Joseph Itaya’s dream was to bring Whidbey Island to the big screen.
In spirit, he believes he was still able to accomplish that.
Itaya, who grew up on South Whidbey, visited Sun Valley, Idaho, last week for the second public screening of his first independent feature film as a director, “Lost & Found,” at the Sun Valley Film Festival.
It was Itaya’s strong desire to film the movie on Whidbey. However, when those plans got sidetracked two years ago, he got another opportunity to shoot the film in Canada and accepted, unsure if another chance might come along.
Although there were still an assortment of anxious moments along the way, the project got off the ground and the movie was made. The result is an independent feature film with Hollywood star power that was shot in Ontario in June of 2014 not long after the ice thawed on nearby Lake Superior.
Its public screening debut was two weeks ago at the Sedona, Ariz., International Film Festival.
“From the Whidbey side, it is real bittersweet,” said Itaya, a 1996 graduate of South Whidbey High School. “Whidbey Island is and always will be the soul of the movie.”
The movie, set on a fictitious island in the San Juans, was able to lure veteran Hollywood actors Jason Patric, who starred in “The Lost Boys” and “Speed 2,” and Cary Elwes of “The Princess Bride” and “Twister” fame.
The story, however, revolves around two young characters played by actors with television credits, Justin Kelly, from “DeGrassi: The Next Generation,” and Benjamin Stockham from “About a Boy.”
Kelly and Stockham play brothers who spend a summer with their estranged uncle in a rustic cabin on a remote, mysterious island. In the story, the boys uncover a secret about their grandfather that leads to a hunt for a lost fortune with other sinister forces in the way.
Itaya submitted the screenplay for the movie as his master’s thesis when he was in film school at the University of Southern California.
The tale’s setting was inspired by the natural features, raw scenery and charm he encountered as a youth on Whidbey Island. Itaya had planned for the movie to be shot mostly around Coupeville when he and other producers from Los Angeles visited the island and started scouting locations in 2013.
Itaya moved to the Los Angeles area 12 years ago to start producing films, commercials and music videos.
When it became evident as fall approached that key actors he was pursuing who were critical to the film’s financial backing wouldn’t be available during a shrinking window of opportunity on Whidbey, the movie project was placed on indefinite hold. It wasn’t until Kim Selby, one of the film’s co-producers, was notified by a movie-maker in Toronto a few months later about an opportunity to shoot in Canada that new life was breathed into the project.
The producer had received a significant grant to help make a feature film, but part of the requirement was that it had to be shot in Northern Ontario.
Itaya, still reeling from the heartbreak of shutting down the project on Whidbey, now had to come to grips with a new reality — one that didn’t include his dream of shooting on his home island.
Itaya said he wasn’t alone, adding that Selby’s heart also was set on Whidbey for the film. Fort Casey State Park, the Coupeville Wharf, Admiralty Head Lighthouse and Cornet Bay all had made their impressions. Auditions for extras were even held at the Camp Casey Conference Center.
“We all fell in love with Whidbey Island,” Itaya said.
In the end, however, the option to shoot in Canada proved too attractive and incentive-laden to pass up and wait for another shot on Whidbey that might never come.
The cost of filming in Washington state is prohibitive regarding the unions, Itaya said. In Ontario, the movie received tax rebates and a sizable filmmaker’s grant.
Still, there were plenty of anxious moments, such as not securing Patric until a few days before shooting was to begin. At the time, Patric was involved in a lengthy, rather public custody battle over his son, so the timing wasn’t ideal.
Patric’s manager told Itaya he would talk to the actor to see if he’d be willing to hear his pitch and, if so, would call back in 10 minutes.
Itaya recalled he and other producers holding hands and praying around a conference table inside a room in a small town in Canada waiting for the phone to ring.
“We knew if you don’t have a star actor in a movie, you have no chance of ever getting distribution,” Itaya said. “We were fearing again, just like Whidbey, a disaster.”
Patric called. Itaya said he then “pitched my guts out to him” and Patric’s manager called back later that evening to say that the actor was on board.
It took one producer emptying a personal savings account and another borrowing money from family to secure the remaining necessary funding, Itaya said.
The majority of the movie was shot over four weeks in Sault St. Marie, a Northern Ontario city near the U.S.-Canada border. During much of the shooting, the cast had to wear protective netting while off camera to fend off the bites of mosquitos and black flies.
Trying to stay true to its original intent, and to give the movie an island feel, aerial footage of Whidbey Island appears in the film, Itaya said.
“I wanted it to feel like Whidbey,” said Itaya, whose story portrays some of his own childhood feelings of wonderment when his family moved to the rural island from Seattle when he was 10.
He said most of the movie’s scenic and establishing shots are Whidbey.
“Fort Casey is in the movie,” he said. “Deception Pass is in the movie.”
Those touches, blended in with rugged Northern Ontario, provide an effect Itaya desired.
“You can’t tell that it’s not Whidbey when you watch the movie,” he said. “It will look and feel like it is Whidbey.”
Itaya and Los Angeles-area producers Scott Bridges and Selby teamed up with producers Borga Dorter and Jordan Baker of Toronto’s GearShift Films to make the film at a budget just under $2 million.
Itaya said the movie has been picked up by a premier international and domestic distributor, which he added is very rare for an independent film.
“In the not so distant future,” he said he hopes to be bringing the movie to Whidbey for screenings at The Clyde in Langley and the Blue Fox Drive-In in Oak Harbor.
Itaya said he doesn’t know if he’ll ever make a movie again. He put his heart into “Lost & Found,” which made the journey all the more difficult and exhilarating. His new focus is a virtual reality company he founded, Epicenter VR.
“In the end, the biggest lesson I learned on this movie is there’s no such thing as bad news, it’s just good news in disguise,” Itaya said.
“If you keep pressing on, things will work out. Just not always as you first imagined.”