Not many filmmakers get their start in their 40s by shooting a period piece in Resurrection Bay.
Eric Downs, a 1994 graduate of Kenai Central High School with a history of working in construction, did just that by shooting “A Dreamer’s Search” in 2020. The film is set to premiere this weekend at Bear Tooth Theatrepub as part of the Anchorage International Film Festival — where it was officially selected as a Made in Alaska Narrative Short.
“A Dreamer’s Search” follows the true story of artist Rockwell Kent, who in the early 1900s came to Alaska from New York and lived on an island near Seward. Downs shot his film on that same island.
Downs said that “A Dreamer’s Search” is a “calling card” for his voice as a storyteller, a product of a lifelong passion for storytelling that developed into the dream of filmmaking.
The short film follows Kent and his son Rockie, as they both struggle with frustrated ambitions before finding themselves in the Alaska wilderness. It largely follows the father and son duo, as well as an older man who lives in the area.
Themes of taking a wild chance in pursuit of artistic passion are easily connected to Downs’ own story of taking a chance and making a short film — he said that he hopes it will inspire others to chase their calling.
“Kent was on a similar journey,” Downs said. “He had done so many things in his life, but his true calling and his biggest desire was to become a successful artist.”
The story of Rockwell Kent has long resonated with Downs, he said. He and a cousin in 2014 met with Doug Capra, a Seward author and historian with expertise in Kent’s story. Downs spent that night on the island at Kent’s lodge.
“It was on that trip, kind of retracing Rockwell Kent’s steps that I reconnected with the wilderness,” Downs said. “I became fascinated with the story.”
The process of making a film about Kent began for Downs in 2018, the 100th anniversary of Kent’s arrival in Alaska. Downs and another local filmmaker, Josiah Martin, traveled to the island and shot several hours of interview footage with Capra, as well as b-roll, for the purpose of making a documentary.
At that point, Downs was intensely familiar with the story, but during the editing process, the documentary didn’t coalesce.
“Beyond just the distractions and roadblocks that hit any artist when they’re working through a project, I just wasn’t getting the emotions and feelings that I got when I was standing there on the island,” Downs said.
Reset and Refocus
Downs said he thought long and hard about what he wanted. The documentary sat for a long time. He questioned how to share the story with a wider audience, how to bring out the emotion and what exactly he wanted to say.
It was the COVID-19 pandemic that changed everything — specifically, Zoom meetings.
“I kept hearing myself introduce myself as Eric from Alaska, aspiring filmmaker,” Downs said. “Those words got ringing in my head, ‘aspiring filmmaker’ and I kept questioning, well, how old am I gonna be? 56-year-old aspiring filmmaker? 86-year-old aspiring filmmaker?”
So he started from scratch, read “The Wilderness,” Rockwell Kent’s published journal about his time in Alaska, and started writing his version of the story. He wrote on the beach in Seward, collaborated with Capra, and eventually he had a script. A script that wasn’t for the documentary he had originally planned, but a script for a narrative.
From that point, the momentum began to build. Downs showed the script to an Anchorage actor named Bradford James Jackson. Jackson was “instantly fascinated” and jumped on board, becoming the lead actor, a producer, and an editor. Opening Jackson’s network of resources became a “huge turning point,” Downs said.
“It just caught fire.”
A team of 15 Alaskan cast and crew members, including Quinton Oliver Smith as director of Photography, set out to the island in August of 2020, only five months after the start of the pandemic put Downs into the Zoom meetings that reignited his flame.
Being on the island, in the wilderness, energized the crew, Downs said.
“They were all so bought into the story; everyone on the team was also on that adventure. We were all chasing that dream of making that art.”
After shooting, the film went into editing and post-production, which Downs said took longer than planned because he and Jackson reedited it a second time to bring more of the emotion out. There too, he showed the film to others who were taken with the story and Downs’ vision, and came aboard the project.
One of the few people not from Alaska who worked on the film was a sound editor named Jeffrey Allen Jones.
“My friend sent me his contact information and I looked at his past credits and I thought ‘why is this guy gonna help? He’s got award-winning films, year after year,’” Downs said. “We sent him the early draft of the film, and he was instantly captivated by our story and the production.”
Downs said that having so many people subscribe to his concept and vision, whether they were actors, film crew, donors — anyone with a hand anywhere near the film — was overwhelming.
“It means everything.”
A calling card and a foundation to build on
The film has been privately screened for cast, crew and donors, and previews were made available to some others, including The Peninsula Clarion for this story, but the film will make its first public appearance on Saturday at Bear Tooth.
“It’s very blessed and grateful to be selected by the Anchorage International Film Festival,” Downs said. “But then we found out that they had selected our screening to be on Saturday, at noon, at the best venue? We were very, very happy.”
After the Anchorage premiere this weekend, Downs hopes to next year take the film around the country.
The film has been submitted to 65 national film festivals around the Lower 48. The festivals are scheduled from February to July, and Downs said he won’t know if he’s selected until a month or two before each.
“It’s kind of a numbers game,” Downs said. “If I get into five of them, I’d be happy.”
Most short films featured in film festivals, Downs said, are 8 to 12 minutes. “A Dreamer’s Search” clocks in close to 30. That will impact the way the film is viewed by the festivals for programming, but Downs said “A Dreamer’s Search” is exactly what he wants it to be.
“From the beginning, I just tried to let the story take the lead,” he said. “At the end of the day, I don’t have any regrets on the length of the film.”
He said that he thinks the film will hold its own because of its original story — most first time filmmakers shoot a comedy in their basement, not a period piece on location in Alaska.
“A Dreamer’s Search” is only the beginning for Downs as a filmmaker and as a presence in what he hopes is a burgeoning local film scene.
“When you talk about Alaska to anyone in the Lower 48, the first thing they bring up is unscripted reality shows or documentaries,” he said. “There’s really a lack of narrative stories that tell these gritty stories from the past — stories that are a little buried under the surface.”
Downs said that he’s actively developing several projects, and that those buried tales of Alaska, specifically those “in danger of being lost” are the most appealing to him.
“My biggest goal is, if making this first film just provides me the opportunity to make one more, that’s really the only thing,” he said. “Inspire some people along the way to chase after their dreams, it’s good enough for me.”
Alongside further creative endeavors, Downs said he wants to be a part of promoting and inspiring a local filmmaking community.
“That’s kind of where I see my biggest value to share with the world, is being able to bridge the gap between business and art,” he said. His background in construction means extensive experience with meetings and proposals, which he combines with a creative mindset.
Bridging the gap and balancing two worlds is something central to Downs as a filmmaker, and something he says is important for the folks in this community.
“Whether you’re 14, whether you’re 44, whether you’re 64, if there’s something buried inside you that’s burning, try to chase after it.”
To that end, Downs said he’s building a framework to establish a community group — maybe not for film specifically, because he said that’s an “artsy term,” but for storytelling, which can come in so many mediums in today’s world.
To remain eligible for film festival consideration, Downs cannot release “A Dreamer’s Search” widely until after its festival runs. Wider availability will come in late 2023 or early 2024, with more information available via the film’s social media presence as soon as it’s available to share. Downs encouraged anyone interested in learning more about the film to reach out via its website or on social media.
Downs said that a couple of local events in Kenai and Seward are also in the works to provide more opportunities to see the film and gather the local community.
Tickets to see the Anchorage International Film Festival debut of “A Dreamer’s Search” can be purchased at beartooththeatre.net or anchoragefilmfestival.org, as part of SHORTS: Made in Alaska 3. Tickets are selected seating.
More information about A Dreamer’s Search can be found at @adreamerssearch on Instagram or adreamerssearch.com. Downs’ filmmaking project as a whole can be found at downstreamfilms.com.
Reach reporter Jake Dye at firstname.lastname@example.org.