Growing up in Troy in the 1980s, Steve Kopera remembers going to see the big box office smash hits such as Star Wars and ET and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was hooked by the blockbusters and these movies reached out from the big screen and grabbed Kopera by the heart. He was all in.
“Going to the movie theater was an exciting, enchanting experience, even if it was just a shoebox-size screening room buried deep in Oakland Mall,” says Kopera. “I knew from an early age that filmmaking was my passion.”
His passion and film “Boyne Falls” will be on the big screen at Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak on April 18 in the Michigan film’s debut screening.
Kopera, 43, who moved to Ann Arbor in 2001, has come a long way since he grabbed his dad’s new camcorder and began making movies as a kid.
“I was that kid who would recruit his friends to star in homemade movies, mimicking the blockbusters,” says Kopera, who graduated from Brother Rice in 1992. “I can’t claim those old homemade movies signaled any burgeoning skill or talent, but they did spark a genuine interest in the art of filmmaking.”
That interest never waned, even after he graduated from Northwestern University in 1996 with a “totally un-used degree” in Environmental Science.
“After graduating college, I moved to Los Angeles to learn filmmaking from the ground up,” he said. “I worked as a production assistant (for free) on several low-budget indie’s and slowly learned how to write, direct and produce my own projects.”
Kopera moved back to Michigan in the early 2000s, got married and started a family in Ann Arbor. “After working at Warner Bros for a few years, my career just wasn’t moving in the direction that I was hoping. I figured that I’d have more freedom and support to pursue filmmaking in my home state. I’ve loved my time in Ann Arbor and have no plans of leaving. My kids love their school, and we love the neighborhood. We’ve got wonderful friends here, and despite the weather, the summer almost makes me forget about all the cold months. Almost.
“With a family and all the usual responsibilities, I simply can’t churn out movies very often,” he says. “Yet, each one increases in scope and success.”
His movie before “Boyne Falls,” “The Cabining,” aired on TV on Encore throughout 2014 and 2015 and was available on demand on all the major cable/satellite outlets. He also created several short films, “My Friend Peter,” “Friendlies,” and “Unfriendlies,” which all screened at several festivals across the country.
The biggest challenge, Kopera says, making a movie is money.
“The money required to produce a movie remains the single biggest barrier to entry in this field,” says Kopera. “Yet, an equally big challenge is patience. It takes several years to properly complete a low-budget feature. The screenwriting process alone could be several months. The production phase tends to wrap up quickly in comparison to everything else. Post-production (editing, color correction, sound design) can take a year. So, patience is a must.”
That patience has paid off with “Boyne Falls,” filmed with a Michigan-based crew and set in beautiful northern Michigan with shoots in Boyne Falls, Boyne City, Traverse City, and Tahquamenon Falls. The story follows two record executives who travel to a remote wilderness for a work retreat. Hoping to revive both their careers and their friendship, they stumble upon a hidden criminal operation. While hunted, the two men must find a way to work together to survive.
“I wrote Boyne Falls as a character drama about feuding friends but disguised it as an action movie,” says Kopera. “Knowing I have to live with these stories for years before they’re completed films, the story must be one I find interesting and rewarding for a long duration.
“At its core, the story focuses on two men who used to be close friends. Over time, their lives and personalities diverge. In the extreme circumstances of the movie, the former friends must learn to work together once again … or die.”
Kopera’s brother, Mike (Los Angeles), and Axel Harney (Whitmore Lake) play the two leads in the film. Supporting actors Juan Monsalvez, Brooke Heatley, Jackson Thompson, and Jeneta St. Clair are all LA-based actors. Also in the film are Michigan actors Tevis Marcum and Peter M. Howard.
Ann Arbor’s Kaye Hoff sings the end credits song in the film.
Kopera says he’s most proud of the action.
“Prior to production, I studied several action films to see how the directors shot a fight scene, a chase, a gun fight,” he says. “So, coming in as a total rookie in action, I think we pulled off some exciting, tense sequences.
“But what makes me most proud isn’t the movie itself – it’s the fact that the cast and the crew worked so well together and enjoyed themselves despite grueling days. Filmmaking is an incredibly collaborative process, and everybody, especially on low-budget productions, wears several hats. This group, who largely were strangers at the beginning, became a family.”
One of those “family members” was the sound man and person behind the movie’s soundtrack, Steve Sholtes (Grosse Ile), who enjoyed the way Kopera works and interacts with cast and crew.
“Working the set with Steve was great,” said Sholtes. “The days are always well thought out in advance. He doesn’t push his crew to the point of exhaustion and he’s always open to fresh ideas from everyone. His films always feel like a collaboration rather than just a job.”
And filming in Northern Michigan was an incredible opportunity and experience for everyone – especially the filmmaker.
“Shooting on a cliff overlooking Tahquamenon Falls is not something I’d ever recommend, but the majesty of that waterfall proved too stunning to pass up,” Kopera said. “Mike and Axel, in addition to working as the lead actors, also produced the project and provided awesome suggestions on how to get coverage of the Tahquamenon scene. We used every camera in our arsenal.”
While Boyne Falls was in the hands of the editor and sound design team, Kopera had time to write a new script.
“Like Boyne Falls, it’s an action movie, but it’s much larger in scope,” he said. “The story centers on a resourceful orphan girl surviving a dystopian wilderness.”
What: Debut Screening of “Boyne Falls,” written and directed by filmmaker Steve Kopera (Troy, Brother Rice HS)
Where: Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak
When: April 18, 7:30 p.m.
For more information on the movie: http://www.boynefallsmovie.com/