Often when I talk with visitors or recent transplants, they tell me Wilmington is “a college town.” Yes, I concede, there is a university on College Road and a large community college in downtown Wilmington. And, yes, employment to UNCW is what brought my family here. “That’s why there is so much going on,” they tell me.
“Well, no—I wouldn’t say that,” I respond. “I mean, yes, there are colleges bustling with activity, but, really, what spawned the things you are excited about and interested in … well, a lot of it came from the film industry.”
Then I launch into an involuntary and uncontrollable, but hopefully brief, history and economics lesson about Dino De Laurentiis opening the movie studio and the influx of people here bringing creative skills to the workforce and our area. One result of the film industry having a foot firmly planted in ILM was the growth of independent filmmakers: people without the kind of budgets and backing Dino had, but with passion, excitement and access to the well-trained film crews in the area. Cucalorus Festival was a direct result of those elements coming together. So was UNCW’s film program.
J. R. Rodriguez is one example among many of the passionate, creative people in the area with a story to tell and a dream to share it on film. Right now the filmmaker is working on a romantic comedy, “Remember Yesterday.” He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to chat with encore about the process, his team and their upcoming fundraiser at Ironclad Brewery on July 12.
encore (e): So tell us what the film’s about?
JR Rodriguez (JR): “Remember Yesterday” is a story of a Wilmington woman, Jenny Hill-Devlin, who always has a smile for everyone she meets. But, inside, something is missing. When a film project brings her first love, John Raymond back to town after 25 years, things get, shall we say, sticky. Can Jenny find what she’s looking for? Will she have those same feelings for John? Will she get a second chance at her dreams?
e: Where did you get the idea?
JR: I was cast in Temple Theatre’s production of “CATS” in the role of Bustopher Jones and Gus. Needless to say, I didn’t have a lot to do. I was surrounded by a hoard of 20- and 30-somethings—all gorgeous and all having boyfriend/girlfriend issues. Some were from New York, the others from around North Carolina. “My boyfriend is cheating. My girlfriend is going to Europe. We just started dating.” All sorts of mundane stuff, frankly, but I found it interesting and I wondered if I could write a story about these problems and apply them to folks my age. Come to find out, along with my own experiences, it was pretty easy. So much so, the first draft was 256 pages. That’s not a movie, that’s a geriatric “Thornbirds.”
I told our producer, [local Wilmington filmmaker and encore’s Best Filmmaker 2017] Jonathan Landau that, and he said, “That’s gotta come way down.”
There have been a number of changes, rewrites, deleted unnecessary characters and location adjustments (It was originally written about Sanford), but the basic story is the same. The most important change to me is that it takes place in my hometown!
e: Why is it important for you to make this film now?
JR: For two simple reasons: 1. Our legacy. I look at companies like Dogma and Honey Head Films and I see their passion and drive to tell great stories and grow as artists; I just want to be part of that. What [legislators in] Raleigh did to the Wilmington [film community] was devastating. However, these companies won’t be deterred. I want to be part of that community—a community that won’t be bullied by folks who don’t understand the importance of film and jobs in the area.
2. And this is even more important: With so much hate in the world, wouldn’t it be nice to have a story that makes you root for the underdog, laugh at yourself and feel good? When I sent this to Matthew Heldermann with Bondit Media, he wrote back and said, “J.R., it just makes me feel good.” That’s what I wanted to do with Jenny’s story.
e: How much money do you need to raise? How far along are you?
JR: So far we have $15,000 in the bank and we’ve been promised another $15,000 but we don’t have that just yet, so I’ll say we have $15,000 to raise. We have some great investors, including Mayor Saffo and Dr. Ken White. We have had a great hand up by Ted Coughlin and Rachel at Ironclad, setting up this event for us. To get the film shot and cut, we need $100,000. The afterward stuff, we can get into later, but right now I’m concerned with just getting it the can.
e: Tell us about past films you have completed and released. How are they doing? What did you learn from the process? How are you applying that to this project?
JR: I’ve made a ton of mistakes. The first thing, “All in a Day’s Work,” a short I made with some great folks, did really well. It played in Barcelona and Rome and a few other places, and I got great feedback.
My second project, “The Caesar of 6th Street,” I really screwed up. I wasn’t getting the help I had hoped for and decided, in my arrogance, I was gonna make it on my own. I had raised a bit of money, but I was gonna do this thing and show them. I got a great group of people together, started filming this thing and then I ran out of money, the people ran out of interest and they’re nice enough to not say it, but I will: I made a fool of myself. When someone I had never met brought up my writing, I didn’t think much of it, but they wanted to read it. They liked “Remember Yesterday” and thought I could make it. That person moved away, but I started trusting myself.
Not only is “Remember Yesterday” important to me but all my stories, that all take place in Wilmington I might add, are important to me. While working on “Remember Yesterday” I have submitted another story, “Abraham’s Conflict,” to screenwriting festivals. It’s next in line to produce. So far it has won three festivals, placed in five more and is currently up for a few more festivals. Thanks to Ray Wagner, “The Caesar of 6th Street” is being turned into a television pilot. It has also been submitted to its first festival and I’m looking forward to hearing what folks say.
e: Who is in the cast? Any notable crew members to give a shout out?
JR: It’s important I keep this to folks in Wilmington or with Wilmington ties. I want Wilmington to feel it’s their project. I told Mayor Saffo I’d put that bridge in every shot if I had to.
The guys with Dogma have been a great support. I have Jonathan Landau working on it and I’ve been very fortunate to have Jerry Winsett, Allie McCulloch and Cullen Moss show interest in it. My two biggest cheerleaders have been Denise Bass and Susan Kranyik. Their belief in the project is humbling and amazing at the same time. They keep me off a ledge and keep pushing me—‘cause there are times I want to quit. But, I realize it’s too important—and could be too important to a great group of people.
e: Bryan Putnam is doing the score? How did that come together? What is it like to collaborate with him on this project?
JR: Ah, my dear Bryan. Bryan has done it, man. Bryan has shown his work everywhere. We’ve had such a great relationship through the years, and when he moved back to Wilmington from NY, we would see each other at Luna [Caffe on Castle Street.]
It came down like this: One morning I was cutting and not paying attention to anything, headphones on, the whole bit. Bryan walked up, grabbed my shoulder, said “hello,” and I ripped off the headphones and said, “I want you to write the music for this.” He of course responded, “Can I read it?” I got lucky: He liked it.
On a side note, I planned for some of the “theatre” scenes to be rehearsals for “Chicago.” Bryan and I are talking about changing that to his theatrical masterpiece, “The ToyMaker” [which has plans for relaunch in ILM in spring 2019.]
e: What are the plans for the film? The festival circuit? Do you have a distributor?
JR: I’m gonna try and raise some more money once it’s made to send it to festivals but, honestly, I’ve had interests from three companies, including Bondit. Matthew wants to see the rough cut and he has said he wants to be my distribution agent. For a guy at Bondit, I’m beyond humbled and that’s my first stop.
e: What advice do you have for fellow filmmakers chasing their dreams?
JR: All the stereotypical stuff: Chase your dreams, believe in yourself. All that is great. But, at the end of the day, the person that has to believe in your project is you. Lou [Criscuolo, founder of Opera House Theatre Company,] taught me that. He believed in me and thought I had something to say. The project is actually dedicated to my old boss. You have to stand up to your own doubts. I’ve quit a hundred times, for like a few hours. Then, back to work. I have a great project and I’m gonna get it made. Just like a lot of other folks.: They have great projects and, damn it, they need to make them. If I can help them, I will. But stand above the doubts.
e: What can people expect at the fundraiser?
JR: We’re gonna be viewing the new teaser trailer and that’s the central plan, but there’s so much more. We’re debuting Bryan’s music for the project, and we have some great food lined up. We’ll have all the fun stuff, like a silent auction—Disney tickets, Broadway tickets, an afternoon cruise and theatre tickets from our local, amazing companies, food, skating lessons, dance lessons. We’re also having a 50/50 raffle we’re pushing. And the film receives a buck off every drink.