A local story, not only in setting

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO, Colorado
Contributed photoFormer Aspenite Jesse Johnson, left, stars in "Chapman," a feature film shot in the Roaring Fork Valley and having a free screening Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – Justin Owensby has an easy time pinpointing his favorite filmmaker – “Terrence Malick, by far,” he said. And Owensby is similarly certain what it is about Malick’s movies – “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Tree of Life” – that so captivates him.”The way he has nature almost as a character and dwells on these landscapes,” Owensby said. “If he shot these films focusing on interiors, they just wouldn’t make sense.”Owensby, who is 30, grew up in Basalt with an appreciation of the outdoors. By age 15, he was a pro skier, competing in big-air and halfpipe events and being sponsored by K2 and Spyder. By the time he was 20, though, his head had been rattled and his body bruised enough that he switched his focus from competitive skiing to artistic filmmaking.Owensby, who has spent the past decade as a Los Angeles-based director of commercials, short films and music videos, is making his debut as a maker of feature films. And “Chapman,” which has a free screening Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, allowed him to emulate his hero, Malick. The film was shot almost entirely in the Roaring Fork Valley – along Main Street in Aspen, in a Glenwood Springs cemetery, in open fields ringed by mountains in Old Snowmass and at Chapman Dam, miles past Ruedi Reservoir – and uses the look and feel of those places to evoke emotions.A key to capturing the look of “Chapman” was the luxury of time. The shoot took place over 26 days last spring, a relatively expansive window for a low-budget film, and Owensby – along with producer Doug Weiser, an Old Snowmass resident who provided much of the financing – took full advantage of the time.”We could shoot when we wanted – morning or late afternoon, a lot of those golden hours of light,” Owensby said. “We’d get up super-early, often at 4:30, shoot, then take a nap. It gave us time to review what had been shot, reshoot if necessary and really think about that afternoon’s shoot. A big film would never allow that; it would be prohibitively expensive. But I think that’s the way movies should be made.”Owensby didn’t only want to make a movie set in the Roaring Fork Valley; he wanted a story that echoed the place. He mentioned “Dumb & Dumber,” “Aspen Extreme” and “Cougar Hunting,” along with the TV show “Secrets of Aspen,” all productions set in Aspen that didn’t have much to do with the town as Owensby knows it. “They all lack depth,” he said, allowing that he thought “Aspen Extreme” was a decent film. “And they’re not what Aspen is about. I wanted something substantive.”The seed of “Chapman” was a true-life Aspen episode. In 2006, Owensby was skiing in Snowmass with his friend Blake Davidson, when an avalanche killed Davidson. “Chapman” parts ways with that incident – there are no ski scenes in the film – but Owensby used it as a starting point for his script.”It was a way to process all that guilt I was carrying,” he said. “It’s about someone dealing with guilt and loss. And it rings true to my view of this place – a beautiful place where not-so-pretty things happen.”In Owensby’s fictional account, Alex Fletcher – played by Jesse Johnson, the son of actor Don Johnson, who grew up in Aspen and is a friend of Owensby’s – receives a letter that lures him back to the Colorado mountains, where he was raised. His life is a wreck: He breaks into hotel rooms, sleeps in the parking lot of a Snowmass Village hotel, drinks to excess. And his mind flashes back to his teenage self and times with his two close friends Paul (Alex Saxon) and Marie (Caitlin Thompson) in scenes that are marked by the abundance of sunlight. The flashbacks go deeper and deeper, and finally to the source of Alex’s troubles. It’s a style of storytelling that, like Malick’s films, credits the viewer for having patience.”You don’t have the luxury of spectacles,” Owensby said. “You’re not able to blow up a building. So it’s a story that creeps up on you. When you think you have it pinned down, it turns out there’s a lot more to it.”For his part, Owensby showed almost too much patience with the project. When he wrote the script in 2007, he wasn’t planning ever to have it made.”I wrote it for my own sanity,” he said.But he had kept in touch with Alec Raffin, who runs Mpower, a local organization that offers filmmaking opportunities to kids who might be headed for trouble. Mpower had equipment, connections and some funding; Owensby made a deal that if Mpower backed the production, then he would give any profits back to Mpower. Raffin introduced Owensby to Weiser, who had a background in film and who agreed to produce “Chapman.”Owensby, as it turns out, had a previous association with Mpower. Following an incident of teenage drunkenness, a court ordered Owensby to the intervention group YouthZone, which thought Owensby, who had an interest in ski films, would fit in well with Mpower’s program.”They gave me this outlet that was empowering,” said Owensby, who is a member of the Writers Guild, and has projects lined up to direct a music video and a yogurt-brand commercial. “Something better than just giving me the facts about alcohol.”Owensby made use of another local resource to further his interest in film. In the late ’90s, he attended Aspen Shortsfest and met a filmmaker, Alec Collis. When Owensby moved to Los Angeles, he called Collis repeatedly, looking for advice on breaking into filmmaking. Collis told him to check the Hollywood Reporter and Variety to see what projects were going into production. Owensby cold-called hundreds of production companies.”Which was insane,” he said. “I’d be calling the Harry Potter production, and they’d hang up on me. Eventually one said yes.”