Last week, Alison Teal Bleher-Koehn shared a memory of living in the Himalayas and walking over a mountain pass to get to school. This memory grew into her award-winning film, Rita. Read on to hear about how she made this film in the heat of Los Angeles on an $800.00 budget.

….This is the story as I remember it that became my film “Rita,” the winner of Kids Choice Award at the 2007 Telluride MountainFilm…this is how I remember our adventure together and these are the vivid scenes that appear in my mind when I watch the film. It is a mystery to me if this is the story that everyone takes away with them…I will never know. But now you know where it all began.

Since I’m only a twenty-two year old, five-foot tall, female director/writer/traveler, many are in disbelief that I have completed a Himalayan Adventure film that has earned international acclaim. In reality, I’m still in awe that viewers actually believe that it is a Himalayan Adventure—and here is why…I will let you in on a little secret that will hopefully inspire young film makers to pursue their dreams now matter what large obstacles stand in their way—even Mt. Everest. 🙂

Rita and Alison

“You want to make a Children Himalayan Adventure?” My professor said holding back a smirk as he stared at me through tiny spectacles. It was my first day of upper division film production class at the University of Southern California—the alleged best film school in the country—and all of the new film student ‘guinea pigs’ as I called them (since they only take thirty of us every year to mold into perfect Hollywood monarchs so we too can run in endless circles toward that glint of stardom in the distance) peered at each other from behind their shiny laptops as if wearing big signs on their faces that read, “My film will be better then yours” or “Do you know who my dad is?” My professor shuffled through his important looking briefcase and produced a crisp stack of papers. In silence he handed them to each ‘guinea pig.’ I closed my Tupper-wear ‘on the go’ breakfast of a tofu/sprout/hummus sandwich and glanced over the thick packet of bold bullet points:

  • You MUST shoot your film within thirty miles of the University of Southern California (which is located in the heart of Los Angeles).
  • NO dialogue is allowed in your film.
  • ALL sound will be created in a sound stage after the production process—there will be no production sound.
  • The use of children in your film will cost you at least $200 a day for an on set studio teacher and we do not recommend it.
  • You will be given 1,000 feet of 16mm film (about 18 minutes) and their will be NO film replacement for ‘camera error’ i.e. out of focus, improper loading of film, incorrect exposure etc. (keep in mind 90% of the class had never touched a film camera in their life).
  • You are only allowed to work with one other crew member (a cinematographer) all other crew or actors must be volunteer.
  • Your film must be under six minutes
  • You will have four designated WEEKENDS to shoot this film.
  • You must fund this film on your own.

The Professor then walked back to the front of the class, clasped his hand in front of him and said presumptuously, “Are there any questions?” And then before anyone had a chance to raise their hand he lowered his glasses and added, “If anyone attempts to step outside these guidelines they will most likely be expelled from school forever!” I was waiting for him to throw his head back and let out an evil laugh but instead he looked straight at me and then back at the group and cheerily exclaimed “Good Luck”!

Since I am one of those people that is fueled by obstacles, I left class that morning ready to conquer Hollywood. With smoke and mirrors and a tremendous amount of rule breaking—I mean bending—I brought a Children’s Himalayan Adventure to life on the streets of Los Angeles. I have lived life on the edge since I was two months old when my parents skied me up Ausungate, the highest peak in Southern Peru, so I wasn’t about to start coloring inside the lines now.
Thus I put out an open casting call for every child actress in Los Angeles…and the journey began…

Check back next week to read about the making of the film

My lead actress “Rita” is actually a California beauty pageant girl, famous for her recent role in “Little Miss Sunshine” and her family was overjoyed to have her back in front of the camera. She had never seen snow in her life, her nickname was ‘angel,’ her outfit of choice was a frilly pink princess dress and as hard as I tried I could not get her dirty enough—but in the end I transformed her into a rugged Sherpa girl. I then changed my friend’s garage in Venice Beach into a high altitude Himalayan schoolhouse and set up a large yellow expedition tent in a parking lot near school—quite a sight for passer-bys. Because of my tight budget (most students spent $3,000-$20,000 on this film and I only had $800) I gather an amazing group of volunteers to help with makeup, food, camera assistant, stuntmen, studio teachers, editing assistants, sound assistants, B-cameras who somehow trusted me as I dragged them through LA on a wild Himalayan Adventure. The last trick was a hush hush road trip to Mammoth where we found a patch of melting snow with a mountain behind and set up the camera on the highway (continuously moving for passing vehicles) and threw up some prayer flags between trees and voila—the Himalayas!

The list of movie magic goes on and on, yet after a week of editing, two weeks of recreating every sound that happened on screen (down to the actors breathing), and hours of strenuous late nights with my magnificent composer, “Rita” came to life, fooling the most avid Nepal goers including Rita’s family and thousands of viewer world wide. Almost instantly Rita was nominated for an MTV movie award and is now going into a “Best of Fest” DVD Boxed set, to be sold at a store near you. 🙂

In the end, the cheesy message to take away from this ‘impossible’ adventure is that anything is possible if you have no money, too many restrictions and never ending PASSION!

My professor approached me after the premier, took my hand, lowered his glasses, looked me in the eye, and with a lingering tone of disbelief and whispered, “Wow, you did it!”

Thus I have made my own rulebook from my experience:

If you have passion for something….DO IT!

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