“Finding Donn Fendler: Lost on a Mountain in Maine 72 Year Later,” is a documentary that tells two stories. The first is one that nearly every Mainer is familiar with, of a young Donn Fendler finding himself lost on Mount Katahdin.
The second is the struggle of young filmmakers Ryan Cook, a Maine native, and Derek Desmond, from New Hampshire, as they attempt to acquire the rights to make a feature film of Fendler’s life story.
The movie, which is less of a documentary and more of a journal on film, premiered Saturday, July 16, at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville, followed by a question and answer session with Fendler and the filmmakers.
“We didn’t start out making this documentary. We didn’t start off saying, ‘Hey, we want to make a documentary,’” said Cook, who conceived the idea while attending Emerson College with Desmond. “We said from the beginning, let’s record everything for our own benefit, so we can look back on it.”
The two filmmakers found that as their story became more engaging and surreal, it might make an interesting movie on its own. After editing 40 or 50 hours of footage, they turned their tale into a documentary that clocks in at just over an hour. They finished just two days before the premiere.
Cook said that “Finding Donn Fendler” is the first step in making a “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” movie a reality.
“At this point, it’s just getting the word out, and trying to get as many people behind this project so that we can take the next step and actually make this film,” he said.
Before pursuing the rights themselves, Cook and Desmond knew that somebody else already owned the rights to Fendler’s life story, and that a much wealthier producer in Texas also was interested in making a movie.
That didn’t stop them. Cook and Desmond’s end goal remained the same. They want to see to it that Fendler’s story is adapted as accurately as possible, not for money, but to see it made and preserved for future generations.
Having grown up in New England, Cook and Desmond say they both feel connected to Fendler’s story. Their journey also has led them to a friendship with their lifelong hero Donn Fendler.
“We literally will hang out for hours,” Cook said of Donn. “We’ll talk about his story, then we’ll talk about the documentary, then we’ll talk about fishing and some other stuff. It’s been a great relationship.”
The two filmmakers know that Donn Fendler is the heart of the documentary, as he will be when the feature film comes to fruition. Here, Fendler humbly commands the screen by just being himself.
“They’ve done a wonderful job. These two guys are pretty dedicated, they’re honest about it,” Fendler said of Cook and Desmond. “They’re good guys. And I wish them all the success in the world.”
For the filmmakers, this project is not about financial success and it’s not a stunt to launch their careers. It’s personal. And they know that there’s no way an adaptation of “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” would get off the ground without help and support from the state.
“We can’t do it without the support of Maine,” Cook said. “That’s for damn sure.”
Joel Crabtree is a Bangor Daily News digital desk editor. You can read his movie reviews atbdn.to/movies.