Emilio Torres and local residents cast as extras at the Cape Fox Lodge.

Emilio Miguel Torres grew up in Ketchikan. In 2021, while he was a film student at NYU, Torres returned to Ketchikan to direct a short sci-fi film called The Ladder. Now, two years later, he is here again to turn The Ladder into a crowdfunded, full-length feature film. The crew wrapped production on 10/22 at the Cape Fox Lodge. KRBD’s Jack Darrell sat down with Torres to find out what it was like to write and direct his feature film debut in the city where he grew up.

Can you give us an idea of the film and what it’s about?

So, the film is called The Ladder. It’s a family drama and sci-fi film that takes place in Ketchikan. It is about an aging Alaskan fisherman named Arthur who is sort of in the twilight of his life. He’s actually struggling to fish because his body is kind of failing him. In the opening sequence of the film, we learned that he can’t really fish anymore, and people are encouraging him to sell his boat. We also learned that his wife has passed away, so he doesn’t have that connection in his life. We also find out that his son has basically grown up and lives in New York City, and they have an estranged relationship. All of this is happening, and pretty much his only buddy in the world is his friend named Joe.

One day, they go to this conference that they get invited to and there they find out that this biotechnology company called Actilife has invented a procedure called “the fresh start,” where people can transplant their memories into a synthetically made body and basically get to restart their life. At this conference, he finds out that his friend Joe is going to do the procedure. So, the whole film focuses on whether or not Arthur wants to restart his life. 

We explore more of his relationship with Joe, we learn more about his relationship with his son, and we get to know more about Arthur and all the reasons why he might want to get that second chance and maybe the potential impacts and consequences of doing that fresh start. 

This is a fresh take on an age-old sci-fi question, right? I’m thinking of The Twilight Zone and Being John Malkovich – the question of if a technology can truly allow us to cheat death. What inspired you to approach such an ambitious topic as your debut film?

Well, it’s funny, because I think a lot of the stories that I want to tell are basically pretty grounded drama films. And that tends to be the type of films that I’m drawn to. I never necessarily dreamed of being specifically a sci-fi director. 

How it started was I grew up in Ketchikan and I got my first camera when I was 10 years old, a little flip camera. I went by Emo when I was a kid. People knew that Emo was the kid with a little video camera going around. I used to say, ‘I’m going to be a film director one day.’

When I was little, I watched The Proposal – the comedy movie with Sandra Bullock – and that film takes place in Sitka, but they got two establishing shots in Sitka, and the actual film was produced in Massachusetts or something. And I remember when I was a kid, I was like, ‘If you’re going to make an Alaska film, you got to make it in Alaska!’

So, I knew I wanted to make a film here. At the time, I was in film school, and it was the first time where I was in New York, living on my own. And then I came back and visited my parents. For the first time, I was an adult, and they were still my parents, but things were different. Because I wasn’t living under their roof. I’m not their kid, necessarily but I’m still their son. Just kind of realizing how our family dynamics were changing as I grew older. I thought that was really interesting. And I typically think family is a basis for a lot of the things I want to explore in my films. So, I kind of was like, ‘Okay, I want to make some sort of story that’s in Ketchikan. And it’s about this father and the son and sort of start building from there.’ 

And really, there was no kind of sci-fi premise until I started thinking about the fact that I want it to be a coming-of-age movie for this father. Normally, when people think of coming-of-age movies, they think of like a boy becoming a man. I thought it’d be much more interesting to do a man accepting his old age and this new this final chapter of his life.

One of the screenwriting tips they always say is: “Think of what your protagonist wants, and just completely blindside it.”

So, I thought, ‘I’m going to give this character exactly what he wants and try to find a reason why maybe that’s not really what he needs to do.’ So, I started doing all those things and the sci-fi element just became a narrative tool to explore those things.

What was interesting is I wrote a short film that we produced in Ketchikan in 2021 and then I wrote the feature film, and there are themes in the feature film regarding the sci-fi aspects that I think are really applicable to real world things going on right now. I think in the film, and I hope audiences see this, that there’s this conflict between this small town and this new technology that is changing everything. I feel like this past year has been the year where people are talking about AI and cryptocurrency and all these new technologies that are overwhelming and we’re all just being forced to adjust to them. And I think in my movie that this new procedure is just another new technology that everyone’s having to process and deal with. Of course, it’s a lot more mystical than AI. But I think a lot of the conversations I write in my film about people interacting with this technology, without even meaning to be connecting with this whole idea right now that I just think like, technology is outpacing us, and we’re trying to find meaning in a world that is constantly changing. And so really, I think, the film has a lot of themes in it.

But really at its core, it’s just about how do a father and son navigate their relationships changing as they get older, but also how they navigate what their life means in a world that is changing around them.

I met your father on set yesterday. What was it like having your parents as employees on set?

It’s kind of crazy. If you’ve seen the short film, this is something in the short film, there’s this whole kind of rhythm in the film where the father Arthur tries to call his son Ryan. And every time Ryan picks up, he’s always busy, or he’s caught up with something. So, he can’t talk to his dad. And that becomes his point of conflict. It’s funny, because while making this movie my parents would call me because they just want to check in and I’m just so busy that I’m like, ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t talk right now.’ And it was like living this weird “cat’s cradle,” surreal thing! I’m making this movie and I’m experiencing it in real life.

But you know, really if anyone who knows me watches my movie, you may think that I have this conflict with my parents. But you know, it’s not like that. My parents are just the most wonderful, supportive people. My siblings and I grew up here in Ketchikan and I feel like we really kind of were raised to believe that we could do anything we put our mind to. So, my parents have always really supported me in pursuing films since I was 10 years old. They wanted to support me in making movies, and they’ve been my biggest supporter. And they helped me get the resources I needed to make the movie. My mom took time off work to come and help out. My dad – you know, people who know Miguel Torres know he just leans in and helps on things. If anything, my parents are the reason that I felt like I could pursue a career in film, and I could not have done any of the things I’ve done without them. Really, the film in general is like a testament to them.

But it’s also a testament to the community of Ketchikan. Like I always tell people, everyone knows Ketchikan is such a vibrant arts community and such a supportive community and this movie would not have been possible without local organizations contributing. People, like KRBD, donating stuff for us to use, people giving us locations to shoot in, Tongass Federal Credit Union is one of our major sponsors, as well as Providence Properties, there’s all these organizations that are contributing to this film and making it happen. And it’s just been really, really overwhelming in a really positive way. I grew up here and I just feel so lucky that not only did I get to make this movie, but the movie was elevated by just my parents, my community and everybody coming together to make something bigger than ourselves.

What were some of the benefits and some of the hurdles to filming in Ketchikan?

Well, I mean, the biggest benefit is this supportive community here like I said. We had a budget of about $120,000 to make this movie. For people who don’t know the film industry, that’s still a pretty small budget for a feature film. But I always say that even though that was the money we had, this movie is probably valued at close to $1 million, because the amount of people who gave us in-kind support, volunteered, gave us things for free that in any other city, we’d have to pay for, gave us discounts, etc. The production quality of this movie, I think far exceeds the budget because of that. So that’s the biggest benefit. If anyone else made this movie, and they didn’t have the same relationships that my family do with people and didn’t have the same goodwill to kind of call on people, it would have been really hard. 

Some of the challenges of filming Alaska are – I kind of joked that I don’t know why The Proposal didn’t film here and other films haven’t made movies here. I think the last movie that was shot here was in 1954, this noir film called Cry Vengeance. And I was like, ‘Why aren’t they shooting films here? This is the most beautiful place on Earth.’ I definitely learned while making this movie why shooting in Southeast Alaska is hard. For us to make this film the way I wanted to, we had to rent a bunch of equipment from Los Angeles and from Lower 48.

So, we rented a whole box truck full of equipment. Well, we rented the equipment and then Tyler Rental gave us a box truck to put the equipment into. Then I had to fly to Portland, pick up a car with all of our equipment and drive it to Bellingham, put it on a ferry, ship it here, bring it here, unpack it, and put in a box truck. We made a movie using that box truck and then today, my crew stripped that box truck, put it back on a van, that van is currently going on a ferry back to Bellingham. And then we’re going to have to drive it down to Portland because there’s no other way to get the filmmaking equipment that we need here. And then, of course, flying people in was a challenge. And then also, there’s a term in filmmaking called “continuity,” which is just the idea that like when you’re shooting a scene, you typically take a full day to shoot like four pages of script sometimes. And so, in a movie, that’s only going to be like four minutes, but you’re spending a whole day making it and in a lot of cities that’s fine. But in Ketchikan as you know, it can be blowing sideways one second and then sunny the next second. So, I feel like local Ketchikan viewers, when they watch the movie, will be able to clock when like, ‘Okay, that day definitely isn’t the same day as this other thing,’ or whatever it may be.

But I think overall, I’m so proud of what we did, and it’s a dream come true. And it was only possible because of the support we got from the community. And it’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But at the end of it, I just hope we make a movie that Ketchikan can be proud of.

Well, how did it feel to return to Ketchikan to make this movie?

Definitely felt really good. I feel like I’m still in it. Right now, after this interview, I still have things that need to wrap up before we can fully leave. But, you know, I made a short film in 2021. And that was emotional experience because I just graduated NYU film school and it was a culmination of everything I’ve learned, and it was the short film I was most proud of.

Then we released the short film and it screened at film festivals, it’s streaming on Alaska Airlines, it almost has like, 200,000 views on YouTube. So, it’s found an audience and found some success in its own right. So, I’m really proud of that film. But it was kind of weird, because the first few days we got here, I’ve never had like a full-sized film crew; we had a 14-person film crew, the largest before this I’ve ever had was six. So that was an interesting experience, coming to my hometown, having all these people that were making a movie with me and working really hard on it. And so that was kind of overwhelming. I just tried to do my best job as director, but the first few days of set, we were filming scenes that we’ve already filmed before for the short film, but we had to recreate them because we cast the new actor for a certain role or just because we wanted to have the whole film be consistent. The first few days I was like, ‘Oh, I just feel like I’m doing the same thing I did before.’ Then after the first few days – it was a 14-day shoot, so I feel like after day five we started getting into the scenes that were new scenes and that’s when it really started hitting me that we were making a movie.

We wrapped yesterday and like I said, I’m sure when everything is figured out and settled and I leave Ketchikan, it’ll hit me that I just made my first feature film. But definitely being here as an adult, I see the town in a new way. I appreciate it even more than I did as a kid, and I just can’t overstate how grateful I am that I got to make this movie and that so many people came together to support it and it’s really a dream come true.

Does the plot of the feature length film follow the plot of the short film or has something changed and why has it changed? I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t watched it yet.

You live in Ketchikan and haven’t seen it yet? Just kidding.

You know, I can’t remember what teacher taught me this, I want to say it was a teacher in Ketchikan – so, if you’re listening to this and you told me this, I appreciate you – but I had a teacher tell me one time that if a story is really good, spoilers shouldn’t matter because you’ll still enjoy the movie.

For the most part, the feature film is just an expansion of the plot of the short film. But we just explore so many more nuances, both of the sci-fi elements of the film as well as Arthur and his backstory. We get a fuller picture. So, when the ending of the movie happens, if you see the short film, you can kind of know what happens in the end. I think it’s going to feel a little more conclusive and I hope it will feel a little more satisfying, because you’re really over the course of the hour and a half long movie going to get to know this man, and how he thinks and all the little nuances in his life that make him go one way or the other.

The short film just tells the story. We’re in and out and we’re proud of it. But the feature shows more of Ketchikan, we get to see more people and how they interact with this technology. We get to know more about Arthur, his backstory, his relationship with his son, we get more boat scenes, which is something I appreciate. So, I hope that it is it is an expansion on the film, but I hope all the things we’re adding into it will make the story that much better.

The crew trying to stay dry on set.

Awesome. So, what was your best day and your worst day on set?

Honestly, I had a lot of great moments.

One of one of the best days I had on set was: we were filming at Baranof’s dock, by the salmon landing. We were filming some scenes there and the way the schedule worked out, a lot of the scenes were lighter. We were filming and we had extras coming in. We were having lunch at the fish house, and it was just a beautiful day. We were filming all these cool moving shots on boats and things like that. It was right after we had just shot a boat day – which was one of our hardest days because there’s a lot of logistics and things to figure out – but we basically wrapped early that day. I was like ‘Well, I don’t want to like waste this time that we have.’ So, I wrapped most my crew early, they got to go home and rest, but I kept my cinematographer Toby, and my 1st assistant camera Taylor. The three of us were roommates in college. For the end of the day, all we did was go around downtown Ketchikan and get shots of Creek Street and Cape Fox and the Ketchikan sign and The Rock statue.

You know, as much as the whole production in Ketchikan was amazing, those couple hours of just running around with my camera like that, that’s like what I used to do as a kid. So that was one of my favorite moments. It almost stripped away all the layers that are involved with making a feature film and it was just me and a camera running around and filming cool stuff. So that was a really special moment.

I think the hardest days on set were just days where we were running around to a lot of different locations. We had a day where we had four different locations we were shooting at. We started the day at [Tongass Substance Screening], they were letting us use their location as a doctor’s office. So, we shot some scenes there with Katherine Tatsuda and Keith Smith, and we shot there for two hours. And then we moved, and we went to another location and shot this emotional scene with Keith. And then we moved. And we shot another scene at the Rec Center that involved some a lot of extras and a lot of logistics. And then we moved. Then we shot another scene at Tongass School of Arts and Sciences. That was probably the end of that day, it was really tough. Because we were moving around quickly, we had to work really fast. I had to consolidate some of the plans I had for filming on the fly just to make the day.

We ended the day at Tongass School though. And basically, there’s a sequence in the feature film where Arthur, the main character, has some memories. In one of the memories, his son is giving a presentation at Tongass School. I went to elementary school at Tongass School. So I was going into the elementary school room that I was in when I was a kid and filming this movie and having all these people there and creating the scene at the end of a crazy day. We literally had like 30 minutes to shoot live. We were like ‘Lights up, get the camera up, we’re going.’

We were shooting on these really cool lenses that were offered to us by a lens company in Los Angeles called Atlas Lens Co. They were these anamorphic lenses, because that’s how we’re doing the memory sequences. And it just this crazy thing. All day I’d been running around Ketchikan, it’s been a really tough day, but I ended the day with this really heartwarming scene.

At the end of that, the kid who was playing Arthur’s son Ryan – his name is Mason, he’s a really great kid actor that we cast – it was his birthday. So, we’d gotten him a birthday cake. It was like a really heartwarming moment to end the day. That was probably one of the toughest days just to move quickly and figure stuff out. But you know, you always find a way to end it and kind of find the why in it all.

What’s next?

So, we just finished what is called “principal photography,” which is most of the scenes. There are a couple of scenes we actually still have left to film. Those we’re actually planning to shoot in New York; there’s a couple of sequences where Ryan, the son, talks to Arthur, but it’s over the phone. And I want to shoot in New York, because a lot of my crew is already there. I’m just planning out a shoot that weekend to go and get that scene. It is going to be really great.

There’s also one scene with Keith Smith, our main actor, that we have left to shoot because it just requires a lot of sci-fi stuff and Ketchikan is amazing but the location that we have in mind is something that’s going to make sense in a different place. Then there’s some of these corporate commercials that play in the background of the movie that we still have to produce. So, all those things will be made later. We have the main story recorded. So, we’ll start editing.

Then eventually, we’re going to have a crowdfunding campaign, because the money that we put together to make this movie really just got us through production. So, the next step is I can get started editing without money. But eventually, we’re going to have to do all the things involved. There’s color correction, color grading, sound effects, music, special effects, there’s some visual CGI things in the movie, all that. There’s a bunch of postproduction steps that take a long time. We’re probably 10 months to a year out from having a finished film. In the meantime, though, we’re going to need to raise a bit more money to finish the film.

So, all the budget that we had to make the movie so far has either come from organization sponsorships or individual investors here in town who have invested money in the film. We’re going to do a crowdfunding campaign like we did for the short film. We raised $15,000, in 10 days to make the short film. So, we’re going to probably raise some amount and I’ll try to spread the word and get it out there.

Basically, if you contribute to the crowdfunding campaign, you’ll get a link to watch the movie as soon as it’s done. If you want to make sure you get to see it first, then definitely keep a lookout and contribute. We’re hoping that we raise the money that we need to finish the film.

Then, it’s also my intention that we have the world premiere in Ketchikan. I just think that’s really important. So, I want to make sure people will have a chance to see it. Yeah, I’d probably say we’re about a year out from having a finished film people can see. But there’ll be opportunities for people to see behind the scenes and maybe see updates if they want to contribute to the movie.

Thanks, Emilio and congratulations on wrapping.

Thank you. Thank you. And I just want to say thank you to Ketchikan. This is my home. I feel like I was able to nurture a dream here that came to be these past two weeks. I hope that when this is all said and done, there’s a movie that everyone can enjoy and be proud of. Again, I want to give my biggest thanks, and I can’t wait to share The Ladder with you all. 

(L to R) Emilio Torres, Ty Hewitt, Liz Weston, and Heidi Poet shooting a scene outside Salmon Landing Market.

Get in touch with the author at jack@krbd.org.