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October 19, 2022

What I learned (the hard way) directing my first feature film

by Tony Gapastione

“Completing a movie is a miracle”, is what some people say.

This miracle almost broke me and caused me to question everything about my abilities and desire for filmmaking. 

It’s been my dream to make a feature film. I pitched my script to producers, financiers, agents and managers and I was rejected too many times to remember. (Or perhaps I have self-induced amnesia to cope with the traumatic amount of discouragement.) 

So I set out to do it on my own, with what I had, and a reasonable budget I thought I could raise.

My script, entitled Last Chance Charlene, is focused on something I care deeply about.

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How does one go after one’s creative goals, maintain a healthy work/life/family balance while grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide? Sounds fun, huh? My film is a personal story in which I explore where grief intersects with the ridiculous for someone trying to succeed in the entertainment industry.  (I wrote it December 2020).

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Sitting at MEETS THE EYE STUDIOS with script supervisor TERRI SMITH and producer KEREN SOUTHALL.

I was determined to get it into production June 2022. I put on my producer hat and put together a crew of people, some with whom I had previously made short films, but all who had never, ever made a feature film (in hindsight I should have sought help from someone who had).

I asked (in some cases pleaded) for financial help. Some friends helped but many ghosted me… or fled for their life? I’ll never know.

Raising funds can feel like a  full time job. It’s exhausting and humbling, but 90% of filmmaking is perseverance, working hard and finding the right partners. Sometimes it only takes one. I wouldn’t have a movie if it weren’t for one amazing friend who pretty much footed most of our production expenses. Thank you to my college friend, who’s like a sister, Karah!

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Actor ALLEY MILLS (played Lorenna) with KARAH BROWN (Executive Producer) on the Red Carpet at Pasadena Film Fest where ALLISON EWING won the best actor award for playing Charlene.

I cast actors who I had worked with before. The lead actor, Allison Ewing, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live and work. (And she is phenomenal. I need to write another blog on how I wrote the film basically around her, more on that in the future). My friend Jeremy Ray Valdez was in my very first short film (called “1440 and Counting” with Loretta Devine) and he connected  me with actor Alley Mills from the iconic Wonder Years (who played mother Norma Arnold). So grateful for these friends.

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Actor ALLISON EWING (plays Charlene) and actor JEREMY RAY VALDEZ (plays Raul).

Alley and I instantly hit it off and she added just the right elements we needed to my story.  She came up from Los Angeles.

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Actor ALLEY MILLS with me, TONY GAPASTIONE.

We hired a bunch of other Bay Area talent and a couple more from LA for what I think was the perfect cast. 

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Cast and crew at our Redwood City VIP premiere for our BraveMaker donors and partners.

And all of this during the pandemic. In June of 2021 we rolled cameras.  

I had thirteen days to film 100 pages of script. I didn’t have an A.D. (I scheduled the film myself, something I wouldn’t recommend) until day three of filming and that was because one of our amazing PA’s stepped up and pitched himself. In fact, he had flown himself to California from Miami just to be a volunteer part of the production crew for the experience. I was so impressed by Felipe Barandiaran.  

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Waiting on set, a normal occurrence. A.D. FELIPE BARANDIARAN and actor PRISCILLA MORGAN on set in Redwood City, CA.

So many things went wrong in the making of this picture. A month before production started, Allison Ewing (Charlene) broke her toe. The night before day one of production, she was hit on the head when a set photo fell off the wall. Thank God she didn’t sue us or lose an eye. Geez!

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Actor ALLISON EWING on set.

Then she had an allergic reaction to the prop cream applied on her face. I can’t make this up. Finally, we called for a priest to exorcize the demons attacking our set. Just kidding. We should have, because the list goes on.  We lost three hours of filming one day and had to return actors (and pay them again) to the set the following day when we shot a whole scene in the wrong wardrobe. 

But the worst thing?

During our post production process, on October 4, 2021 (I’ll never forget the date), our edited Adobe Premiere file that was saved on a vaguely labeled hard drive, was accidentally reformatted and completely wiped. Gone. Buh bye.

Yep, it was fully deleted. THE WHOLE MOVIE. 

I spent hours in a dark room eating my emotions that day. Three months of editing work. Gone. We thought we had to start over with the raw files (we had all the original, raw film files backed up but not the edited movie). LESSON LEARNED. 

Thankfully, a good film friend (thanks Francy) guided me to a genius, wizard-like specialist in Los Angeles who miraculously recovered our film for a pretty penny (or one hundred thousand of them).  See, making a movie takes God’s help. 

So, we got our film back and just lost about a month of work and somehow limped our way to a virtual premiere with Cinequest Film Fest in April 2022 as well as an in person premiere August 2022 (along with screenings in Chicago, IL and Pasadena, CA).

BUT…Things continued to fall apart and the filmmaking road got even bumpier. I can’t even get into it here because it’s still too raw and I might just crawl under my covers and never come out. 

Needless to say, I learned a lot. Here’s some of my takeaways: 

Cast and crew is everything. Telling the best version of your story requires good human beings. For the most part I scored here. 

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Filming on set, late night in Redwood City. Actors CAMERON JAMES MATTHEWS, ALLISON EWING, JUSTIN JAMES HUUGHS and MARAL MILANI.

Watch dailies. We were moving so fast and the budget was tight, blah blah. Somehow we lost a whole scene, albeit a short one, that was purely for scene transition, but it was lost. How? Not fully sure. But if I would have been watching each day’s scenes we would have known and could have reshot it quickly and easily. We just didn’t have enough time or crew to do all that was needed to re-do it. And I wasn’t alerted to this fact until months after we wrapped production. 

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A still shot of actors ALLISON EWING and CAMERON JAMES MATTHEWS. The only evidence I have of this sequence, footage was never found. I still get sad about it.

Sound is extremely important. Don’t skimp on investing in professional lavaliers, booms and sound crew. 

Listen to the needs and stories shared nationwide by the IATSE union. Case in point: 

I often felt extreme anxiety on set when it came to time and amount of days we had to film. We only had 13 days.  Eight of the days we worked about 12 hours.  On two of the days we had 14 hour days and 2 days we worked under 8. The last day was about 6 hours and then we had a wrap party. On day 4 we had a light day with a day of press and lounging around a beautiful backyard from one of our locations while actors were photographed and interviewed by local press. I highly recommend scheduling days like this. 

But what I’ll do differently next time is ensure our schedule makes time for 12 hour turnarounds. As I said before, the cast and crew is everything. I want to take care of them. As the director/producer I may have only slept four or five hours a night during those less-than-two weeks but I can’t expect that of my crew or cast. 

All in all, I’m proud of what we accomplished and what I learned.

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Cinematographer CHRISTIAN MURILLO sets up a shot with PA Marcellus (he only goes by his first name).

There are certain cast and crew I can’t wait to work with again, and some, unfortunately, I will never work with again. Most important thing–you’ve heard this before: This business is about relationships. Don’t burn bridges. Hire people slow. Fire people quick. Get rid of toxicity quickly on set and in your creative crews. Be clear about expectations, have fun, tell a good story and remind yourself, YOU ARE LIVING YOUR DREAMS and dreams aren’t always easy, but they are worth it. 

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Costumer KAT YEH, like many of our crew, weren’t too prideful to do whatever needed to help out on set.

Finally…filmmaking is a learning experience. Making a film was my film school. And I can’t wait to do it again. Last Chance Charlene will be available online soon as well as the published version of our script

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Until I get the money to make my next feature films, yes films plural, I’ll keep moving forward, making stuff with people I like about things I love. My next short film THE CROSSING GUARD is happening November 5th, 2023.

Tony Gapastione

Tony Gapastione is a screenwriter/producer and director living in Redwood City, California. He founded and executive directs BraveMaker, a 501c3 nonprofit arts charity dedicated to educate, entertain and create community experiences around justice, diversity and inclusion. He and his wife Wendy have three daughters, one labradoodle and two guinea pigs...all of which end up in his movies in some way. Connect with him on Instgram: @tonygapastione
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