Big Picture: Rob Willey's camping trip from hell

Rob Willey wasn’t kidding when he promised potential investors that Dark Cove would be one hell of an entertaining film.

Hell is the operative word — the low-budget wilderness thriller, based on a story the Victoria musician and filmmaker wrote with his father Dennis Willey is about a Vancouver Island camping trip gone terribly wrong.

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In what sounds like Hostel by-the-sea — with a nod to the vacation-from-hell thriller A Perfect Getaway — five friends head out for their annual camping trip on the West Coast, where they soon regret partying with some nasty Australian surfers.

It starts with drinking, smoking weed and doing magic mushrooms, and ends in murder and mayhem. Cue the blood-dripping axe.

While Willey, 30, acknowledges Eli Roth’s slow-burn Hostel pacing was influential, he describes the R-rated film another way.

“It’s Clerks meets Deliverance,” Willey says, although no one is ordered to “squeal like a piggy” on this outing.

Although Willey, frontman for the local rock group Jell, hasn’t finished shooting Dark Cove, the film’s slick, high-definition teaser featuring footage shot by director of photography Shane McLeod on Sombrio Beach has already attracted buzz on horror blogs.

It’s not surprising considering Willey won best director for his Out of Your Head video at last year’s Vancouver Island Music Awards.

The Vic High grad, who is co-producing with Mount Doug grad Rean McKinley through Tall Grass Films, says it was the influence of his father, who wrote novels and screenplays when he wasn’t running James Bay Printing, and his own experience making music videos that prompted him to make his feature-filmmaking debut.

“It seemed like the right time to move ahead, but you have to know what you’re doing,” said Willey, who moved from filming on 16-mm to the RED One 4k, the high-definition video camera David Fincher used for The Social Network.

Despite a steep learning curve and “some hiccups,” including having to recast a female role, Willey says his Dark Cove footage so far, including last summer’s sunny shoot on Sombrio and a rainier one two weeks ago near China Beach, has exceeded his expectations. All going well, principal photography will wrap in August after another four-day shoot, followed by a fundraiser at Lucky Bar to defray post-production costs so the film can be submitted to the Victoria Film Festival.

Although Willey stopped short of following in the footsteps of Robert Rodriguez, who sold his own blood to buy his first camera and participated in medical research to finance El Mariachi, his $7,000 feature debut, he’s inspired by the maverick.

“He donated his body to science basically to make the movie,” said Willey, who is a fan of Rodriguez’s 1995 book Rebel Without a Crew. “He didn’t spend money on anything but camera and film and made it with the least amount of crew possible.”

Willey is also a fan of Kevin Smith, who financed his feature debut Clerks on credit cards after dropping out of the Vancouver Film School. “We kind of know what we’re doing now, so we’re just doing everything ourselves,” he said.

One of the biggest lessons learned was about the challenges of a guerrilla-style shoot in remote, rugged locations.

“Sombrio’s beautiful, with a gorgeous waterfall, but there’s a reason no one has shot [a feature] there before,” he said with a laugh. “It’s very difficult to get to, especially when you’re lugging gear, which is why we decided to shoot closer to French and China beaches, more accessible areas after that.”

Rolling in a location that oozed the West Coast vibe they were looking for had its advantages, however.

They came across Preacher Bob, one of the original Sombrio squatters, who appears on camera and helped them load gear.

While Willey prefers to describe Dark Cove as a “realistic thriller” with sex, drugs and murder but no supernatural elements, he’s OK with it being perceived as a horror flick. That image has already prompted calls from sales agents in L.A. “There’s enough gore for it to qualify,” he says, laughing. “There’s such a huge market for independent horror movies.”

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