There is a scene in “The Trail” where the main character, Amelia, plays a piano in the middle of a snowy forest. It’s a strange and haunting shot, intriguing in its contrast between the symbol of civilization and the beautiful yet harsh surrounding wilderness.
The scene is representative of much of the film, from external physical challenges to the internal struggle and development of the protagonist.
“The main concept was to fortify the survival genre,” said director and writer William Parker. “Every (similar) movie has been male focused, … so I thought, how can we reimagine the survival story with a female character?”
“The Trail” pits Amelia, a young pioneer woman, against the harsh realities of life along the Oregon Trail during the 1840s. When disaster strikes, Amelia is left on her own in the wilderness and must find within herself the desire and strength to survive.
It was the concept of the strong pioneer woman that drew lead actress Jasmin Jandreau to the role.
“I was honestly praying for a part like this,” she said. She has a passion for historical film and period pieces, which she’s had difficulty finding in Los Angeles.
“That’s why it was literally sent from heaven,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that I found such an amazing pioneer 1840s American historic film that was independently made.”
She immediately set up an audition and afterward nervously awaited the results.
“We saw 150 girls,” said Parker of the casting process. “She was literally the second-to-last one to come in, and it was just a no-brainer.”
Two weeks later, Jandreau was on set and filming. Already a fan of the “Little House on the Prairie” books, she drew on Laura Ingalls Wilder for inspiration in portraying a tough pioneer woman.
The film’s set itself provided insight — it was shot in the same mountains where the ill-fated Donner Party perished.
“It’s such a rugged, harsh landscape that we thought it would be the perfect location,” Parker said. “It makes the story more real, a connection to the past.”
Weather played a challenging role in the filming, he added. In the script, snow doesn’t appear until the second half of the film, whereas in real life, snow fell often and without warning.
The physical challenge of filming in the elements helped Jandreau to identify even further with her character as she cut her feet while walking barefoot in the snow and her lips turned blue while filming a scene in a river.
“It was intense,” she said, but her laughter as she described the freezing water and icy snow revealed her that her enthusiasm for the film, its subject and her character, made the discomfort worth it.
Jandreau particularly fell in love with Amelia and her transformation.
“This person, this girl, is so special, because I felt like in the beginning she’s very meek,” Jandreau said, referring to Amelia’s controlling husband and the norms of society at that time. “A woman’s part there is very meek, very quiet, and you can absolutely see that in the beginning. She’s a mouse. … I love that arc of her, as an actor you love that. She gets a little more wild, more primal; she becomes a fighter and you see that at the end, that she woke up and she’s aware of herself, and she sees how much power and self-worth that she has afterward.”
Parker, who wrote the story, said it wasn’t difficult for him to create a strong central female character. As a native of Southern California, he grew up learning about the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush and the history of the West. When he started writing, he researched firsthand accounts of women traveling west in covered wagons.
“I just borrowed upon their experiences. I tried as best as possible to put myself in the mind-set of that,” he said. Imagining the struggles in the wilderness wasn’t hard either. “To be honest, I’m not an adventure man. I would experience some of the same experiences that Amelia would,” he said. “I think Amelia’s experiences mirror (what a man’s experience would be). It transcends gender.”
Breckenridge marks the world premiere of “The Trail,” which will make the rounds at other festivals this year, including the Raindance Festival in London. The film was also awarded the Breck “Best Of” award for the spiritual category. The honor was an unexpected and “amazing” surprise, Parker said. “The Trail” is his first film.
Spirituality is an important aspect of the story line, as Amelia not only struggles against the harshness of the wilderness but her own faith.
“There’s a gap between ritual and faith, and we explore that,” Parker said. “She’s very ritual oriented — she goes to church, she reads the Bible, … but through the movie she kind of gives up on it.”
Amelia struggles with loss of faith, feeling she’s been abandoned by God and is completely on her own, Parker said. Then she is transformed by her experiences, and Jandreau offered her explanation of the result.
“In the end, she realizes that not only does she actually find her faith, she actually really believes, genuinely, ‘This is what I was looking for,’” she said. “She realizes, through another connection in the film that comes along, that God was with her the whole time, and God was communicating with her the whole time.”
The film is filled with symbolic moments, but Parker’s favorite is a simple one.
“We used her hair to represent her letting go and being open to new ideas,” he said. “So there’s a point where she takes it down and enjoys the beauty that’s around her, and didn’t notice until this point.”
“The Trail” will be shown among the other “Best Of” selections today at the Colorado Mountain College campus in Breckenridge.