On Friday early afternoon, as the light in Seward was already beginning to fade, three of us loaded up into a four wheel drive truck and made the trek to Anchorage. We were headed to the big city to see the premiere of Sugar Mountain at the Beartooth Theatre Pub, which was filmed in Seward in March and April of 2014. Sugar Mountain was chosen to be the gala film at this year’s Anchorage International Film Festival (AIFF), for its Alaska location and genesis. Sugar Mountain went through two other potential locations – Australia and New York State before settling on Seward, when movie director Richard Gray made a trip to Seward while attending a previous AIFF with his movie The Lookalike. Seward’s mountains, water and small town setting provided ideal filming locations for this wilderness drama thriller.
Sugar Mountain is the story of two brothers, Miles, played by Drew Roy and Liam, played by Shane Coffey, who get into debt, lose their family’s boat, played by Seward-based charter boat “Viking,” and devise a scheme to create an Alaskan survival story to sell to the media in order to earn quick cash. The plan is encouraged by Miles’ girlfriend Lauren, played by Haley Webb, who is also the daughter of Sugar Mountain’s police chief, played by Cary Elwes. Motives and outcomes twist around and loop back on one another, making for an evenly paced and well acted film. The town of Seward serves as its own character, as Resurrection Bay, the Kenai Mountains and buildings around town regularly appear in the movie.
Friday night we arrived to the Beartooth in time to check in with Rebecca Pottebaum, AIFF’s festival director. Rebecca has been involved with the festival for three years and lives in Homer. She says that one of the joys of AIFF is its uniquely Alaskan personality, where “anything goes” in terms of opening night attire. “You’ll see snow boots and fine furs next to one another,” as well as the warm and welcoming hospitality of Alaskans.” She was right, we did see varying levels of attire, but since the outside temperature was in the single digits, everyone entered wearing heavy coats, and most movie-goers were wearing heavy winter boots. Rebecca connected me with actors Drew Roy & Haley Webb, who were eager to share their joy of having gotten to film in Seward.
Roy & Webb echoed each other in saying that one of the biggest appeals of being cast in the film was its location in Alaska, somewhere that they had long desired to travel. When offered the chance to spend six weeks on site, they jumped at the opportunity. Webb explained that her transition time between being cast and arriving in Seward was quick. “I auditioned and two days later I was on a plane to Alaska.” Later, she added that during those two days she’d cut her hair for the role, per director Richard Gray’s request that her character look more mysterious. “I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful Alaska was,” Webb gushed. Once they arrived in Seward, the cast and crew lived in various lodgings around town, enjoyed exploring downtown by foot and delighted in opportunities to get out on the water. “There’s so much daylight that time of year,” said Roy, which he went on to explain allowed the crew to film late into the evening and sometimes miss closing time at local restaurants.
The two actors raved about Seward, the beauty of Alaska and their gratitude for how Sugar Mountain brought them to Seward to film and now its premiere has brought them to Alaska again. I asked them whether anything about Alaska surprised them, and they spoke of Seward’s “tight-knit community” and how Alaskans are open and genuine people who take pride in being Alaskan. The two headline actors appreciated the opportunity to view their daily film takes “dailies” at the end of each day, inside Tony’s Bar, or the Yukon. The actors explained that shooting a movie involves being in a “weird state of limbo,” but that watching the dailies makes the process more encouraging, especially in a local bar, surrounded by Alaskans. I thanked the actors for their time and enthusiasm and made my way to my seat, ready to listen to the opening music.
Blackwater Railroad company, led by Tyson Davis played a set of three of their songs that are part of the film score, including “Sugar Mountain” to the Beartooth’s sold out crowd. “Pretty Eyes for a Snake,” with Isaac London jamming out percussion was an apt introduction to the film and provided proof of film director Richard Gray’s dedication to providing authenticity in his filming choices. Davis expressed his gratitude for the experience “it was a life changing experience to be in the film.”
The opening sequence of Sugar Mountain was a visual of what life can be like in Seward, the kind of potential that captured my heart and drew me to live in Seward year round. The opening scene was shot on the back bowl of Mount Marathon, a location that Drew had explained to me took two hours of hiking with gear to reach, and one of his favorite filming locations. Next up was the Viking cruising through Resurrection Bay, followed by the beauty of Seward’s boat harbor. The final introductory scene was of the film characters entering the Pit Bar, to cheers from the audience at the Beartooth. Easily recognizable places around Seward continue to make appearances throughout the film, such as the Police Station, Miller’s Landing and many others. When the film ended, Haley Webb and Drew Roy took the stage for a Q & A, again offering gratitude to the town of Seward, the many people who enriched the film and their lives and, especially, for Exit Glacier Guides, who shot many of the scenes and assisted the cast and crew with getting to backcountry filming locations. The Beartooth was peppered with Sewardites who had made the trek to Anchorage to view the film and we cheered loudly.
Sugar Mountain was the last film shot under the Alaska Tax Incentive Program, and provided a stellar opportunity for the town of Seward to appear on the big screen, and to display our many assets, including Blackwater Railroad Company. It still remains to be seen whether the tax incentive program will return or whether more films will be shot in Alaska even without the program. There has been talk of getting Sugar Mountain to Seward, and earlier hopes that it would have premiered in Seward. It’s scheduled to open in lower 48 theaters, on iTunes and on demand on December 9th. It’s still possible that it may be one of our movies at next Friday’s Skip & Marie Movie Series at the Rae Building. Stay tuned to their Facebook page for updates. https://www.facebook.com/groups/sewardalaskamovies/