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Surprise Hit: "Kaaterskill Falls"

Filmed on whim and a shoestring budget, "Kaaterskill Falls," the award-winning co-directorial debut of friends Josh Apter and Peter Olsen shows at Film Fest New Haven this month.

By Asa Pittman

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Peter Olsen and Josh Apter on location shooting "Kaaterskill Falls."
No one expected "Kaaterskill Falls" to be an award-winning film -- least of all the film’s directors. When co-directors and longtime friends Josh Apter and Peter Olsen lugged their cameras and crew into the Catskill woods to make the flick, they didn’t have any expectations... or a script. But they did have an idea. Betrayal had been on their minds for years.

Inspired by Roman Polanski’s 1962 thriller, "Knife in the Water," Apter and Olsen conceived a similar tale of deceit -- one surrounding a young couple’s encounter with a mysterious hitchhiker during a getaway weekend to the mountains. "We never thought we’d make a movie of it," said Olsen of the team’s original concept. However, on a whim one idle Easter weekend, the co-directors decided to put their idea on film. "It was an experiment," Apter described the impromptu venture. "The worst that could have happened is that we’d lose the little money we’d put into it."

By pooling their resources, the directing duo kept the movie’s production costs low. They "borrowed" the film they needed from friends. The set they already owned -- a rustic cabin in the Catskills. Catskill Park and Harriman State Park would provide alternate settings. Now, all the directors needed were actors, and, of course, a script. A few phone calls yielded both.

Three actors answered the last-minute casting call to play the photographer wife, Ren (Hillary Howard), Mitchell, the computer geek husband (Mitchell Riggs) and Lyle, the fateful hitchhiker (Anthony Leslie) of Apter and Olsen’s production. In addition to their assigned roles, the trio also played the parts of writers for "Kaaterskill Falls," composing the film’s shooting script themselves. To Apter, the multi-tasking threesome was a godsend: "There was no continuity, no script. They [the actors] saved our asses."

Written on location in the expanse of an hour, the screenplay, a roughly page-long outline based on the directors’ betrayal theme, would provide the movie’s only documented structure. "We knew the plot points, the setting and the time," Olsen said of the bare-bones script. The dialog, however, was a surprise -- the actors improvised their lines.

Leaving the script to the actors, Apter and Olsen controlled the execution of "Kaaterskill Falls" through their unique directorial technique. "We tried to shape each performance," Olsen said of his and Apter’s directing efforts. The co-directors found that they could usually get the performances they wanted from their actors with the utterance of a single phrase: "act better." Apter attributes the acting quality of the film not to himself or Olsen, however, but to a capable cast. "Those were some of the smartest actors I’ve ever worked with," he said of the "Kaaterskill" players, noting their ability to sense when to add needed reversals and plot points to the story.

And where intuition failed, technology provided. Using a video tap to view each scene within moments of filming, the co-directors created as they recorded. The device, which Olsen described as "a portable VCR with a screen," helped the actors remember their extemporaneous dialogs and reproduce them consistently for multiple tapings. Editing took place between each of the eight shooting excursions necessary to complete principal photography.

While splicing the incongruous scenes together, Apter, chief editor for the film, spot-checked the production for deficiencies. "Sometimes during editing I’d see the film and think, ‘Hey, there needs to be a plot point here,’" recalled Apter. When such problems arose, the directors incorporated the required revisions or added scenes into their next filming session.

Olsen revealed that only after the editing process did he see the film as more than a weekend diversion: "I was surprised to see that there was a movie there." Apter, on the other hand, saw potential in the movie early in the filming stage, but doubted anyone else would. "I liked it, and that was what was scary to me," he said, "I was positive that no one else would like it. A director should be his own worst critic, and I liked it."

Despite their initial reservations, the co-directors decided to show "Kaaterskill Falls" to the public, even entering it in various film festivals. Apter and Olsen, who estimate the film’s viewing audience to be "in the thousands," admitted mixed responses to the improvised indie, but highlighted the film’s successes. "Kaaterskill Falls" won a Critic’s Jury Prize at the 2001 IFP/West Los Angeles Film Festival and received endorsements from critics at Village Voice and New York Daily News.

Next, the two plan to show the film at Film Fest New Haven in New Haven (FFNH), Connecticut September 20 - 22, 2002. The festival, in its seventh year, will feature more than 40 independent films from around the world. It was the FFNH’s large and diverse audience that prompted Apter and Olsen to enter their film in the festival. "The whole point is for people to see [the movie]," Apter said. His partner envisioned a more specific audience for their entry. "We’re hoping someone will see it who’ll want to buy it and distribute it," Olsen said of his hopes for New Haven.

Whether a distributor picks up the film during the festival or not, New Haven won’t be the last chance to see "Kaaterskill Falls." It will also show at the Rolling River Music & Film Festival in St. Paul, Minnesota September 18 - 22, 2002.

"Kaaterskill Falls" won’t be the last opportunity to see a Josh Apter and Peter Olsen collaboration, either. Apter and Olsen, who call their professional partnership Whiskey Outpost, expressed an affinity for co-directing between alternating sips from a shared iced coffee. "I always wanted to do it that way," said Olsen of co-directing. Principally a cinematographer, Olsen confessed that co-directoring boosted his confidence when commanding the actors. Immediate gratification compelled Apter to co-direct. "I just value the input, the instant feedback," he said. Apter also appreciated the company: "Sometimes it’s nice not to be completely on your own."

For more information about the film, visit http://www.whiskeyoutpost.com/kf/index.html. For more information about Film Fest New Haven, visit www.filmfest.org.