Hermione Corfield stars in “Rust Creek,” the story of a young woman who must survive a road trip gone way wrong. The independent film, shot primarily in the Louisville area, opens Friday at Village 8 Theatres. | Courtesy of Lunacy Productions

“Rust Creek,” a new “survival thriller” filmed in the Louisville area, doesn’t check all the boxes that fans may have come to expect from thrillers.

In fact, the film’s producer Stu Pollard says “Rust Creek” is defined by its characters and performances, rather than the high tension or big explosions audiences have come to expect from genre films. “Survival thriller” is just the label the distributor picked to describe the independent production.

“I’d either call it a thriller with dramatic elements or a drama with thriller elements,” said Pollard, a Louisville native who in addition to producing the film has a story credit on “Rust Creek,” which opens Friday, Jan. 11, at Village 8 Theatres.

Stu Pollard

“It’s definitely a film that has some big action pieces in it … but again, I come back to the words ‘human,’ ‘genuine,’ ‘real’ and ‘authentic.’ … That’s a credit to the script, the direction and the acting,” said Pollard.

Hermione Corfield stars as Sawyer, a college senior who faces a series of perils after a trip from Centre College to Washington, D.C., goes awry and lands her in the Kentucky backwoods. She is beset on all sides, with few allies. And a medium-sized explosion does eventually make its way into the third act.

Corfield is the centerpiece of the film, and she is convincing as a composed, tough young woman who’s out of her element, but never completely out of sorts. In many ways, “Rust Creek” is a character study, and certainly closer to Pollard’s description of “a drama with thriller elements” than conventional, high-octane flicks you’re likely to catch at the local cineplex.

It’s a slow burn, to be sure.

Director Jen McGowan, helming her second feature, and cinematographer Michelle Lawler create a palatable sense of tension as the injured Sawyer evades danger in the hollers. In many ways, nature is a primary antagonist, and Lawler’s lens makes it appear both ominous and beautiful.

Director Jen McGowan (pictured) and cinematographer
Michelle Lawler decided to shoot much of “Rust Creek” with handhelds to create a sense of visual urgency. | Courtesy of Lunacy Productions

The screenplay by Julie Lipson is based on a personal story from Pollard’s past. He pitched the idea to Lipson around 2011, when she was a screenwriting student and he a teacher at USC.

(The pair had first met a few years earlier, at Middlebury College in Vermont, when Pollard was on a campus tour in support of his film “Keep Your Distance.”)

Julie Lipson

“It does involve Kentucky and Washington, D.C., it involves a road trip, it involves a senior in college, and it involves doing something somewhat stupid,” Pollard said of his experience that ultimately inspired “Rust Creek.”

“But it is really based on … that moment in time in any young person’s life, you can go from that feeling of complete invincibility, invulnerability, to in the blink of an eye realizing that you might be moments away from taking your last breath, and how that changes your viewpoint on life.”

Lipson herself grew up in a rural environment, so she was excited about the idea of a story that takes a young person and places her in the elements, Pollard said.

McGowan came on as director for “Rust Creek” next. She had pitched a different project to Pollard’s Louisville-based company Lunacy Productions, which he founded in 2015. That project did not come to fruition, but McGowan made a lasting impression, and when “Rust Creek” began to materialize, Pollard immediately thought of her to helm the project.

From there, McGowan’s network and reputation helped build a production team for “Rust Creek” that includes a majority of department heads who are female. McGowan is the creator of filmpowered.com, a job networking and resource site for women in the TV and film industries.

Other department heads include Candi Guterres (production designer), Alexis Scott (costume designer), Kari Barber (sound recordist) and Allie Shehorn (special-effects makeup).

A core value of Lunacy Productions, Pollard said, is advancing film projects that empower a wide variety of voices. And he added that having women in leadership roles of “Rust Creek,” a film about a young woman in trouble, helped bring added depth to the story and especially to the lead character’s perspective.

The film was shot in 2016. | Courtesy of Lunacy Productions

An example of such perspective, Pollard said, is how Lipson crafted Sawyer’s initial confrontation with threatening locals, based on her own experience of taking self-defense classes in college.

“Things take a while to escalate because Sawyer doesn’t want to escalate things unless absolutely necessary,” Pollard said. “And then the ensuing fight is more messy than anything. Sawyer’s not an action hero, she’s an everyday young woman forced to defend herself.”

Ultimately, though, the overall quality of the film is the final testament to the crew who created it, Pollard said.

“The biggest thing that I respect about all the women who worked on the film is that — at some point, and I would say this about Jen most of all — you stop making the distinction of them being female or male,” Pollard said. “They’re just good, and they work hard. And you just consider yourself to be blessed to be surrounded by people who are good at what they do.”

Pollard was on location for “Rust Creek” as it shot during the holiday season of 2016. For most Lunacy projects, Pollard and other producers provide advisory roles, such as notes on scripts and film cuts.

With his “non-hyphenated” role as the only producer on “Rust Creek,” he not only is dealing with fundraising and investors, he was more intimately involved with the daily creative process than with any other film he’s worked on since his directorial credits, early in his career.

The crew scouted locations in eastern Kentucky — it’s ambiguously set somewhere between Danville and Interstate 64, if you know your way around those parts — but ultimately decided on locations in Mt. Washington and the Louisville area for most of the shoot. The titular “Rust Creek” is actually Floyds Fork, and shooting occurred in the Parklands and adjacent property.

Jen McGowan

McGowan and cinematographer Lawler meticulously laid out a plan to shoot much of the film with handhelds, to augment the sense of tension.

The film also is color-timed to ensure there’s a consistent feel of dreary winter in the external shots.

It was below freezing on many shooting days back in 2016, Pollard said, and “you almost get a chill watching the film, the way it was shot.”

“It’s really beautiful,” he added. “It captures a sense of place in a very powerful way.”

The decision to shoot around Louisville was made primarily to have better access to housing and other resources, along with the talent base that’s developed in the city since state incentive programs have brought an increasing number of productions to town.

Pollard, who began his directing career with the locally shot “Nice Guys Sleep Alone” (1999), said he’s seen enormous growth in the local film industry over the last two decades.

“Going back 20 years, when there really wasn’t an incentive to speak of, you had a few people who were really passionate about making films, and a few of those people are still around and are really, really great at what they do,” he said.

The eventual impact of recent changes in the state incentive program are still unclear, he added, but “but right now healthier than it’s ever been.”

Pollard has spent much of the last few weeks promoting “Rust Creek.” The film opened in some markets last weekend and currently is available for streaming at online services. He’s also attended some advance local screenings for Louisville audiences.

In all, Pollard expects the film to be released in about 30 markets nationwide through its distributor, IFC Midnight. It’s his first time working with the well-established distributor that has had quite a bit of recent success, including last year’s “The Clovehitch Killer.”

Working with IFC has meant that “Rust Creek” is getting the the attention of media outlets, and the reviews so far have been generally positive.

“You just have to keep an even keel,” Pollard said of the media coverage. “At some point, it becomes about the next film. If you were put on this planet to make stuff, to create, then that’s part of the game. You affect people in different ways. If you try to please everybody, you please no one.”

Ken Hardin

Ken Hardin is a business consultant and freelance writer based in Louisville.