On one of the busy nights of the recent 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, execs from Discovery Film and the Documentary Channel (among others) gathered around a makeshift bonfire in a parking lot with numerous distributors, sales agents and press to roast marshmallows and sing camp songs with psychedelic alt rock band The Flaming Lips. Hosted by directors Brad Beesley and Sarah Price to promote their film Summercamp!, the event provided a welcome break from the usual red carpet affair and offered indisputable proof of the allure of recapturing one’s youth.
It’s this nostalgia that will propel Summercamp! through the market. Shot at the Swift Nature Camp in Wisconsin, the film follows the day-to-day drama that unfolds when over 90 kids converge on the wilderness for three weeks of fun and discovery. From family tragedies to first love and budding friendships, the exuberant highs and familiar lows of childhood and adolescence are vividly experienced through four main characters finding their way in this unique setting.
Recognizing camp and its particular subculture as a right of passage, Beesley dreamed up the project hoping to set the film at the Baptist camp he attended as a kid in Oklahoma. ‘I got my first French kiss at camp,’ he reveals. ‘You weren’t supposed to see girls in bathing suits,’ he explains, ‘but during free time you could hike to the creek. We called it ‘The Devil’s Bathtub.” When his childhood camp wouldn’t consent to filming, he pursued other options, but securing the necessary release forms became an exercise in frustration. After six months of pre-production at a second camp, too many parents objected to having their kids filmed and the camp withdrew its commitment one week before shooting was scheduled to begin. But luck struck on the third attempt. When Swift Nature Camp announced that a doc would be shot during one of its sessions, only five out of 99 families objected to their kids being filmed.
A fan of American Movie and Ceasar’s Park, Beesley approached Price to co-direct. Initially Price filmed the girls’ cabins and Beesley filmed the boys’, but once production was underway shooting became more integrated. ‘Whenever we saw each other we’d touch base,’ says Price. ‘We always knew where the story was going and how we needed to follow it.’ They filmed for three weeks in 2003 (immersing themselves in the camp culture, sleeping in lumpy bunk beds and battling pesky mosquitoes), but the doc was delayed by trying to find the right editor. ‘It took us almost a year,’ says Beesley. ‘We thought the film would be done a year-and-a-half ago.’
In the meantime, both filmmakers were busy with other projects. Beesley completed two features: The Creek Runs Red and The Fearless Freaks, about The Flaming Lips. (Frequent contributors to Beesley’s projects, The Lips created original songs for Summercamp!) He also directed the A&E reality show Roller Girls, which helped fund the TIFF feature. ‘It’s a good way to work and make enough money to not have to work again for six months,’ says Beesley of formatted TV. ‘And I’m a much better filmmaker having worked on that show. I’m used to shooting and directing myself; having to direct four cameras, your filming has to be much more precise.’ Price took The Yes Men to Toronto in 2003 and began editing and directing a doc about the reopening of schools in Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban.
Summercamp! premiered at SXSW in March and was re-cut for TIFF, where it was represented by Dan O’Meara of Epstein, Levinsohn, Bodine, Hurwitz & Weinstein in New York. Says Price, ‘When we had a cut that was festival ready, it made sense to go to sxsw: we met there, we have a history there and we had done a workshop there with the trailer, which is how we met our associate producer. But, if you want distribution in a certain way, it’s Toronto or Sundance.’ Both directors hope for a theatrical release.