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Capturing the Northwest

Lake Oswego and West Linn filmmakers premiere their first feature-length film, 'Last September'
by: Vern Uyetake, From left to right, Kasey McCabe, Drew Fletcher, Chapin Hemmingway and Tyson Balcomb huddle around the computers used to edit their latest film. Their production company, Exterior Films, just released the feature-length film “Last September,” and Fletcher stars as lead actor.

The lights dimmed. Screen illuminated. Credits rolled. And three longtime friends leaned back in their chairs at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland.

With a love for cinema and the Northwest as their backdrop, the group sat surrounded by family and friends on a recent Sunday at the screening of their first full-length feature film.

'We're not just some friends playing around with a camera,' Chapin Hemmingway said. 'It's a movie.'

Local filmmakers Hemmingway (writer/producer) and Kasey McCabe (producer) of Lake Oswego, and Tyson Balcomb (writer/producer) of West Linn, watched their finished product titled 'Last September,' which was a year and a half in the making.

With a passion for filmmaking, they created their own company, Exterior Films, as a way to showcase their talent and dedication to the art.

While their two previous short films - 'Camouflage' (2005) and 'The Ranch' (2006) - served as learning experiences, they challenged themselves with their latest project, which not only had a longer running time but also a larger budget of $14,000.

Originally meant to be two separate short films, 'Last September' turned into a collaborative writing project. Balcomb, 23, asked Hemmingway, 23, if he would be willing to write the script together. The two agreed to certain guidelines and started writing the film in September of 2006. They wrote two different versions of the same story and merged them together in June.

'Last September' is a story about a young man whose mother dies. At the wake, his estranged best friend shows up and convinces him to embark on a trip and is forced to overcome his loss after they get stuck in a dangerous situation.

Balcomb said the story has a real-life connection, since the main character, Mitchell, is based on their childhood friend.

'We laugh about this, but I think the main character has a lot of the qualities that we would at least like to identify in ourselves,' Balcomb said.

Meanwhile, with the writing process under way, McCabe, 23, spent the month of March auditioning 10 actors and scouting locations.

The film was shot in 12 days in Portland and further north on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands - a special place where Hemmingway and Balcomb had gone to summer camp together.

McCabe said they wrote the story with these locations in mind. They utilized places they knew they had access to, such as filming the wake in Balcomb's grandparent's living room, which overlooks the Willamette River in West Linn.

Surrounded by friends who were committed to the same overall vision, the group was able to push each other to get the job done.

'When we're shooting, we demand a lot more of people than I think we would if we weren't friends with them,' Hemmingway said. 'We don't pay people - we don't have any money to pay people - and we're asking them to work 18 hours a day.'

'In miserable conditions,' Balcomb interjected.

'Swimming in completely cold water,' Hemmingway added. 'It's hard to say, 'OK, I don't really know you, and you don't really know me. And you don't know what we're doing, so come work with us for basically 70 hours a week.'

'For no pay,' Balcomb said.

'So it helps if (the actors and crew) are friends of ours,' Hemmingway said. 'We can ask them to buck-up and do what they have to do.'

Drew Fletcher, of Lake Oswego and a Dartmouth graduate, acted in one of their previous films but did not get any special treatment during auditions, even though he has known McCabe since preschool.

'I definitely had to audition as if I were just another individual,' he said. 'I think the job these guys have done - in terms of both including people we know and allowing for there to be an extra level because we're all friends and know each other - doesn't necessarily affect the product because it's done in a very professional way.'

As a lead actor, Fletcher, 22, appreciated the dynamic of working with his friends on set.

'From the acting standpoint, it can be difficult to become somebody else or adopt a persona that's really different,' he said. 'And sometimes it's really nice to work with friends and know the people behind the camera that are giving you direction. You can kind of take your ego out of it and know that they're just trying to help you excel and perform.'

'That's not to say that it doesn't have its drawbacks though,' Balcomb added. 'It was a pretty interesting experience at times because when you're really close to somebody and you spend all that time with them, it's easy to get in enormous fights over the smallest things.'

After taking a week off after filming, they spent five weeks glued to their MacBook Pro laptops and edited their footage using Final Cut Pro software. Hemmingway said they have a unique edge - being young filmmakers from Portland - and have formed relationships with a local production house and musicians that make a movie like 'Last September' possible.

Their enthusiasm, dedication, and talent enhances not only their friendship, but also their working relationship.

They decided to form Exterior Films while in New Zealand in 2005. Balcomb and McCabe accompanied Hemmingway down under to visit his parents, who were living there at the time. They also visited the locations where the 'Lord of the Rings' movies were filmed.

At the time, Hemmingway was working on a script for a college film class and inspired the name of their company.

'Every shot in that script was exterior - entirely shot outside. So we thought 'Exterior Films.' It has an outdoor, Northwest vibe - something to do with the environment and nature.'

Balcomb interned as a locations assistant on the set of the ABC show 'Lost.' McCabe was involved in the production of 'Man Maid,' a feature film shot in Eastern Oregon. Hemmingway is currently a production assistant on the independent film 'Miss Misery,' filming in Los Angeles.

'Last September' was different than these Hollywood, big-budget efforts. They had a crew of seven people and only two chances to pull off a scene on a public ferry in the San Juan Islands.

The day after they finished shooting the film, Fletcher drove down to Eugene to start his first term of law school at the University of Oregon.

Exterior Films hopes to share the Northwest through the trio's lens, because they grew up here and want to promote it in the best light possible.

'We've fallen in love with this place,' Balcomb said.

Hemmingway graduated from Emerson College in Boston with a film degree and currently lives in Los Angeles, gaining more experience in the field. With Balcomb, a visual arts major at Seattle University, and McCabe, obtaining a degree in film studies at Oregon State University, the group members hope to gain separate experiences to become well-rounded and established filmmakers in the Northwest.

'It's always been our goal,' Hemmingway said. 'We're trying to get enough experience between all of us and build something here.'

For more information on Exterior Films and to watch the trailer for 'Last September,' visit www.exterior-films.com .