“You Ain’t Gotta Go Home, but You Can’t Stay Here”—What I Learned Directing ‘Last Call’
Art and Experience:
Perseverance is the most important trait of an independent filmmaker.
To get your movie made, you have to stick to the mission, no matter what. Of course, you can (and will!) make your film at some point—you just typically don’t control the when.
Filmmaking is a long and arduous journey, often taking years or decades to come to fruition. Many projects die on the vine, abandoned by their makers at various stages, a pile of bones along the lost highway of film financing.
In the case of Last Call, it’s been over 10 years. I first met executive producer and co-writer Greg Lingo in an Irish pub on the outskirts of Philadelphia that would become the setting of our film. He had a first draft and partial financing. This ran counter to what I had grown accustomed to. Considerable money was in place, but the script was not.
Usually, I write on spec, rewriting and revising until it’s ready to share. Then, like most of us, I run around with my hair on fire trying to raise financing. Which often leads down many empty rabbit holes. But I won’t go down that dark road here.
This was different. Here was a guy with a script that needed work (they all do), but had a passion and commitment to his story that I had never seen in an executive. I quickly realized why—we were cut from the same working-class cloth. On the surface, we had seemingly very little in common, he a prominent real estate developer, and I an independent filmmaker, scraping, struggling, and screaming to tell my stories. However, we had similar upbringings in adjacent, hardscrabble immigrant enclaves.
That connective tissue formed the foundation for our relationship and the project. From a writing standpoint, I knew this world intimately. Cinematically—and this is critically important—I had an honest place from which to tell this story. Similar to the blue-collar neighborhoods that raised us, we remained loyal to one another and the heartbeat of the story. This was paramount and a guiding light through the many years of page one rewrites and revisions.
Scripts are ready when they’re ready. It’s not linear growth. Point is, if you’re lucky—and persistent—your film will happen. It just might not be according to your schedule. Plan accordingly.
Build Out Your Team
Once we were comfortable with the script, I got it into the hands of my producing partner DJ Dodd. DJ is a smart producer and highly skilled in packaging independent films. He brought the project to Rob Simmons and Ante Novakovic, two New York-based producers he knew that had been banging out high-quality films in our budget range.
We hit it off from the jump and after a few conference calls and meetings, our producing team was in place. Last Call was off and running.
Casting Is Everything
It is said that directing is 90% casting. In my case, perhaps more! Never in my wildest dreams could I have envisioned the cast my producers were able to assemble, in under a month, no less. Truly remarkable work that continues to stun me to this day. I often joke with DJ that I don’t need “names,” only good actors. But having the advantage of working with such a seasoned ensemble proved vital on Last Call.
Like many low-budget indies, our schedule didn’t allow for a rehearsal period. I love actors and everything acting, including rehearsing—playing in the sandbox, finding little details in the corners, without the pressure of time ticking away on set.
But we didn’t have that luxury, so I had to find time between setups, and our veteran cast made that one less thing to worry about. But allow me to step back…
Rob had worked with the marvelous Taryn Manning on a previous project. She was the first to come aboard. I cannot tell you how important this step was for us. It instantly legitimized Last Call in the eyes of other talent, and for that, I’m forever grateful. Moreover, I was floored to be able to create with a force as powerful as Taryn, and was intrigued with her playing a role against type. The nice girl for once!
Similarly, DJ had worked with the legendary Bruce Dern on an earlier film. I’ll never forget the call from Bruce—9 p.m. on a Sunday night.
“Paolo,” he said in his grizzly voice, “we need to talk about this ending.”
Now, I don’t get nervous much, but at this point, there’s a lump in my throat. You see, there’s a compromising scene at the end of Last Call involving Bruce’s character, Coach Finnegan.
“I fucking love it! It’s like The Hangover for adults!” he exclaimed. I picked myself off of the floor and two hours later (and a legal pad full of notes), Bruce was on board.
Things snowballed from there. Jeremy Piven came through Taryn’s rep, and we had our leads cast.
As we continued to gain momentum, DJ suggested Jack McGee for the dad. Greg had grown up with Jamie Kennedy, and he was intrigued about working on a film about his hometown. Same for Cheri Oteri. I grew up with Peter Patrikios, and he was stellar in a table read from a while back, so we brought him on. Rob called Zach McGowan, whom he’d worked with prior. Same for Jason Richter. Ante called Cathy Moriarty. You get the idea.
We didn’t use a traditional casting director on Last Call. We leveraged our relationships, and it worked out exceptionally well. This is not to disparage the importance of CDs—they’re typically a vital component in the development of a film, and I love working with them, as they often bring fresh perspectives on roles and pairings. But it does underscore the importance of building out your team. This is a relationship business, after all.
Prep. Then Throw It All Away.
That’s advice from mentor and legendary director coach Judith Weston.
Her books, Directing Actors and The Filmmaker’s Intuition, are bibles for me. I cannot recommend them enough. As you know, it takes a long time to get an independent film off of the ground. Use it to your advantage.
Having spent years with these characters, I was able to do a solid amount of script analysis. I knew them inside and out—their dreams, fears, secrets, guilty pleasures, musical and political preferences. I won’t necessarily share any of this, but I have it at my disposal and can disperse nuggets as the needs arise. Which they inevitably will, particularly when actors have questions about their characters.
And they undoubtedly will pepper you with questions, which is exactly what you want! A prepared director uses this time to build rapport with the cast and deepen their understanding of your vision for the film. With whatever limited time I could carve out, I made sure to speak with every cast member at length about their role and their thoughts on the film. For a film such as Last Call where the flavorful neighborhood is prominently featured, this proved vital and allowed its inhabitants to sink into their situations in a natural way that was a tonal fit.
For me, the major benefit of this degree of preparation is that it allows you the freedom to throw it all away the moment you step on set. This requires a measure of self-trust that it will be there when you need it, but the freedom it creates allows you to remain engaged moment by moment. It will be there. Stay in the moment.
Filmmaking, like spinning a tall tale, is non-linear—an idea here, an overheard thought there, a “what if”—and the next moment you’re cascading down a path light-years more adventurous than what you had on the page. Creating in this invigorating manner is sensory rapture, and actors love it.
As Jeremy likes to say, “We can do no wrong. We’re just playing around.”
This is not winging it. You’ve already done your homework. This is opening up to the magic the assured director finds by letting go and trusting the process.
This applies to your own talents along with the obvious restrictions of independent filmmaking. Surround yourself with collaborators that accentuate your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.
I’m a people person and making those around me feel comfortable comes naturally. But I’m not the most technically proficient filmmaker. In my first meeting with DP George Gibson, I let him know I wouldn’t be spending a lot of time behind the monitor in the video village. It just doesn’t work for me. To feel it, I need to be next to the camera and as close to the actors as possible. Of course, we had to be simpatico from a visual perspective, but I needed to know he felt secure as the guardian of the frame.
I had never worked with any of the crew. Not one member. Thus, it was essential to establish trust and an easy working relationship with 1st AD Matthew Panepinto, who was familiar with many of them. Armed with an honest appraisal of my own skillset, our early conversations were open and frank, which set the tone for relatively smooth production.
Speaking of crew, this goes without saying, but respect their time both on and off set. They’re working absurd hours, apart from loved ones, to bring your vision to life. Value their opinions. It’s not about my idea, it’s about the best idea. I believe a set should reflect that film’s tone, and ours was an unapologetic comedy with a big heart. While Matthew certainly ran a professional set, I’m confident we had the right balance of gravity and levity.
Know Who You’re Making the Film For
For me, it was Vito Fagnani, the departed owner of Angie’s Deli in West Philly, and my first boss as a young teenager. I thought of him often during production and after particularly trying days.
I found his kindred spirit in Janet Walczyk, owner of the tavern that bore her last name. She opened her home to us and allowed our crew to transform it into Callahan’s Pub. Her warm smile was a welcome sight every day on set and a quick reminder that this film is for the working class that raised me. Sadly, she passed recently due to COVID and never got to see the finished film. I hope we made her proud.
Everyone follows the fearless leader, so make decisions, even when you’re uncertain. It can be an unnerving feeling when everyone is standing around waiting for you to make a choice. But no one likes a shaky captain, and cast and crew alike will toss you overboard if you’re ambiguous or even worse, aloof.
Life’s too short, and filmmaking is too hard, so remember to breathe and enjoy the ride.
We’re a lucky lot, us storytellers. It’s quite the privilege.
LAST CALL is available In Theaters, On Demand and Digital March 19th 2021.