AJ EPYX PRODUCTIONS’ PRICELESS: A 10 Year Retrospecive
By Andre´ Joseph
It recently dawned on me that it was 10 years ago this month when my first feature film, Priceless, had premiered at Tribeca Cinemas in New York City. I remember that evening of October 10, 2008 vividly as this was the very first time seeing my own work on the big screen after ten years of making home movies with my friends and family. The reaction from the audience was overwhelmingly positive. The cast and crew present were delighted by the way it turned out. But it was never an easy road to get there. Nor was it so simple to release. Either way, this particular picture holds dear to my heart and it shaped not only my career going forward but also the long-lasting friendships I made in the process.
Priceless originated while I was in my second year studying film at Emerson College in Boston, MA. I had just completed my sci-fi quasi-short film, The Evil Society, and I was already setting my sights on a potential sequel. When that project could not come together, I began to turn my attention to the idea of making a romantic film with a slight caper element. Classic 80s TV shows like Moonlighting and Remington Steele came to mind as well as films such as Ocean’s Eleven and Grosse Pointe Blank. But I also was drawing from my own up and down experiences with romance while listening to my friends’ stories about relationship struggles. It would tell the story of a free-wheeling jewel thief who botches a Faberge egg heist and hides from the Russian mob in his old hometown where he faces an uneasy reunion with ex-girlfriend Diana, now a struggling single mother to her daughter, Sandy (Named after my late aunt). My intent in writing the Priceless script was to make the emotional jeopardy of the Lando and Diana characters more important than the physical danger as a way of standing out from typical genre pictures.
The script was finalized just as I graduated from college. Rather than jump into a day job straight out of school or take the Los Angeles route like most of my classmates, I made it my intention to make Priceless my first independent film. The financial backing for the film came from family friends and my own out of pocket savings. I knew I wanted to shoot on the Panasonic DVX100 because of its 24P progressive scan look ever since I saw it in action as an intern at VH1 Classic a year earlier. Now video was starting to get closer to rivaling celluloid film. Pre-production went on for 5 months to secure all accessible locations in Staten Island and Brooklyn as well as assembling the production team which included my long-time friend Albert Albanese III as a producer.
To challenge myself to direct and act in the film, I was persuaded through an actor friend to make Priceless a SAG signatory project to ensure we would hire reliable working actors to fill some of the key roles. Among those we brought in included Anthony Mangano from Point Break (Fox), NYPD Blue (ABC), Rescue Me (FX Network), Law & Order (NBC), and just completed the film 15 Rounds where he plays Sylvester Stallone; Bernard “Pretty Purdie who is the world’s most recorded drummer best known for working with Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, and countless other artists (also the film’s composer); A.J. Pero, the legendary late drummer of Twisted Sister; Mohamed Dione who worked with me on The Evil Society and had played Whoopi Goldberg’s son in a famous episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent; Lisa Regina from The Sopranos (HBO); Robert Clohessy from Hill Street Blues (NBC); Oz (HBO), Boardwalk Empire (HBO), and Blue Bloods (CBS); Brandon Hannan from The Sopranos (HBO); Aesha Waks from Arresting Gena (Independent), Gotham (Fox), The Money Shot (Independent), and A Packing Surburbia (Independent); Laneya Wiles from Gimme Shelter (Roadside Attractions).
The female lead roles of Diana and her daughter Sandy were put through the most serious audition process where we had 15 actresses read per character. Tasha Perri came recommended to me for Diana. Being a real mom juggling her career and family time, she brought the most reality to her performance which attracted me on a personal level. Shelby Renee Reitman would be cast as Sandy because she not only had the cuteness factor but was also wise beyond her years.
Priceless was a month and a half production during the summer of 2007. I can never forget the first day of shooting at R.H. Tugs which was my parents’ favorite restaurant. Here I was directing a full restaurant scene with some heavy hitting actors like Tasha, Lisa Regina, Robert Clohessy, Judy Prianti, and Eddie McGee. Also, this was my first time with a full crew to work with. Over the course of the production, Albert and I grew very close to our gaffers Adam Chinoy and Clint Higgins. Due to their past production experience, those guys were very responsible in getting us past the home movie mentality of filmmaking and made us work harder as professionals. I know for a fact that I became more conscious about organizing my shots and shooting schedule while Albert, who did not attend film school, became more hands-on in accommodating the actors and keeping lines of communication very clear with the crew.
There were some days when things worked according to plan and other days when things got tense like any other indie production. The most fun moments I remember from the shoot were the scene when Mangano and his goons wrecked up my cousin’s Park Slope apartment while searching for my character. There was also the actual heist scene where I did my own stunt by climbing up the ledge of my house with a grappling hook and then later had to evade the Russian mob in my yard. I had my most fun shooting the playground scene with my wrestler pal Mad Dog Joe Stone who had to throw me around slides and fences like a real wrestling match in what was my homage to Rocky III. But when it came to the more serious moments in the film, working with actors like Tasha and Shelby pushed me to step up my acting ability in ways I never thought possible.
I remember post-production as a year-long process. Everything was done off MiniDV tapes that I had to import and then edit on the old Final Cut Express software. Then we had the post-production house Filmlook, Inc. in Burbank, CA handle our color correction and later the final audio mix by Staten Island recording studio engineer Bill Donnelly. But the best time of post was going to Fenix Studios to sit in on Bernard Purdie recording the musical score with some amazing blues musicians. One could say our score had a mix of the classic Motown sound and Danny Elfman’s score to Midnight Run.
Back in 2008, social media was still relatively new. We had a Myspace page to post the set pics and updates before Twitter and Facebook became engrained into daily norms. I even got the rare opportunity to promote Priceless on the movie review show, The Cinefiles, thanks to my connection to Michael Foltz who had been a dental patient of my dad before we became friends. Everything at that time was new for me in the filmmaking process.
After the premiere at Tribeca, I had high hopes for film festivals. However, this was long before submitting online screeners and you had to mail a DVD which could often not be guaranteed to work. I won’t say that was the primary reason for what happened next, but I must have aimed at 7 to 10 high-end festivals that rejected the film. Even the Staten Island Film Festival would not take it. The NY International Independent Film Festival would be the only festival acceptance due to its $100 entry fee despite a nice screening at Village East Cinemas. Distribution was no better due to the financial crash. I felt discouraged by the rejections, no refunds for the entries, and some of the criticisms leveled at my performance, some of the other actors, and the lack of action scenes. One person even criticized it for not having explicit content to sell the film.
In the end, I would self-distribute Priceless on Amazon via Create Space and later Vimeo on Demand. While all this may sound heartbreaking, there was a bright side to the work. In the few years after Priceless was completed, I showed it around to fellow filmmakers at festivals who came back to me very impressed by the effort. That made me question what I could have done had I not given up so easily by the rejections.
Like most of the films that I have made, Priceless was a life-changing learning experience. While it did not turn out to be the indie smash of the year, it opened many doors to support my later films and I made so many amazing friends out of the experience. It made me mentally stronger to face most challenges that come along in the process of filmmaking. I have had the itch for some time to revisit Lando and Diana in a sequel to see how they lives would have turned out a decade later. For now, all I can say is never say never.
Priceless is currently available to rent on Vimeo on Demand.