Co-director, co-writer and actor Tim McGrath (right) helps sound editor Ross Smith (center) and fellow co-director, co-writer and actor Ryan Johnson (left) select volume levels on their movie "Mule Kids", Aug. 2 at the Colorado Film School. The crew has spent the summer editing away and hope to start pitching to distributors and film festivals by the end of the year. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

AURORA | The film “Mule Kids” ends with a sweeping shot of the network of pale buildings that make up the Medical Center of Aurora.

That view ends a 90-minute dark comedy that tracks the travails of two brothers, antiheroes who inadvertently get pulled into the dangerous world of drug trafficking after pursuing the wrong kind of women. Written and directed by a trio of local students and produced with merely $1,400, the movie features locales from across the metro area. That includes several recognizable sites in Downtown Denver.

But co-director, co-writer and actor Tim McGrath insists that the film is specifically tied to Aurora. As the final scene indicates, there’s something about this city — and a looming tragedy in its recent past — that speaks to the heart of this project.

“You can’t get away from it, not that you’d want to. When I look at this movie, I remember the shooting,” said McGrath, who was with a group of about ten friends in theater 8 at the Century Aurora 16 theater on July 20, 2012, for the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises.” “It affects all of us that were there. We still talk about it. In our experience, we can’t detach this movie from being at the midnight shooting.”

McGrath and the rest of the “Mule Kids” crew had already completed filming the majority of the movie when they headed to the theater July 20. McGrath, a California resident attending law school in Los Angeles, had come to Colorado for the summer to see his parents and play roles in several local theater productions. At the same time, McGrath was working with friends Ryan Johnson and Tyler Mauro on the movie, a project that had started as an idea for a television pilot and had morphed into a story for a full-length film.

Working on a shoestring budget, the three rounded up a minimal crew and enlisted a cast of local actors. Denver and Aurora theater vets like Robert Michael Sanders, Meghan McMahon, Andy Anderson and Haley Johnson all landed roles in the movie. By the time the group decided to catch a midnight movie July 20, they had the promising makings of an off-color indie comedy. It was a story that had its share of Quentin Tarantino-like violence and guns, but one that drew on the deadpan humor of director Wes Anderson.

“It’s quirky humor, but it’s got some shoot-em-up that’s not really based in reality,” McGrath said.

Even so, the violence and chaos of the shootings at the Aurora theater last summer put a hold on the plans for the film. Suddenly, even the unrealistic and exaggerated violence in “Mule Kids” seemed to hit to close to the experiences of McGrath, Johnson, Mauro and the rest of the crew that were in the theater July 20. The fake gunplay recalled the loud pops they’d heard from the neighboring theater 9 a mere 15 minutes into the film; it summoned memories of fleeing through a projection booth, of the friend who’d been shot in the arm and the stories of another distant acquaintance who was killed that night.

“We just put a hold on everything. What do you do?” McGrath said. “We had to give it its due and talk to everybody.”

They even discussed recutting the movie to eliminate all of the gunplay, but ultimately, the unanimous decision from the cast and crew was to finish the film the way it was originally conceived. The best tribute to Aurora and to the rest of the people who were in the theater that night would be to persevere, they decided. That meant including all of the important sequences filmed in Aurora (there are scenes filmed in the Aurora municipal prison, as well as the Medical Center of Aurora).

A year later, that determination persists. Because of school obligations, progress on the film came to a halt during the fall and spring, but the crew has spent the summer hard at work in the editing rooms at the Colorado Film School at Lowry. With the majority of the movie edited, they’re looking to start pitching to distributors and film festivals by the end of the year.

Johnson, a student at CSF, said his experiences through the school’s intensive film program has had a lot to do with how he’s worked on this film. From acting to directing to editing, the mark of the school plays a big part in the film’s mood and feel.

“A big thing I think I’ve learned here at the school is being hands-on,” Johnson said. “You learn a lot about being on set, working with people and getting that experience. It was helpful getting that experience and then jumping on this project.”

Keeping under budget meant drawing from a pool of fellow students and volunteers.

“This is the first feature-length thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Johnson said. “A lot of the people who worked … were students from the school. That was helpful and we had a good rhythm going as well.”

It was that sense of community that helped the ambitious students finish the film on such a short timeframe and such a small budget.

“I believe in staying true to what help make it – that translates into being loyal to friends,” McGrath said. “Since it came together so much in Aurora, I would love to premiere it here.”