KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) — While growing up in the First City, Emilio Torres always knew he was going to make a movie.
A recent graduate of New York University’s film school, Torres arrived back in Ketchikan early last week to work with a cast of local actors and friends from film school to bring his debut short film, “The Ladder,” to life.
Torres also started his own production company called “Torres Productions LLC” after moving to Seattle from New York City, and has been taking on freelance video work.
Torres spoke with the Daily News July 6 about the project, a philosophical sci-fi short film about a fisherman who is confronted with a choice to change his life forever.
Filming started on Monday, and wrapped on Thursday. Torres hopes that he will be able to enter “The Ladder” into large film festivals like the Sundance Festival or the Toronto Film Festival.
Torres attributed much of his longtime interest in film to a Ketchikan childhood.
“I grew up in Ketchikan and that was kind of my way into the whole world of filmmaking, because when I was younger I did theater,” he told the Daily News. “Thanks to First City Players, I had a lot of opportunities to be in theater and involved in theater growing up. And so because of that, I became fascinated with acting, performing, and storytelling (and) directing. That’s always what I wanted to do.”
Torres wrote the script for the “The Ladder” in 2019, but had to table the project due to the coronavirus pandemic. Along with a crew of film school associates and other friends — some from Ketchikan — ready to get back to business.
“There’s an excitement just in the fact that I finally get to make it, but there’s also like the aspect of, you know, I grew up here in Ketchikan and when I was a kid, I dreamed of going to film school,” he said.
In school, Torres said that he and his classmates who also were interested in theater and movies would regularly dream about going to film school after graduating.
Torres attributed his ability to create the script and bring it to life to the vibrant arts community in which he was raised.
“I don’t think I’d be able to pursue a career in filmmaking if I wasn’t raised in a community where I was encouraged to be artistic and creative, and the Ketchikan community allowed me to be artistic and creative,” Torres reflected. “And so that has let me pursue my dreams. And so in a way, me making this movie, I hope is just kind of a way to give back to the community as well, and trying to show them what I’ve learned and create a film that shows Ketchikan in a really awesome way.”
In “The Ladder,” a local fisherman has a big choice to make when a bio-technology company called Actilife makes available a voluntary procedure to transplant older individuals’ consciousness into a 21-year-old body.
“So, in essence, they created a way for older people in our communities to restart their lives, if they so choose,” Torres explained. “And in the film, it explores Ketchikan, because it is kind of being used as a test city to see how this procedure would work.”
The storyline follows a fictious First City fisherman named Arthur, portrayed by local Keith Smith, who is given the opportunity to complete the procedure.
“And so the film is about whether or not he does this procedure,” Torres said. “The film is really just about (if) an older Alaskan fisherman would or would not want to restart their life.”
Torres said he always had an obsession with the idea of “starting over.”
“I’m always like, ’Oh, well, if I just go back to this year or this day, you know, I can change it ... or if I just had more time, I could do this,” he said. “That’s always been on my mind in general. But you know, really, what the movie’s about beyond just that concept is how family dynamics change as you age.”
The recent graduate also was inspired by his own developing understanding of how he relates to his family as he gets older.
“Our main character struggles with whether or not to do this and also how to go about telling your son if he wants to do it,” he said. “And that came from me, you know, I wrote the script and I went to college and it was kind of the first time as an adult (that) I was interacting with my parents as another adult. And so it kind of clicked for me to be like, ‘Oh yeah, my relationships with these people are different and they’re always going to be different.”
He hopes the movie shows that shifting family dynamics can be positive.
“But of course, it’s a challenge and how you navigate it in our modern day world is pretty, pretty crazy,” Torres added.
The movie’s namesake was derived from the salmon ladder in Ketchikan Creek near Married Man’s Trail and Park Avenue.
“The reason the movie’s called ‘The Ladder’ is because it’s a metaphor for the salmon ladder,” Torres explained. “And when I was a kid, I used to think about how the salmon ladder is so interesting because we learn in school that salmon are in the ocean, and then when it’s time for them to spawn, you know, they swim up the creek. They go up the ladder and then they’ll spawn and have their children and then die.”
He continued, “And that was always really profound to me, even as a kid, because I used to think are the salmon aware when they hop up the ladder in some weird spiritual way that they’re accepting the end of their life?”
Torres’ thoughts about salmon became part of the movie, inspiring a scene involving a discussion about salmon between the main character and his daughter-in-law.
The cast and crew
While there wasn’t a formal casting process, Torres said that there were auditions. He noted that he pictured Keith Smith in the role of Arthur as he wrote the script two years ago, having known him for many years before writing the movie.
“So then it became a question of casting the other actors,” he said. “And so there was no official process. And I reach out to people here in Ketchikan.”
The cast includes:
• Keith Smith as Arthur.
• Jeff Karlson as Arthur’s son, Ryan.
• Heidi Poet as Ryan’s wife, Emily.
• Katherine Tatsuda as a doctor.
• Connor Wodehouse as Arthur’s friend, Joe.
• Dave Kiffer as a driver.
“So I wanted to get people from (the) community who, you know, obviously auditioned and earned the role, but also reflected our community in a positive way,” Torres said.
The crew includes:
• Maggie Barry, assistant director.
• Tobias Romero, cinematographer.
• Taylor J. Williams, first assistant camera.
• Sarah Kuharich, second assistant camera.
• Megan Cornwall, script supervisor.
• Felix Wong, sound production.
• Jackson Yeomans, gaffer (lighting).
• Caitlyn Ashcraft, costuming.
• Blaine Ashcraft, art director.
• Miguel Torres, executive productor.
• Diane Slagle, caterer.
“I was planning to make it in May of 2020, but obviously in March when the COVID-19 pandemic first started, at that time, it did not feel right or responsible to make the movie,” Torres explained. “So I went ahead and postponed production. And at that time, I really didn’t know when we were going to make it, because at that point, none of us really knew what this pandemic was going to be.”
With the production on pause, Torres graduated early from NYU’s film school.
He said that in the past year, he decided to aim to start shooting the film this summer.
“I reached out to people and asked them if they were interested again,” he recalled. “And then I went ahead and did the process of starting a fundraising campaign.”
The campaign brought in about $17,000, which went toward production costs such as equipment rental and insurance and other fees.
Along with the donations, Torres said it takes a lot of support to make a short film.
“You know, one of my favorite professors at school, he says ‘making movies is like ripping something out of the universe,‘” Torres reflected. “And so you really have to be passionate and love it and have a village of people to help you, because there’s no way I could’ve done this on my own. And ... between all the contributions people made, all the people who are directing helping, it truly takes a community to make this film happen. And that’s what I have.”
Torres said that the next step is to start editing the footage from the filming process in Ketchikan when he returns home to Seattle. That also includes finishing adjusting sound and colors in the film.
Taylor J. Williams, the first assistant camera person, will be working on creating a score for the film.
After the process is done, Torres hopes to submit “The Ladder” to a variety of film festivals.
“The big picture dream for ‘The Ladder’ is that we use this short film after the film festival season to pitch and get funding and resources to bring a feature film or series project to Ketchikan with a bigger story version of the film,” Torres noted in a follow-up message to the Daily News on Friday.
Ragean Miller, The Associated Press