They learned cinematography on YouTube, “borrowed” equipment from UC Santa Cruz and now they’re bringing movie magic to the Peninsula.

Tony Gapastione, far left, chats with his actors while filming a proof of concept trailer to raise funds for his feature The Thorns We Live With. (Image via Evan Ajuria)

A dysfunctional family is having a fight during dinner. Nothing new there. But if you take a step back, you’ll find a boom mic operator hoisting his javelin-length pole just above their heads, capturing every barbed insult — while two cameramen peak over their shoulders, recording tense bites of pie. Take another step back and you’ll discover the director watching the drama unfold on a wireless monitor, the script supervisor following the argument on the page, and the clapperboard operator waiting to swoop in between takes.

Raise a toast to our local filmmakers! (Image via Evan Ajuria)

This production isn’t in Hollywood — or even Southern California. It’s the latest project of Redwood City’s BraveMaker, a film organization run by Tony Gapastione. This director and his crew refuse to leave storytelling to tinseltown tycoons. And they’re in good company. Bay Area production groups like Guerilla WanderersStageOne, and Mammoth Pictures are also leaving their cinematic footprint on our area.

That’s not to say it’s easy for filmmakers to thrive this far north of Los Angeles. Many have tried and failed to keep the reels rolling. “It’s difficult to get traction here,” acknowledges Christopher Denise of StageOne.

Even so, Denise, Gapastione, and several more spirited production groups are finding viable ways to operate in the Bay — and they achieve it by sticking to a similar strategy. Here’s what they all have in common.

On the set of Guerilla Wanderer’s show Doucheaholics, filmed at StageOne. (Image via Guerilla Wanderers)

The Grit and the Glory

Like successful folks in any field, our prominent local filmmakers aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves.

Take for instance Sean McCarthy’s Guerilla Wanderers, a San Carlos production company best known for its digital series Doucheaholics. The satiric show follows a support group for those suffering an addiction to chronic rudeness (so it’s basically AA… if that first ‘A’ stood for “asshole”). It’s the number one indie series on iTunes and has gained 52 awards and nominations. But it hasn’t been all glamour, glitz and red-carpet walks.

Doucheaholics in the making. (That’s McCarthy, behind the scenes, far right.) (Image via Guerilla Wanderers)

“It’s a lot of work,” McCarthy says. “There’s a lot of late nights… We’ve been up ’til sometimes three, four, five in the morning, until sunrise, working on an edit, working on perfecting something and stressing ourselves out to get to that point. But it was all for the sake of creativity and making something that we were proud of.”

Guerilla Wanderers and BraveMaker also don’t see Paramount or Universal budgets, so they have to get creative to financially support their companies. Guerilla Wanderers freelances, working for corporate clients who need commercials. BraveMaker reaches out to investors for film sponsorships, hosts annual film festivals, and offers Zoom screenwriting workshops (the latter of which teaches writers how to structure loglines, flesh out scripts and even cast peers for table readings).

And then there’s StageOne, the real jack of all trades. Founder Christopher Denise and his silent partner not only shoot commercials, but they also rent out their studio space for performances, productions and events. “Diversity is stability,” Denise says of their multi-pronged strategy. “[It gives] us multiple ways to pay the bills and spread creativity in our community.”

Guerilla Wanderers have a firm grasp on the key elements of filmmaking. (Image via Guerilla Wanderers)

For Every Problem, a Solution

Another trait shared among our cinematic creatives is their creative problem solving abilities. Take the time Denise and his filmmaker buddies fixed a 1960s camera using only popsicle sticks and hot glue. Or when he salvaged old railroad ties from a construction site and repurposed them as supports for a film set.

Or take Gapastione who avoided the cost of an expensive film school by combing through podcasts, books and YouTube videos instead. “I’m still learning,” he says, identifying a podcast called Scriptnotes as a current favorite.

And McCarthy… well, McCarthy took it to a whole new level.

“[Starting out], I couldn’t even afford a computer to edit as a teenager — and I would pose as a film student at UC Santa Cruz,” he admits. “I would use their equipment a lot of times. I was a little like Catch Me If You Can Leonardo DiCaprio. Everybody kind of knew me as a film student there.” (These days, he pays it forward by offering mentorships and internships to students.)

Knowing that Niche

Our local production companies also understand the advantage of a strong niche. It’s why McCarthy has become the go-to guy for all things animation and special effects. “We have the tools and the team and the specialists to take [a project] all the way,” he says, describing how the Guerilla Wanderers team converted office spaces into operating rooms and train carts for an espionage-themed short.

StageOne Creative Spaces hosts Dave Bundtzen’s short horror “Window Dressing.” (Image via StageOne)

Meanwhile, StageOne has carved out a specialization in set design, building everything from underground bunkers (above-ground) to spaceships with removable sides for optimal camera angles.“I have a knack for it,” Denise explains. “And it seemed like it was a less saturated market… Everybody wants to be a director, everybody wants to go run camera and be the Director of Photography — those were very saturated and I’m not a technical guy.”

Over at Mammoth Pictures, co-founders Kourosh Ahari and Alex Bretow have linked themselves to the specific genres of horror and thriller with a focus on the human condition. “A horror film with depth and heart… has a strong story that is meaningful, and needs to be heard, and needs to be shown to audiences,” Bretow defines. “It isn’t just there for cheap thrills and jump scares.”

Their focus resulted in award-winning shorts like Malaiseand Generations(which was backed by Tom Hanks) as well as feature-length film The Yellow Wallpaper. Their latest work, The Night, will not only be released across the country January 29th, but will be the first American-produced film to be theatrically released in Iran since its revolution in the ’70s.

Embracing the Tribe

If there’s one thing our local tribe of filmmakers can all agree on it’s that the best resource is each other.

There is no better example of this collaborative spirit than the latest episode of Doucheoholics. The stars aligned when StageOne hosted the Guerilla Wanderer show at one of its stages. Gapastione even made a character cameo as the episode’s villain.

On the set of “Killer Couch,” a BraveMaker short. (Image via BraveMaker)

“We’re trying to curate and foster that community here together,” McCarthy affirms. “We’re all trying to help elevate and support each other in the ways we can.”

He points to how the community supported him when he lost his wife, the talented actress and producing partner Elizabeth Mitchell, to cancer early last year. “Rosie Cruz [producer and creator of the Actor’s Conference] and Tony Gapastione continue to check up on me,” he says. “It’s meant the world to me that the creative community has supported my wife and been there for her and for myself.”

Gapastione wholeheartedly agrees. “We’re trying to link arms with other people and other filmmakers and try to promote their work,” he says of BraveMaker. “I’m always looking for young filmmakers, emerging filmmakers — any-aged filmmakers to be candid. Our program is about empowering people to find their voice.”

With that deeply collaborative spirit and contagious enthusiasm, our Bay Area cinephiles show no signs of slowing down. “There are people who are going after their dreams for the first time,” Gapastione says, “… And that’s pretty beautiful.”

Behind-the-scenes of The Unexpected, an epic 2019 Cinequest trailer by Guerilla Wanderers.

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Johanna Harlow

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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