Boy meets girl. Boy gets kidnapped by militants in Colombia. Girl cheats with boy's best friend. Boy is released and goes with girl and best friend on a diving trip in Miami. Things go wrong.
If it sounds like an only-in-Miami story, that's because it is; El Empantanado (The Muddy) is the first film by Miami filmmakers Maggie Drayton and Felipe Echavarria. It was shot almost entirely in South Florida with South Florida crews and is one of 10 projects to be selected for this year's Independent Filmmaker Project's Filmmaker Lab program.
The labs, which connect filmmakers with seasoned mentors in the film industry, can be the difference between a film reaching a wide audience and being forgotten amidst the glut of the hundreds of independent features made each year.
The pair, who recently graduated from the University of Miami's filmmaking MFA program, started work on the film three years ago with two goals in mind: "We wanted to go against the cliche ways the Colombian community is portrayed in the media," Echavarria says. "As well as South Florida," Drayton adds.
And given that they are first-time filmmakers, they needed to make the most of their resources. "One of the resources was the landscape," Echavarria says. "South Florida has this amazing landscape that isn't really being portrayed in the media. With CSI and Dexter, it's all about the city and violence and drugs. Nobody is talking about the non-party aspect or the nature.
"So that was what led us to find the concept in which the film was going to live. And then, I am Colombian and I decided I'm going to tell a story that holds true to my roots but doesn't depend on violence to connect to that. I knew I wasn't going to talk about drugs or about an immigrant who was coming in illegally to the United States. I wanted to show a different aspect of the Colombians who have assimilated into a culture."
What resulted is the story of two best friends, one American and one Colombian, not unlike Drayton and Echavarria. Though Echavarria says, "I should note that unlike the characters in the film, we haven't tried to kill each other or sleep with the same person."
Drayton and Echavarria now estimate the film as being 85 percent complete, with another sequence to be shot each in Colombia and South Florida in the coming months. Their aim is to finish El Empantanado by September and submit for the major film festivals taking place in early 2013.
But no matter where the film goes from here, it will remain very much of South Florida.
"It was an exciting place shoot," Drayton says. "We shot for almost 30 straight through and we all became a real team. Because we weren't in New York or LA, people aren't jaded here in the industry. They want to work on good projects. If you want to shoot at a place in LA, they just tell you the rates. Here, they want to know the story and they want to be involved."
Drayton and Echavarria also credit the University of Miami for connecting them to the filmmaking community in South Florida, where they were able to source their crew. And at the Miami Film and Media Market, they met their eventual executive producer, Petroglyph and CineVideoTech, who invested in the film by providing equipment. "They gave us what we needed to shoot a film that is competitive with big budget films being shot around the country," Drayton says.
Most of the film was shot on Broad Key and at the Gilbert Resort in Key Largo, both of which doubled for several other locations in the film. In exchange for Drayton and Echavarria shooting a PSA for them, the Shake A Leg marina in Coconut Grove gave the film boat support throughout the film. "They helped us with marina space, transport, with boat captains. They were our saviors," Echavarria says. "Grove Scuba gave us all our SCUBA support for the film and John Ellis, a boat captain from St. Augustine was a huge trooper in making himself and his vessel available for shoots amidst all our schedule changes from the hurricane and otherwise."
About that hurricane. As hospitable as South Florida was, Hurricane Irene forced the production to abandon its set on Broad Key. But for every setback like that, South Florida provided opportunities that the production couldn't have found anywhere else.
"South Florida has a really big chance of developing a film industry, a real film industry," Echavarria says. "We have to be smart about it and build it from the ground up. We need to be not only a place where people go to shoot but to make our own identity in the films we are producing."
Drayton agrees. "Not just to develop an identity for South Florida but to preserve the content coming out of South Florida. We wanted to be an art film not just for us as artists but for our area."
But the IFP film labs are in New York City, from which Drayton and Echavarria just returned from the first of many trips they'll be taking there this year. And the pair freely acknowledges that it can be far easier to make and finance a film in Los Angeles than Miami, even with the tax credits they qualified for and all of the partners they acquired.
"I think that South Florida has been really nice to us and we want to keep working here," Echavarria says. "We are willing to put a lot out from ourselves to make it happen but we also need to have the industry to work with us. If I finish my next script and no one here is willing to do it but someone else is saying, 'Come here,' I can't be naive and say, 'No, I'm only doing it in Miami for the Miami film industry.'"
In the meantime, as Drayton and Echavarria take the lessons learned from the first IFP lab into their last period of shooting, they're doing a lot of taking stock.
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"We're a really small gang," Drayton says. "We want to be but we also have a really limited budget. We engage friends but if I'm not paying the rent, it becomes hard and they can only give you so much time. We're afraid of maxing out all of our friends. They've given so much to the project."
"It can be overwhelming," Echavarria admits. "But with the IFP, they do this all the time and they're saying that we have a chance. It's a sign that we're on the right path."
For more information, visit elempantanado.com. As the film isn't yet complete, Maggie and Felipe are still looking for people to help them with the project. They can be contacted through their website.