Virginia film Mount Skylight, originally a short, is expanding to feature length with help from Winchester’s Magic Lantern Theater. The chilling film tells a story of four hikers who encounter a seemingly empty town in the Shenandoahs.
Fans of the suspenseful, Virginia-based short film Mount Skylight are in for some positive news: the short is being expanded into a feature-length film for public distribution.
Ryan Cudahy, the lead producer of the film, said that the production team received a grant from Magic Lantern Theater in Winchester, Virginia to expand their short film into a feature-length one. According to the theater’s grant webpage, grants of up to $2,000 can be awarded to filmmakers based in the Winchester area that plan to have that area as a main part of the film’s focus.
“They really value people who want to benefit the area through filmmaking, and that’s what we are doing,” Cudahy said.
Mount Skylight was originally filmed in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. With the grant, the expanded film will also be located in the area. The production team plans to film in Winchester and the surrounding counties, as well as in the nearby Shenandoah National Park. They also plan to reach out to nearby Shenandoah University to bring aspiring filmmakers on board the production team as production assistants.
“People say that you have to make films in places like New York or Los Angeles if you want it to be successful, but I want to believe that’s not the case,” Cudahy said. “There’s so much untapped potential and film opportunity here. There are a lot of people who are very talented in the film industry that care about Virginia as a state, and really enjoy working here.”
The plot of Mount Skylight centers around four hikers who come back to town to find everyone missing under mysterious circumstances. Underlying the plot is the hikers’ shared connection as recovering addicts with various addictions. The film focuses on the way they work together through both the physical and mental obstacles in their way.
The initial concept came from film composer and co-writer Tristan Schuler, who was inspired by coming back from a two-day backpacking trip in upstate New York with his father to a town that was seemingly empty. Addiction was not originally part of the plot, but eventually it worked its way into the story as the writing team sought ways to make the characters more relatable and have deeper backstories.
“We wanted all the characters to have a reason to be together, and wanted the movie to be more than just a survival story,” Schuler said.
Cudahy added that addiction is a theme that everyone can connect with, either personally or through someone they know.
“We have family and friends that struggle seriously with addiction,” Cudahy said. “We wanted to portray that struggle they have. Mount Skylight is as much a character study as it is a thriller, and the audience follows the characters and feels for them in their struggles.”
Because of its themes of addiction, ten percent of the film’s earnings will go to the Winchester Rehabilitation Center.
Compared to blockbuster films that focus on action, both the short and feature-length versions of Mount Skylight are more character-driven. The production team wanted to tell the stories about the characters and have the audience focus more on their reactions to the circumstances of the film, not just on the circumstances alone.
Director and co-writer Taylor McNelis said that by extending the short to a feature-length film, they will be better able to accomplish that goal, having more screen time to delve deeper into the characters and their backstories.
“We wanted to develop characters that the audience truly cared about,” McNelis said. “That’s why we’re excited to develop the short into a feature. We can expand on the characters.”
To help with that character expansion, McNelis wrote in-depth biographies of each character and sent them to the cast to read. While not all aspects of the character biographies will be used in the film, he still wanted them to have the information so they could better understand the roles they are playing.
The writing team had a feature-length story in mind when they were first developing Mount Skylight, but had to condense the story down to a short due to lack of funding, said Schuler. To Schuler, the short is more of a teaser for the feature-length version, leaving hints to the more complete story that they’re wanting to tell.
However, for fans of the short film that are hoping to have all their questions answered in the feature-length film, they might be slightly disappointed to learn that not all of them will be. Some questions are deliberately unanswered and left open for interpretation.
“I always enjoy movies that make you think and want to discuss at the end,” Schuler said. “I wanted to do something similar. With the hint dropping, the movie is not supposed to be about what happened but what you would do in this situation. It is an interesting situation, but it’s more important to survive with these characters than figure out what’s going on.”
Mount Skylight is planned to begin production in August 2020. If all goes well, the plan is to have the film ready by October 2021 for the festival circuit and general audience distribution. In the meantime, for those wanting to support the film, the production team will be continuously fundraising, accepting donations and listening to audience feedback for ideas on how to improve their story in the feature-length version. Their plan is to tour 35 Virginia cities to get feedback and to fundraise. Most recently, they held a fundraiser at Vasen Brewing Company in Richmond on Nov. 13.
“I want local Virginians to see it and be proud of it and see such a good film shot in their home state,” Cudahy said. “But just a home film won’t do it justice. Not everyone knows how great Virginia is. We want to demonstrate how great Virginia is to the nation and to the world.”
Top Photo courtesy Mount Skylight