Atchafalaya: A Short Film
● By Aimee Cormier
By Shanna Perkins | Photos Provided By Carol Miller
The Atchafalaya Basin has been described as “hauntingly beautiful.” It’s a sprawling labyrinth where marine monsters glide beneath the water’s placid, black surface freckled with leviathan lily pads. The basin’s mystique has long inspired stories, but those who call the area home are rarely the narrators – until now. Four years ago, actor Hunter Burke of Broussard and writer Nick Lavin of Lafayette decided they were going to be the ones to tell the basin’s story, and began writing a screenplay.
“I think the biggest inspiration for us was that we wanted to tell a story that took place in our hometown,” says Burke, whose resume includes “12 Rounds,” “Now You See Me,” “Olympus is Fallen” and “NCIS New Orleans.” “We sat around and watched a lot of people make their versions of Louisiana’s stories. We all felt like we had something to contribute to the Cajun lore. We knew that there was a story that we really wanted to share, and that’s our Cajun people’s story.”
Burke and Lavin wrote a feature-length script set in the basin titled “Animal.” Once the screenplay was complete, they realized seeing it to fruition would mean selling it. Their dedication to keep the film authentic to South Louisiana led to the birth of the southern gothic thriller, “Atchafalaya: A Short Film.”
“We really wanted to make a movie that we would go see,” Burke states frankly. “Something thrilling, something that encapsulates that edge-of-your-seat feeling you get when you go into a movie theatre. We wanted to tell the ‘goose bumps story’ and give it a thrilling, horrific genre twist. All of those things that we love, and we said, ‘that’s it; that’s the formula.’”
“Throughout the writing process we constantly referenced back to great thrillers like ‘Jaws’ and ‘Seven’ and the way they were much more about the characters than the monsters or killers they were chasing,” Lavin says, mirroring Burke’s sentiment. “We both have a strong affinity for the small moments in those movies that build the world and the people in the middle of the action. It was always important to us that we create a dynamic and flawed character who would be a challenge to both write and play.”
The flawed and dynamic character they created was game warden Henri Judice, played by Burke. The story begins when Judice receives a mysterious phone call that leads him deep into the Atchafalaya swamp on the heels of a serial killer. Judice’s profession came from Burke’s fascination by the polarizing perception of game wardens in the Sportsman’s Paradise.
“He’s a troubled guy,” Burke says of Judice as if he were a family member. “He’s kind of a cowboy on the last frontier of America, which is the Atchafalaya basin, and I think that’s very much what game wardens are. They go out into the woods and in the wild knowing that the person they’re there to investigate already has guns.”
As Judice traverses the basin entangled in danger, he leaves behind a frayed relationship with his wife Brittany Judice, played by Teri Wyble of Arnaudville. Burke says he believes that Henri and Brittany’s relationship serves as an emotional anchor for a film otherwise shrouded in menace and mystery.
“It’s a sad story, but I think it’s one that people will ultimately relate to,” he explains. “Because it is a story about making a relationship work and our characters are having trouble doing that. So, I think a lot of people will identify with that concept. And that’s kind of the emotional heart of our story.”
Their persistence to create “a true-to-life Acadian thriller” resulted in the culmination of a cast and crew who hail from South Louisiana. Burke and Wyble are both University of Louisiana-Lafayette alumni. Wyble’s accolades can be seen on her stellar IMBD.com page. She’s been featured on small screen favorites like “The Walking Dead,” “Nashville” and “The Originals.”
“I’m excited,” Wyble beams. “I love whenever I can work with my friends and it’s something that we’ve all had a hand in creating together. That’s a really magical experience. It all takes place near our hometowns, so we really feel like we’re creating something special. It’s amazing to work, and get paid, to do what you love with your friends ¾ that makes it all worth it. I can’t wait for people to see what we’ve created.”
Burke and Lavin approached Construct Films, a New Orleans-based production company comprised of cinematographer Natalie Kingston of New Iberia and director Brian C. Miller Richard of Breaux Bridge. The two quickly signed on to the project. A casting director, wardrobe designer and art department from Acadiana round out what Burke refers to as the “Cajun collective” behind the film.
The beauty of the Atchafalaya basin was another aspect that inspired the film. It takes someone who has experienced this unique aesthetic first hand to genuinely translate it to the masses. When Kingston took on the role of cinematographer, she had a very distinct vision of how to convey the vibrancy of the basin.
“When shooting ‘Atchafalaya,’ I really wanted to accentuate the beautiful landscape of Acadiana and allow it to become another character in the film,” Kingston explains. “Since we encounter all the elements, the film’s color palette is inspired by fire, water, air and earth. In general, my goal with the cinematography is to make the audience feel like they are on a journey in the swamps with the main character, Henri Judice.”
The film began to materialize through dedication and the generosity of others. Burke describes how the team turned to Kickstarter to make the “Atchafalaya” dream a reality; “We put our hat in our hands and waited for the community, our family and friends and the people from south Louisiana. We asked them to help us make this film that they inspired. We’re very lucky because we got a great response from the community. We originally asked for $16,000 and ended up raising about $19,000. We’re so overwhelmed by all the love and support we’ve gotten.”
The unrelenting support allowed the cast and crew to push themselves to new limits. Kingston explains how her career growth coordinates with the film’s quest for accuracy, “ I’m excited about this project because I get to do a lot of things I’ve never done before. The story takes place during an approaching tropical storm, so we had a big rain scene to shoot. We shot with large rain towers placed throughout our location in the woods.”
As the tantalizing prequel to “Animal,” “Atchafalaya” is a thrilling tale that is modeled after classic gothic films. But it’s also an authentic portrayal of Acadiana’s beauty and its people, told by those who know it best.
“I think what’s great about it is the characters,” Burke reflects. “I grew up around all of these people, so it’s already innate. My whole life provided the research for this movie. A lot of the characters in our feature came from people in our past. When playing a character, it’s always difficult to bring somebody to life, but we know all of these idiosyncrasies and small things that make the Cajun people who they are. It’s very much a privilege and an honor to represent the Cajun people and I hope we do them justice.”