Making independent film is hard. Damn hard. When starting out making their first films, most filmmakers have little money and have to rely, at least partially, on the kindness of strangers. As anyone who has tried it knows, without a substantial budget it's difficult to afford to pay your cast and crew. I know this from personal experience. I've been lucky enough to have had individuals willing to stand in the cold and the heat to aid me in such endeavors. And I've tried my best not to forget them. The crew of Frozen River I'm afraid, was forgotten long ago.
It has been a long time since I aided the first narrative film I've ever known to shoot in the region I grew up in. I was reminded of the shoot by an interview by Liane Hansen with Frozen River star Melissa Leo on National Pubic Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday. Leo makes mention of the short film (of the same name) which was shot back in the winter of 2004. The progenitor of the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winning feature, also written and directed by Courtney Hunt, was filmed on locations in and around the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation in Northern New York. No, you won't find it on IMDB even though it traveled the festival circuit and won funding for the feature at the IFP film market. From Hunt's website:
"The film premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2004, and went on to screen at numerous other festivals, including the Los Angeles Film Festival, Nashville, Williamstown, and the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco."
There isn't anywhere on the internet that I know of where you read about the twenty-eight-plus crew who largely volunteered their time. (The names I know are listed at the end of this article.) You also can't read about Upstate Independents, a filmmaker's organization in Albany, NY, where Hunt asked for and received free help and crew, including myself, from its members. You can't find anything about the months of preparation done by Debra, Al and Amanda, Hunt's intrepid pre-production team, to gather a crew in what can be easily considered a remote location. Being originally from the area, I helped to connect them with the local high school and businesses.
As is customary in indie film, the agreement between Hunt and I was in return for working on the short for free, I would receive lodging and meals during the shoot, credit and if the short ever garnered her a feature film deal, I would be amongst the first to be called to work on it for pay. This was the same agreement given to the entire crew including those who were paid at a discounted rate. To my knowledge, none of the members of that crew were ever contacted when the short won Hunt funding. The only individuals I know from the short to work on the feature, were actors. I've also never seen the short. There was one screening that we were told about, but that was too long a drive for me to make. In all, I received three emails from Hunt early on, but that was it. One of them thanked us for our hard work, which I did appreciate. But, I would have appreciated if she had honored our agreement a whole lot more.
"Courtney wrote and directed Frozen River, the short film, starring Melissa Leo and Misty Upham, which was shot in sub-zero weather on the Canadian border in Upstate New York."
Yes, it was cold. We filmed for five nights in all. We shot outside of Massena at Bob's Motel, over near Hogansburg at the Wolf Pack, down near the St. Lawrence River off Garrow Rd. and actually on the river ice. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a normal shift on a film set is twelve hours. Sid, our tough, prideful Gaffer, Ryan, our towering bright Key Grip-turned-First Assistant Director and myself, the lone Grip were the first to arrive in the early afternoon and the last to leave the set in the wee morning hours. The three of us put in more hours on set (sometimes working over 15 hours) than anyone so, yeah, it was cold. Eddie, Ryan, Sid and myself also drove the trucks. The food on the shoot was fantastic, though. I wish I could recall Melissa-the-Chef's last name. The Production Assistants who helped her were also awesome. Actually, everyone was awesome. Camera, Grip and Electric, Art, Production... everyone.
Through all the frigid, long hours no one complained. Not a one. Ryan was even sick, yet he soldiered on. The next to last night when we filmed at the old camper, I recall looking around at all the crew who occupied probably a sixty-foot radius around the car we were filming in. Each of us dressed in at least three layers of clothing waited patiently and quietly standing steadfast in the cold. I realized; here we were in the middle of the night, in the middle of no where, standing on inches of snow and ice, freezing our asses off, for over twelve hours a day... mostly for free. I was astonished by the kindness of all of these individuals to do this for someone they don't even know-- at least not well. That's when I realized how many films like this rely heavily on the kindness of others. There were even a few times when the dedication of the crew was brought into question (not by the director), but there was absolutely no questioning our dedication and Hunt later told us as much. Through it all, the crew just kept doing their jobs silently and respectfully. Hunt did tell us many times how much she appreciated our efforts and what an awesome job we were doing. We shot a lot of film and from what I heard, the footage was amazing. Therefore, I cannot believe there is any performance-related or other legitimate reason why none of us received any word what-so-ever about the feature (if even to tell us somehow the situation barred her from bringing us on.) I am proud of my efforts on the short and enjoyed working with that exceptional group of people. It is only the lack of follow-through that I have any issue with. And not really for me, but for the entire crew from the students from St. Lawrence University, to the long time pro's from around the Northeast. They deserve recognition for their great effort and their contribution to getting the feature funded. At the least, I feel it's time their existence was known. Unfortunately this is a similar story to countless others in independent film, but luckily I have the ability do a little something to ensure these folks aren't totally forgotten. Hopefully knowing about this will encourage future filmmakers to honor their agreements and give their crew the credit they deserve. The following is a partial list of credits for the short film Frozen River. My thanks to all the cast and crew for their camaraderie and excellent achievement on the frozen border of a great Nation.
Frozen River (2004)
Written & Directed by
Director of Photography
First Assistant Assistant Director
First Assistant Assistant Director
Kevin Craig West
Second Assistant Director
First Assistant Camera
Second Assistant Camera
Martin G. Kelly
Len X. Clayton
Key Production Assistant
Assistants to the Director
(This is a list of people I would think need thanking)
St. Regis Mohawk Tribe
St. Lawrence University
Salmon River Central School
Bob's Motel, Massena, NY
(photo: Ben Alpi (rt) and Kevin Craig West, courtesy Jill Maouf. )
Anyone with corrections, additional information or photos, please comment and let me know!