Idyllwild CinemaFest Director Stephen Savage premieres his latest feature film, “Vertical,” as a special festival event on Saturday, Jan. 12, at the fourth year of the festival he founded. “It’s the final film in my Idyllwild trilogy,” said Savage, whose previous features “Cosmic Radio” (2007) and “Legacy” (2010) were also shot on location here.
Savage is quick to point out that he doesn’t change Idyllwild’s name when he shoots here. “It’s always been Idyllwild,” he said noting that other companies that have used Idyllwild as a location, change the name. “I’ve never done that. I love showing off the town, in my films and with the festival.”
“Vertical” is a drama about rock climbing in which family and friends of an experienced female climber cope with her climbing death. Other than for an opening scene shot in Flagstaff, Ariz., “Vertical” was filmed in Idyllwild. It prominently features Tahquitz Rock, one of the world’s premier climbing destinations, as well as many Idyllwild businesses and locations.
The storyline follows the death of a climber who lives in a town known for its rock climbing — Idyllwild. Her daughter, in school in Flagstaff, is summoned home after her mother’s death. She thinks she will be there to mourn with her mother’s rock climbing friends. Instead she learns, through the eyes of her mother’s friends, who her mother was and why rock climbing had been her passion.
In a key development, the town sheriff, in investigating the accident, discovers the woman climber had advanced breast cancer. The question arises, did she fall intentionally doing what she loved most, or was it an accident caused by failure of equipment or judgment?
When asked why he chose to make a film about rock climbing, Savage described his encounter with five women rock climbers in Joshua Tree earlier this year. They had climbed around the world, often as a group. Their dedication to the sport intrigued him.
When Irene Bedard, one of the stars of “Cosmic Radio,” Savage’s first feature as writer and director, told him she was looking for a project, he said, “I’ve got this story idea, not scripted yet, but interesting.”
He finished the screenplay for “Vertical” three weeks before the 11-day shoot in June of this year. Bedard is one of the stars.
Savage’s homages to Idyllwild include not only his three features but also the festival itself. He said the town has given him so much and played a pivotal role in launching his career, that he gives back in ways he can — by promoting it.
He has been a full-time Idyllwild resident since 1995 and locals may remember him years earlier from Café Aroma, where proprietor Frank Ferro made it his mission to introduce his sometimes waiter, who already had a 2003 writing credit on a feature film and several finished screenplays, to any person with potential Hollywood connections.
But a day substituting at the Idyllwild Video store where Savage had previously worked, proved especially fortuitous. Savage recalled a woman came in, looked through the available films, and came to the counter with “Turquoise,” a film Savage had co-written. When she learned it was his film, she told him she wanted to see anything he was working on.
The woman, Alisa Schulz, and then-fiancé Patrick Gallagher became important Savage supporters. He noted Gallagher funded “Cosmic Radio” and served as executive producer. Schulz was associate producer.
For “Cosmic Radio,” Savage shot the Fourth of July Parade, making Idyllwild and its small-town Americana ambiance a key player in the film. For “Legacy,” it was Idyllwild’s landscape. Now with “Vertical,” it’s Tahquitz (Lily) Rock and the village.
For “Vertical,” Savage has assembled much of his team from previous projects, but this year he has a new director of photography, Ignatius Fischer, one of the ICF 2013 official featured filmmakers. The trailer for “Vertical” is available online at the festival website, www.idyllwildcinemafest.com. You can catch enough of the storyline and plot twists from viewing the trailer to give you a sense of the film.
“Vertical” features a score by Sharon Bousquet and original songs by singer-songwriter Courtney Jones. Many of Savage’s corps of actors return for “Vertical.” In addition to Bedard, Savage veterans Wolfgang Bodison, Marshall Bell, Carson Aune and Chuti Tiu appear.
Savage, who recently opened an editing studio in Beverly Hills, said he has three more feature film projects in the pipeline, all major budget films — “Monkey Jar,” “Gods of a Parallel Universe” and “Storm Dancer.”
He observed that as his filming schedule has tightened, Festival Chairman Phil Calderone has assumed the day-to-day planning and execution of the festival. “Phil has turned ICF into a truly legitimate festival, worthy of showcasing and giving a voice to independent filmmakers worldwide.”
But Savage stressed that without the Rustic Theatre as the festival’s host venue, and the key support of owners Shane and Ashley Stewart, there would be no festival. “None of this would be possible without the support and dedication of Shane and Ashley Stewart,” said Savage. “He has stuck his neck out and here we are, heading into year four with an expanded festival, and because of Shane’s commitment, we also have full digital audio and visual screening capability.”
The marketing tag for “Vertical” is, “Sometimes the best place to find your true self is straight up.” It is not in festival competition and requires a separate admission ticket.
ICF runs Wednesday, Jan. 9 through Sunday, Jan. 13. See website for more information.