An L.A. filmmaker shot a low-budget drama at Zion and other national parks without people noticing

(Photo courtesy Indie Rights Movies) Joe, played by Tom Huang, finds himself experiencing the beauty of The Narrows, a canyon hike at Utah's Zion National Park, in a scene from the drama "Find Me," which Huang also wrote and directed.

Filmmaker Tom Huang was walking through The Narrows, a canyon hiking trail at Utah’s Zion National Park, and between movie jobs when the idea hit him: “I need to make a movie where you point at the screen and say, ‘I want to go there.’”

Huang went there — filming guerrilla-style at Zion, Death Valley and Yosemite national parks — for the new independent movie “Find Me.” Huang wrote, directed and stars in the film, which he is self-distributing. The movie has played at regional film festivals around the country, and is available for on-demand streaming on Amazon.com.

The movie centers on two coworkers in a Los Angeles accounting firm. Joe, played by Huang, is emotionally closed off following a divorce, and barely has a life outside of caring for his ailing mom (Jeanne Sakata). Amelia, played by Sara Amini, is a live-wire young woman — “the yin to his yang,” as Huang puts it — who regularly prods Joe to get out and experience life.

(Photo courtesy of Indie Rights Movies) Coworkers Amelia (Sara Amiri) and Joe (Tom Huang) talk about life and the great outdoors in a scene from the drama "Find Me," which Huang also wrote and directed.

The plot kicks in when Amelia disappears, and a week later Joe receives a letter from her, with two words — “find me” — and a return address for a hotel in Springdale, Utah, near Zion. This sets Joe on a journey to follow Amelia’s clues, which take him to her favorite away-from-tourists trails at Zion, Death Valley and Yosemite. Along the way, Joe comes out of his shell, and learns secrets he never knew about Amelia.

“I wanted to explore a little bit about how you don’t really know a person who you think you know,” Huang said in a phone interview this week. “In the office, you have a certain persona. She has a whole other life where she’s a different person.”

Huang chose Zion, Death Valley and Yosemite in part because of their proximity to Los Angeles, his home base. He also picked hikes he has made himself, all relatively easy walks.

“They are hikes where you can just go park, and hike for a little while and see some stunning landscapes, and still not be around hundreds of people,” he said.

With The Narrows, for example, “you can hike as far or as little as you want,” he said. There are plenty of people around at first, but, he said, “go past a mile or so, and the crowd really thins out.”

Huang took a barebones crew — himself, cinematographer Kyle Crowell and an assistant — into the parks. “You’re allowed to shoot in the parks, if you don’t have a crew, if you don’t hold up anybody or create a big ruckus,” Huang said, adding that because the project began as a series of shorts, it was considered non-commercial and didn’t need a permit.

National Park Service rules require permits for any commercial filming, with fees ranging from zero for a small crew to $750 a day for a Hollywood-sized production of 50 people or more. Non-commercial filming — such as student films or videos for tourism bureaus — usually doesn’t require a permit if the filming is “casual.”

Another sign of Huang’s get-in, get-out shooting style: The Utah Film Commission, which assists film, TV and commercial productions working in the state, hadn’t heard of “Find Me” until The Salt Lake Tribune asked a spokesperson about it.

Crowell has shot travel videos, Huang said, and “he was really adept shooting with a very light camera, with all natural light.” Huang scouted out the locations, and they were able to find places to shoot where and when crowds would be at a minimum.

Once he got the footage inside the parks, the production shot the Los Angeles scenes and some pickup shots outside the park boundaries. (For example, there’s an aerial view in the woods outside Yosemite that would not have been done in the park, because the National Park Service bans drones over park land.)

In marketing the film, Huang has tried to target audiences interested in the outdoors, but they come away with something more.

“The thing I hear at every screening is, ‘I came to see the national parks, and got caught up in the story,’“ he said. “There’s something about these national parks, and how people relate to them, and how the characters in the film relate to them, that people understand and relate to, as well.”