Gabrielle Demeestere’s debut, ‘Yosemite,’ premieres at Slamdance | ParkRecord.com

Gabrielle Demeestere’s debut, ‘Yosemite,’ premieres at Slamdance

Gabrielle Demeestere’s feature debut,"Yosemite," is a lyrical piece of filmmaking.

The film, which had its world-premiere screening at Slamdance on Thursday afternoon, follows three fifth-grade classmates — Chris, Joe and Ted — who all struggle with their own situations involving loss.

The intensity of their lives is magnified by cougar sightings in their Palo Alto neighborhood.

Chris’s father, played by producer James Franco, is a recovering alcoholic who takes Chris and his little brother to Yosemite National Park for a hike.

Chris struggles with his feelings regarding his parents’ divorce and having to look out for his little brother.

Joe, on the other hand, is more of a loner and finds a father figure in Henry, a man in his early 20s who likes comic books.

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Then there’s Ted, who can be a bully, but cares deeply for a tabby cat names Charlie. While he has a father — who suffers from insomnia — his dilemma surrounds how he treats Joe.

The film is based on three short stories written by Franco, and he wanted to give Demeestere, who was his classmate at NYU’s film school, a chance to make her own film.

"She is very smart," Franco told a sold-out audience after the screening at Treasure Mountain Inn. "Before NYU, she went to many of the top schools in the country and studied literature and I felt she had a really good sense of story."

Franco found he and Demeestere shared ideas about aesthetics and tastes.

"I saw in a lot of her films [while we were at school] that she often used younger characters," Franco said. "I had these stories and thought Gab had the right sensibilities for them."

Unlike some writers, Franco doesn’t worry about how his tales will translate to film.

"When I give someone [like Demeestere] my stories, I know film is a different medium that writing," he said. "I tried to give her as much freedom as possible. I gave her carte blanche to do what she wanted to do and did everything I wanted to do to help. In fact, the only comment I’ll give is to make it a better movie, but not to make it more in line in what I did in the story."

Demeestere didn’t have to really stretch her imagination to visualize what the characters, scenery and tensions were going to be.

"I think a lot of the visual details come from the stories," she said. "There was already a feeling in the stories that you fear what might happen. I had to take the text and dramatize it, so that it would work as a film.

"I didn’t do much, except write the third part [of the film], because I wanted it to be a full feature and have an arc in the film," she said. "I added the mountain lion framework and added other elements to set up the drama basically."

The mountain lion was actually in another story, Franco said.

"One of the things Gab was good about was using these three stories and she did a great job having them build on each other," he said. "That sense of danger helps keep the tension throughout.

"One of the things she did when working on the draft was to decide how much tension to bring in and how much to leave outside," Franco said. "We talked about how to make it feel dangerous, and she did a great job."

"It’s not about something super dramatic happening, but more about the fears you have as a child," Demeestere said.

The biggest difficulty was working with children on a tight schedule and budget.

"We had very short days and had to move fast," Demeestere said. "One of the things I learned from James was to be fearless. I leaned to just shoot and go and work on instinct."

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