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Two movies take indie route through Utah

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Courtesy photo Surveillance cameras capture strange doings on a farm in the supernatural thriller "Skinwalker Ranch."

By Sean P. means

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Oct 05 2013 01:01AM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:35PM

Use the words "Utah" and "independent film" in the same sentence, and you’re usually talking about the stuff that premieres at the Sundance Film Festival.

Less familiar, but no less interesting, is the homegrown work by independent filmmakers in Utah — a history that includes maverick director Trent Harris, iconoclast Richard Dutcher and a slew of LDS-themed films that saturated the local market a decade ago.

Two new independent movies — each filmed partly in Utah, each based (to wildly varying degree) on real events, and each distributed outside the Hollywood system — arrive in Utah theaters in October.

One, "The Saratov Approach," is a serious drama about two missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints kidnapped in Russia. The other, "Skinwalker Ranch," is a found-footage supernatural thriller loosely based on a story of a supposedly UFO-bedeviled spot in northeast Utah.

Garrett Batty, writer-director of "The Saratov Approach," was a film student at Brigham Young University in 1998, when two missionaries were kidnapped and held for ransom in a Russian town some 400 miles from Moscow.

As the story made national headlines, Batty said, "I was interested in the fact that we didn’t have any perspective from the missionaries, only from the families. … There wasn’t any story about what happened in those five days."

Devin McGinn, an L.A. actor and filmmaker who directed and wrote "Skinwalker Ranch," was introduced to the folklore about the ranch — a site in Uintah County believed to be a haven for paranormal activity — by a friend, Steve Berg (who, like McGinn, has a role in the movie).

"It just sparked in me what a great found-footage concept it was," McGinn said in an interview. "I was surprised nobody had done it yet."

First challenges • Batty, after a few years working in movies, returned to the kidnapping story. He contacted the missionaries, Andrew Propst and Travis Tuttle, who liked the idea.

"I got them together for a weekend, sat them in a room, and for the first time ever, together, they told their story," Batty said.

For McGinn, the first challenge was creating a found-footage thriller that didn’t copy past successes, such as "The Blair Witch Project," the "Paranormal Activity" films or "The Last Exorcism."

"I enjoy found footage, but watching a ton of the herky-jerky can get a little straining," McGinn said.

One solution was to write a scenario involving a paranormal-investigation squad that included a professional cameraman. "It made sense that somebody with a camera knew what they were doing," McGinn said.

Batty filmed the exteriors for "The Saratov Approach" in Estonia, in a busy six-day shoot.

"We shot sunup to sundown, 10 of us in a little hostel," Batty said. "We ate very well, but we worked like dogs."

Batty’s production then moved back to Utah for the interior shots. The Russian hovel where the missionaries were held was actually a basement in a Draper photo studio. Two houses in Orem doubled for the Tuttle family’s house in Arizona and the Propst family’s Oregon home.

On location • McGinn said he lucked out in finding a location for the Skinwalker Ranch, because his executive producer Ken Bretschneider had a spread in Idaho’s southeastern corner. Other scenes, particularly "interviews" with townsfolk, were shot in Utah, McGinn said.

Both filmmakers praised the Utah crews they worked with.

"The crews were phenomenal," Batty said, adding that even the two Russian actors he hired to play the kidnappers "were blown away" by the professionalism of the Utah crew members.

"The one thing I just loved are the people," McGinn said. "They just put their heart into it. They’re not just checking in and out to get a paycheck. … It felt like everybody cared."

McGinn particularly praised the special-effects unit, from Orem-based Blufire Studios, for their post-production work.

"They probably hated us at the end," McGinn said of the Blufire effects artists. "We went back and hammered these guys, not taking anything less than being close to looking real."

But, McGinn added, Blufire delivered with some great effects — including a final shot that would normally be beyond the scope of a low-budget indie film.

Finding an audience • Now, for "The Saratov Approach" and "Skinwalker Ranch," comes the hard part: getting people to see the movie.

"The Saratov Approach" is rolling out slowly in LDS-friendly territories — starting Wednesday in Utah theaters, then rolling out to Arizona, Idaho and Nevada on Oct. 25.

"The goal is that it would cross over, to be sharable with more than just a Utah-friendly audience," Batty said.

For "Skinwalker Ranch," McGinn and his backers are employing the "day-and-date" approach — opening the movie in theaters on the same day it becomes available online, via iTunes, Amazon and similar platforms. The opening date is Oct. 30.

"The studios don’t like it, so they’ve put the kibosh on some of the main theater chains," McGinn said. "The reason the studios don’t like it is that it’s working."

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