UNO Alumni and Students Wrap Production on The Mourning Hills

Holing up in the woods of Alabama with 11 University of New Orleans alumni and students could make your hair stand on end, according to R. Todd Campbell, who received his Master of Fine Arts in film production from the College of Liberal Arts. This week, Campbell and his team wrap production on his first feature film, The Mourning Hills.

“It’s been miserably exhilarating. Making a movie is an excruciating experience, but infinitely rewarding,” said Campbell, 33, who described the last year-and-a-half of his life as “still sort of a blur.”
A native of Florence, Ala., Campbell received his master’s degree from UNO in 2009, then spent a year working and networking in the Louisiana film industry, also known as “Hollywood South.”  He moved home in August 2010 to write the coming-of-age story that had been lurking in the back of his mind for years – then make it into a movie.
Centered around the concept of two children lost in the woods, The Mourning Hills is not for the faint of heart.

“The movie is about two runabout sisters who find themselves lost in a forest that is kind of notorious as a place where people go to end their lives,” Campbell said.  “It’s ‘Stand by Me meets Walkabout, cut to Deliverance.’”

He spent 1½ years writing the film that had danced for years in his mind, inspired by a spot at the base of Mount Fuji, Japan, known as the place where people go to end their lives. In the desolate and densely vegetated Aokigahara Forest, more than 100 bodies are found annually. The spot has the second-highest suicide rate in the world.

“People will go there and roam around and literally stumble on corpses that have been there for years,” Campbell said. “Let’s put that in the South, let’s tell it with minimal characters, minimal sets and not much money.”

Ten drafts in, his film was filled with compelling complications, starting with the fact that the sisters are orphans and runaways. Their own father killed himself in the tragic woods.

“They’re running away to a place where the only place they can hide as they are marching toward their destination is this place. They are marching to it,” Campbell said. “They come across some of the ‘once-were’ people and some live people, some unscrupulous live people.”

Aimed to keep viewers of all edges on the edge of their seats, the film addresses how the young women contend with nature, with man and their own naïve outlook on the world, Campbell said.“You can summarize the theme as this: The loss of innocence can be empowering,” he said. “We see these girls kind of naïve about the world. And we see these girls on that journey. We see them lose that innocence and become whole people ready to face that journey whatever it entails…I didn’t start out writing something to be a feminist movie, but it is about two strong young ladies and they’re overcoming something impossible.” He had always conceived the low-budget independent film as taking place in Alabama, where he grew up, and could film scenes involving piney woods, cliffs and waterfalls, said Campbell. He and his “little army” are now travelling to Independence, La. and Franklinton, La. to film last scenes then begin post-production editing, which should be complete by January, 2013. Next step is the film festival circuit, in hopes of getting noticed and gaining critical acclaim, said Campbell, who has a feature film with a strong story and very strong performances, investors (mostly private equity investors), and previous success with short films and documentaries under his belt.His “little army of people,” joining him on his journey, Campbell said, are “largely people I had met in film school in both the undergraduate program and the graduate program, some of whom are still in the graduate program. It can never hurt to form as many bonds, connections as possible. In film school you figure out who you want to work with, who you work with best.”