Don’t look now, but Alaska’s film scene, once made up mostly of somewhat juvenile shorts is maturing into one of feature-length films with an eye toward addressing issues that matter.
The community’s latest offering is ‘Chance’, a film shot over seven days in the heart of an Anchorage winter, taking on — at least peripherally — the city’s pervasive and too-often-ignored homelessness problem. It made its debut Saturday night at the Alaska Experience Theater.
The story surrounds Chance (Tristan Heil), a handsome, aspiring actor from a middle class white family in Oregon, who, after breaking up with his girlfriend Rachel (Jessie Wei) finds himself living on the streets, missing busses and spending his panhandling remuneration on alcohol.
One day, after missing a bus, Chance runs into an old high school friend, Manny (Sebastian Baquero), a relatively successful real estate agent, who makes Chance’s redemption his personal cause.
“The best thing to take away from the film is that Chance could have been anybody — a college student who fell on hard times,” said Baquero, who served as the evening’s emcee. “People have this stigma (with homeless people) that they did it to themselves, but that’s not true in many cases. You could be someone who specializes in something that fades away… That would be the main message, the end of the stigma of looking down at someone who’s homeless.”
Before ‘Chance’, Baquero’s previous acting experience was limited to a commercial and a couple of short films. So the game plan of directors Norberto de Jesus Jr. and Zayn Roohi to insist upon long, deep, intense close-ups, put the acting chops of Baquero and the rest of the mostly lightly experienced staff to the test. Daniel Day Lewis might even balk at the strenuousness of the scenes, but, all in all, the cast holds up well enough to carry the story all the way through.
“The reason for that is to show the eyes,” de Jesus said. “Once you emphasize the eyes, that’s where the emotions are. It’s supposed to be an emotional film, which I think it was based on the reaction of the audience.”
Baquero said that as an actor, he didn’t know so many of the scenes would be framed in tight, long-lasting shots that practically cast every facial follicle as an extra, but he had an idea where it was headed.
“I had two short films under my belt,” he said. “It was just enough for me to get used to the camera being right there on your face ready to give out that line as best you can and, often, as many times as you can. It was daunting, but overall, it was good.”
Perhaps the biggest star of ‘Chance’ is the city of Anchorage itself. Aglow in hoarfrost and awash in the flimsy light of the winter months, the beauty of the film is a testament to the cinematography and photography of Roohi and Traejen Scott.
Roohi, also the film’s Production Manager and Editor, was unable to attend the premiere, away in Houston, Texas where he’s interning with NASA.
“We were definitely trying to include a lot of spots familiar to the people of Anchorage, that was another aspect of it, allowing people to be exposed to Anchorage on a big screen,” de Jesus said. “It really helped the audience connect with the reality and truth behind the film. Homelessness is one of those things that goes unnoticed, yet you’re so used to.”
For de Jesus, Roohi, Baquero and the rest of the BIZZAY Productions, the opportunity to shoot a film as clean and professional as ‘Chance’ came thanks to partnerships with other local production groups, including Wei’s EISSEJ Films and especially Upper One Studios, a local company that focuses on shooting commercials for some of Alaska’s biggest companies.
That partnership came somewhat by accident, as Upper One Studios jack-of-all-trades Tom Karpow, an acting student from his college days in Vancouver, heard about the film and decided to try out for a role. He wound up being cast as Robbie, whom Chance and Manny encounter at a party, but his eventual role as executive producer, along with Upper One owner Rick Mallars, proved more valuable.
“Finding these guys was really incredible,” Karpow said. “These kids are about half our age. I saw their short films and said, we need to grab these kids up — they’re going to put us out of work one day.”
Karpow said the efficiency and professionalism displayed at the audition was all he needed to see to be convinced to invest.
“They were so organized, I was blown away,” Karpow said. “They’re half my age and they were dialed in. They had written contracts… it was amazing. My audition barely got out, and I was like, ‘dude, I want to support you.’”
Next up for BIZZAY Productions, de Jesus said, is a comedy they’ll start putting together in a couple of months. As for ‘Chance’, de Jesus said it may get some more showings later in the year, but the main goal of the project has already been achieved.
“This was the first feature film for us. I think this was more of a learning lesson for us, a way to reach out to people and say, hey, we’re here, we present issues and take the next step,” de Jesus said. “I think the main objective of all the companies is trying to bring the industry up here. When you think of shooting films you think of L.A., New York or Vancouver, but you never think of Alaska as a place to shoot. We have such amazing scenery and none of it is being used.”