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“Druid Peak” is a film about a troubled teen and a wolf, but it’s not a fairy tale. It is the story of a person saved by nature.

The film’s writer, Marni Zelnick, wanted to convey how the environment can change a person. To do that, she moved a boy who’s mad at the world from a dead-end coal-mining town in West Virginia to Yellowstone National Park, a place of beauty and promise with the wildest of creatures.

Just as the boy grows to love northwest Wyoming for its landscapes and creatures, Zelnick hopes viewers will leave with a new appreciation of the place.

“Druid Peak” is her first film. Shot in 2011 mostly around Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, it recently became a finalist in the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, one of the most prestigious nature film festivals in the world. The film was a low-budget struggle from the beginning to end. Appearing on the short list for an international award is something Zelnick said wouldn’t have been possible without her Wilson-based executive producer, a Wyoming town full of people willing to help and a landscape that continues to change lives.

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The main character, Owen, is a 16-year-old bully from West Virginia who accidentally kills his best friend in a car wreck. His mother sends him, begrudgingly, to Yellowstone to live with a father he’s never met.

Owen, the son of a biologist, becomes interested in wolves after an unexpected encounter with one.

The movie touches on politically-charged issues like wolf reintroduction, hunting and livestock conflicts. But it’s not meant to advocate either side, Zelnick said.

“When you come out of the movie, god help me if you don’t think the wolf is beautiful,” Zelnick said. “You’re supposed to have a reverence for the wolf, but the film is also trying to be objective in showing that everybody has to be part of the conversation.”

It’s also a coming-of-age story as Owen struggles with right, wrong and the gray areas in between.

Spencer Treat Clark, who starred in “Gladiator” and the recent “Much Ado About Nothing,” plays Owen perfectly, said TarZan Campbell, a member of the Jackson Hole Print, Television and Film Talent/Location Resource. Campbell helped organize Jackson-area locations and resources for the film and had a speaking role as Owen’s father’s best friend.

“He does a wonderful job of communicating a troubled youth and the angst of being a teen and going through difficult situations and also coming of age with nature,” Campbell said.

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Zelnick doesn’t describe herself as a fatalist, but she does believe “Druid Peak” was meant to be. A Virginia native, she spent summers during high school in Wilson living with family friends Maureen Mayer and her husband.

Jackson, and her hosts, made an impression on Zelnick. So did Yellowstone’s wolves.

In film school at New York University, Zelnick still remembered those summers in northwest Wyoming. She applied for and won a $100,000 production grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which is awarded to one student each year to make a film about science and nature.

“I felt it was the perfect storm of everything meaningful in life coming together,” she said.

Her New York connections helped her get big names like Clark and Andrew Wilson, older brother of Luke and Owen Wilson who plays the teen’s father.

But she still didn’t have much money. She needed local Jackson help and Mayer, her old friend, became her executive producer.

Mayer used connections from decades of living in Wilson to arrange everything from shooting scenes on ranches to discounts on food for the crews to finding a pilot with a single-engine plane. Some of the crew members slept in her house during production. The rest shared another house that Mayer found.

“When I got involved with the film with Marni, I felt so passionate about it I was willing to do anything and everything,” she said.

The film became a part of Jackson and Yellowstone, instead of simply being shot in the area. Close to 100 people from town became extras. A man pulled off of the street played a high school teacher when the original actor never showed.

The West Virginia town was similarly supportive, Zelnick said.

“We didn’t roll into town like the circus and ask people to watch, we rolled in and asked if people would like to help build a circus,” she said. “I hope these communities realize how important they were in making the film.”

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As with many independent films, “Druid Peak” is looking for a distributor. The process just started, and Mayer isn’t worried.

The film is already proving itself by becoming a finalist in the wildlife film festival.

More than 900 submissions competed for the short list in 23 festival categories. Each was narrowed to only a few finalists. “Druid Peak” will be competing in the Best Theatrical Program category with film giants like Disneynature and Giant Screen Films.

“It’s literally a who’s who in the genre,” said Lisa Samford, the festival’s executive director. “They are among elite company.”

Zelnick and Mayer hope the film reaches school-age audiences because of its coming-of-age theme. It shows teens and adults what kind of difference open space and wildness can make on a person, Zelnick said.

“I feel different when I go to Jackson, I feel inspired and moved,” she said. “So I took a kid who feels stifled and claustrophobic, but he’s too young and angry to know why, and I gave him a chance to go somewhere else. That was the basis for the story. How can we be changed by the places we live?”

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at 307-746-3121 or christine.peterson@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @PetersonOutside.

 

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