Struther’s to host special screening of locally-made film
Warren County has always had a lot more to offer than meets the eye. When passing through, whether it be on Route 6, 62, or a locally-known dirt road, the result on the surface is generally the same — wildlife, forest, and glimpses of what once was.
Warren Area High School graduate Kevin Ignatius saw more. He saw an idea, a script, cameras, and a cast. He saw a movie, The Long Dark Trail.
The story of what brought an idea to the middle of the Allegheny National Forest began long before there was a pandemic, iPhones, or social media. It began where all great modern marvels do. The 1980s and ’90s. Specifically, the pop culture of those two decades.
“Growing up in Warren during the ’80s and ’90s was a great time to absorb pop culture through music and film — whether it be a John Hughes film (Weird Science) or a Sam Raimi (Evil Dead),” said Ignatius. “I was always enthralled with the storytelling from listening to records and watching movies with my brothers Paul, Jay, and Mark. My parents got all of us into music at a young age, which helped us continue to fuel the fascination and exploration of not just music, but various art forms. We would get a bunch of our friends together, grab my dad’s Panasonic camcorder and make ridiculous movies that had the most absurd storylines, and then we would cut them together with two VCRs. My love of music and film and scoring music to my own films stayed with me from that point. There’s something special about having a vision to tell a story through film, but to also musically guide that visual story through the scoring process. The director John Carpenter, known notably for directing and composing the music for (the horror movie) Halloween, is an inspiration for the way that I approach the filmmaking process.”
Ignaius and writing partner Nick Psinakis have spent recent years in Hollywood pitching scripted series for networks to hopefully pick up, and writing exclusive comedy sketches for Funny or Die. But after some time and frustration with the way the Hollywood machine operated, the pair realized what they truly wanted to do was to write, direct, and produce their own low-cost feature films, allowing them to maintain a creative vision. The two have directed short films such as Hook Man and J, which can both be viewed for free at www.foureighteenfilms.com, and a dark comedy titled My Best Friend’s Famous that can be seen on Amazon Prime. Their experience, a successful run on the film festival circuit, and ability to bring their ideas to life, are what has led to the making of The Long Dark Trail.
When the pandemic hit, the original plan that Ignatius and Psinakis had to film a psychological horror movie was temporarily put on hold. However, it would be the isolation of Warren County, some incredible local talent and help, and a little bit of luck that would allow the show to go on.
“We were going to do a bigger production, which like I told you we are trying to do next. So basically Covid hit and, then it was like, we can’t do this, we have to do something smaller, if anything,” said Ignatius. “We were a little bit down off that because we were really gearing up to do a bigger production. So I said we have to get something shot in 2020. We were kind of in the bubble where it wasn’t quite around here. We were staying safe at that point.”
It wasn’t until a performance by Sheffield’s Carter and Brady O’Donnell at a local church that Ignatius realized he might have his stars right in front of him. Ignatius first thought, upon seeing his two future actors, that both boys were fearless. For a movie based around instilling fear in the audience, this was a key component to go from an idea to a creation.
“They’re out there, performing, and they seem to have it together, so I’m like, ‘I wonder if we could come up with something that we could still end up with a film in 2020,'” Ignatius said. “I was like, ‘what if we built something around these two?'”
After discussions with Psinakis, Ignatius approached parents Jamie and Amy O’Donnell and were met with enthusiasm. Both Carter and Brady, who play Henry and Jacob Willock in the movie, had a natural dynamic of innate chemistry and allowed Ignaius and Psinakis to create a more realistic film.
Carter and Brady were quick to point out the same chemistry, as it allowed them to be more comfortable knowing each other’s mannerisms and personalities going into the project. The two have a solid, albeit short, history of stage acting, making the transition to the screen a welcomed challenge.
“One of the biggest differences was having a specific set and angle to work from, depending on lighting and background, as opposed to always focusing towards the audience,” Carter said.
Brady added, “When the camera is up close and focused directly on you, you have to be exact. There’s no room for error.”
It wasn’t just the O’Donnell boys making an impact; their mother and Sheffield teacher Amy O’Donnell was a key component for both her boys and the crew to create a successful film.
“She was actually really instrumental on this, helping as well,” Ignatius said. “The boys had never done it before, so it was really helpful kind of just throughout whether it was shuttling them or helping us with gear. I made her a producer on it, just because she was so involved helping us.”
Amy got her first taste of this world while assisting with the local production of High School Musical Jr. At the time, both Carter and Brady were fairly young, but Amy continued to work with schools’ All-County Musicals since, and found the methodology too interesting to not use it as an opportunity to learn more.
“The transition from stage to screen was pretty smooth and seamless for them as the teams they’ve worked with for the ‘All-Counties’ have been phenomenal,” said Amy. “Kev and Nick are seriously the nicest people to work with and were so thoughtful with their suggestions on how to move, speak, and use the light.”
The O’Donnell boys were joined by many other local residents turned actors to take on everything from minor roles to lead roles, such as their character’s estranged mother, Hannah, who is played by Carter’s and Brady’s cousin, Trina Campbell.
“It’s kind of funny,” Ignatius joked. “It’s all in the family. I looked at it like, why not, because again she knew the boys and she would be comfortable. Making sure no one was like, ‘I don’t really know them. I’m gonna feel weird.’ Obviously, on other productions, you don’t know the person but you’ve done it so much you do your character and you go and perform. For them, it was nice because Trina knew the boys and they knew Trina and they were comfortable.”
Once the cast was set, Ignatius and Psinakis set out to explore all that the wilderness and landscape of Warren County had to offer. From the dark waters of the Kinzua Reservoir to the mystifying depth of the Allegheny National Forest to the overall beauty and vastness captured in aerial shots via drone by Jeremy Bickling of Stratos Media Solutions — who was brought onto the project as the Director of Aerial Photography, Ignatius found importance in building the story around the natural landscape of the area and allowing it in and of itself to be a character in the film.
“Jeremy played an enormous role in bringing that aspect of the film to life,” Ignatius said. “Also, utilizing a lot of the drone shots to feel that massness and that sort of deselate nature. That’s where Jeremy was so helpful with that.”
Amy O’Donnell added that the drone shots taken by Bickling will likely open even more eyes to the beauty of Warren County.
Ignatius recalled times of his youth in these very woods, and the trickery that the dense forest can play on the mind and how this added another element of psychological darkness to the film.
“The main thing was just the dense woods that we have,” explained Ignatius. “When you’re camping and the fire’s going, and you’re deep in the woods in the Allegheny National Forest, sometimes you just feel like you see stuff out there and it’s not there. The darkness just plays with you. And I touched on that. It was coming from just growing up here and hanging in the woods and it was just sort of a weird fear.”
The Long Dark Trail will lead the viewer down a path to horror as the slow-paced hypnotic story follows Henry (Carter O’Donnell) and Jacob (Brady O’Donnell) Willock’s time after escaping from their abusive father where they hoped to find their own way by a nearby creek. Not long afterwards, the boys find themselves in the epicenter of a cult where they not only encounter the terrors of the supernatural, but are met face to face by a sadistic madman who wants nothing but to torture them all while they search for their missing mother (Trina Campbell). The Long Dark Trail will test the boys’ fundamental understanding of reality and will dive deep into fate versus free will.
Struther’s Library Theatre will be hosting a special screening of The Long Dark Trail at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 19. Tickets can be purchased through the theatre’s website at www.strutherslibrarytheatre.org.