where they can socialize healthily, there’s really not that much here. I’m trying to really bring something in to our community,” Walber said.