Story by Chris Graham
Olivia is getting ready for medical school – well, to be more accurate about it, her parents are getting ready for the idea of sending her to medical school.
And then she shocks them and shocks her world by announcing what she plans to do before she enrolls – namely, that she plans to hike the 2,170-mile Appalachian Trail.
This is what drives the feature film “Southbounders,” the first effort of New Hampshire-based moviemaker Ben Wagner.
Wagner based the storyline on his own 144-day hike of the AT in 1999 – “My entire life, I wanted to be a filmmaker, so growing up, I always had concepts and ideas for films. I had this story in mind about young people sort of at a crossroads in their lives, but I didn’t have a setting for it,” Wagner told The Augusta Free Press.
“In 1999, I ended up hiking the Appalachian Trail – southbound, from July 1 to Nov. 21. During that period, I realized that the Trail was a perfect setting for this idea that I had for a movie,” Wagner said.
He adapted his original idea to interweave the experiences that he had on the Trail – and in short order “that really became the entire film, to share the experiences of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.”
Olivia (Amy Cale Peterson) follows Wagner’s own hiking experience – as a Southbounder who begins her AT trek in Maine. It isn’t an easy go even on day one – she encounters leeches, sore feet and a talkative Georgia hiker, Slackpack (Christopher McCutchen), who follows her around like a puppy dog and doesn’t seem to have an off switch when it comes to sharing his observations on even the most mundane aspects of daily life.
Her spirits pick up when she begins reading the entries into the Trail journals kept at shelter stations along the way from a mysterious Rollin (Scott Speiser), and later catches up to him as he tends to a knee injury suffered early in his hike.
The interaction between Olivia and the two men – she warms up, eventually, to Slackpack, and falls in love with Rollin – is presented in the context of a not exactly idealized view of what it is like to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Wagner said he focused the story on a female protagonist who was new to the Trail and new to the experience of thru-hiking because he “wanted the audience, who might not necessarily be aware of what it takes to be a thru-hiker, to learn about the Trail-hiking experience through her eyes.”
“I felt that the best figure to take would be this sort of porcelain, young woman who really doesn’t know what she’s doing – and let her figure things out as she goes, and let the audience do the same things through her eyes,” Wagner said.
Shot for $35,000, “Southbounders” doesn’t at all come across as a low-budget film. One way he took advantage of his situation was by deciding to shoot most of the movie on location on the Appalachian Trail – which itself offered up some rather interesting challenges to the cast and crew.
“There’s one shelter at a remote location in Maine that was one of my favorite shelters – and it was also one of the first shelters that I stayed at on my hike. It’s called the Rainbow Stream Shelter – and it was very important for me that we get that one in there. So I figured out a way to drive on logging roads and hike my equipment in there and shoot there – and that was part of our process and part of the experience,” Wagner said.
The actors picked up another valuable experience – “These weren’t just actors who were sitting in the trailer and then coming out and shooting a scene and then going back to their trailer. They put up with a lot,” Wagner said.
“They were willing to do some things that other actors might not have been willing to do – and that was carrying all their gear, and doing this very improvised. I think that added to the nature of the film,” Wagner said.
“Southbounders” opened at the 2005 Los Angeles Film Festival to good reviews. Wagner said it has been great “doing the film-festival thing,” but more important to him has been making the film available to hikers and people in communities along the Trail.
To that end, Wagner has been touring communities along the Maine-to-Georgia footpath – including a stop in Waynesboro earlier this spring – to lead screenings and discussions of the movie and its take on AT life.
“For me, the most important thing with making this film was making sure that it got it right – something that other through-hikers would watch and say, OK, that’s the way it is out there,” Wagner said.