There are films that slowly come together before the audience as we assemble the information with the characters, then there are those that completely unravel before our eyes in one instant, leaving us shaken to the core. AFTER is that second kind of film – one that teases into its world with a depth of character and subtly of performance rarely seen in independent film, then basically punches you in the gut when it knows it will hurt the most. It’s a shockingly mature film from a first time director and stays with you days, weeks even, after viewing. AFTER is a tragedy, but after talking with the creators, director/producer Pieter Gaspersz and writer/producer/actress Sabrina Gennarino, the real tragedy could have been it almost never made it to the theatre. (Note: AFTER is a film about a giant family secret. I’m not going to tell you what the secret is. Do yourself a favor, avoid other reviews etc. that might spill, and just watch the film. It’s so rare these days to be honestly surprised in the theater– treat yourself to this experience while you can. I promise nothing below will ‘spoil it.’)
I had a opportunity to speak with the husband and wife creative team behind AFTER and I have to admit, it was hard not to get excited by the passion they have poured into this project for over ten years. The events of the film take place in an icy upstate New York town where a middle class family, the Valentinos, are desperately clinging to the small amount of comfort and happiness they have scraped together in the face a difficult world. The family business, a stone-work shop, is on the verge of failing as the patriarch, Mitch (John Doman of The Wire and more recently Rizzoli & Isles) basically abandons it to his son to take care of his early-Alzheimer’s wife Nora (the amazing Kathleen Quinlan). Left to run the shop with little or no input from his dad, Christian (SVU and Orange is the New Black regular Pablo Schreiber) contemplates writing his father out of the business without him knowing. Meanwhile Nicky (Adam Scarimbolo, A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS) and Maxine (writer/producer Sabrina Gennarino) are just trying to find some peace for themselves. Nicky is in and out of fist-fights and angry at the rest of the family and Maxine struggles to live up to her two sisters, one happily married at home with a child and the other long since gone to the excitement of New York City. Every week the family gathers together to watch the latest videotaped message from Samantha, the only thing that still seems to reach Nora in her condition. These kind of relationships live more often in the world of great theatre, an Arthur Miller play or maybe even Sam Shepherd. Every character has their own struggles and victories, and we get the great pleasure of watching them play out on screen. It is actually quite shocking the delicate balance that director Pieter Gaspersz has created in AFTER. Every character feels like the star of their own movie, with each storyline playing into the central secret that the family won’t speak about even at their own dinner table.
AFTER began its long journey to the screen in 2002, with an idea that turned into the first script Sabrina Gennarino had ever written. “I never intended to make it. I’m an actor,” she says, “I just sort of started writing it as a healing piece for myself.” If the family life seems so rich “it is because it’s my family,” she admits, “I do come from ‘write what you know’ – my youngest brother Nick, Nicky’s character, was doing tattoos, he’s covered in them, he’s a bit of a rebel, my brother Chris is Christian, he runs the business for my parents.” The script came to her very fast, with the ending ‘crystal clear’ as well as a large wedding set piece near the end of the film involving ‘Aunt Kat.’ Strangely, this one character entered the story late in the process, an aunt who is basically the same age as Maxine, becomes the means to which the big secret comes out. Aunt Kat is a borderline alcoholic who starts working at the bar with Maxine when she is supposed to be back at the house, watching Nora. “I felt like she was something I needed,” says Gennarino, “because Mitch would have to go do things, and there needed to be somebody else there.” Kat is played by Diane Neal, another SVU star, and is one of the true finds of the film. She glows every second she is on screen and her scenes with Gennarino’s Maxine are some of my favorite. “I was so grateful that she came to mind because these scenes with her, and the bar scenes, are funnier, lighter scenes,” the writer says, also confessing that she herself is more of a combination of Kat and NYC-gone daughter Sam. With her own family to draw inspiration from, the script came together naturally, she says, “you start writing the people, the scenes then come to you – what are these people about and what’s the situation they would be in.”
Casting AFTER, director Pieter Gaspersz explains, was not done in the traditional way, or for the traditional reasons. “If we cast with big name actors, one star after another star, then the focal point becomes it’s [that star’s]movie,” he says, “the beats and the moments of the family and the tension between them are the focal point of the story.” The director continues: “I wanted the talent to allow the audience to disappear into the story. The whole story is the awakening of Nora and we put the audience in the same position. As Nora learns more, so does the audience.” It is true, the real strength of the film is how these actors literally become this family – at the end I wished it had been a television series, I felt like I had gotten to know these people so well. “We didn’t really audition that many people,” Gennarino says, “Pieter liked to go and actually watch interviews of them as a person and get an idea of who they are … because everyone just really needed to be real.” Shooting on 35 mm, Gaspersz knew they wouldn’t have time for a lot of takes or extensive coverage, he needed actors who could look into their own life and bring that realism to set without much encouragement. “The little nuances of their own personalities” make their way into the personalities, he says, “I wasn’t looking to get in their way.” The actors also had a rare advantage: they all met Gennarino’s family and spent time with them. “It’s even my parent’s stone shop,” Gennarino says, “that’s what they do, so we got to be on location there.” “Setting the challenge and setting the bar for the actors,” Gaspersz adds, “being in the environment, allowed them to disappear into the character.”
Of course, having great actors is one thing, putting them all in the same room (for some of the most important scenes of the film), is another thing. Gaspersz admits: “I took on the hardest challenge I could, first time out.” The centerpiece scene of the film takes place at dinner. “Everyone hates covering table scenes unless you’re Quentin Tarantino who can do magic with them,” says Gaspersz. “The story is bigger than me as a director, a fly on the wall, so big scenes like that it stated off as ‘here’s my shot list’ and when we got into actual shooting of it, as it progressed, I moved the camera around based on who I thought we needed to feature.” The result is an effortless schooling in tension and explosion, and really, a lot of this film is less about the fact, and more about the reaction. “It became about the pieces,” says the director, “we didn’t have time to rehearse, and I didn’t really want that … I wanted them to come from the guts.”
The location helped more than just the cast as the film, which is actually a period piece set a decade ago, has an authentic quality that is usually hard to achieve on an indie budget. “In Rochester, a lot of people drive 10 year old cars,” says Gennarino, “that Jeep, that’s ours, we’ve had it since 1999. … The hair was easy, we all remember that. But finding a working VCR? [she pauses for effect]Except my parents had one.” Gaspersz says the conversation with his art director about the look of the film was an extensive one. They “talked for hours on how to find the right props, the rights cars – this isn’t something from the 1800s, where no one really has personal experience, this is something where it’s a reality, something you can remember very, very clearly.” Every detail had to be correct, and sometimes the littlest things are the hold ups. Gaspersz confesses: “it’s amazing to do a deal with Motorola and then to have problems trying to find flip phones.”
“We shot in 2009, in between thanksgiving and Christmas,” Gaspersz says, and then the hardest part began. As he and Gennarino worked on the edit with three-time Oscar nominee William Steinkamp (TOOTSIE, OUT OF AFRICA, THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS), the pair struggled to find the right deal to release the film. “The reality of it was, not many people wanted to touch this film,” say Gaspersz, “It’s a drama, nobody wants to make a drama.” Gennarino knows some of this is subject matter, but a lot of it is just the state of the industry: “we had no idea what to do, who to talk to, where to go, we weren’t born in the business with lots of friends and relatives that could help us out, and so that takes the time it takes to build the relationships — you have to be passionate about what you are doing.” They knew as well, the film had to be truly special. “We did test screening after test screening, then we did a test run of two weeks,” she says. And audiences really responded to the film. As they built up a grass root of interest in their local community, they knew they had something that could touch hearts, if they could just get it in front of people. “You go in with blinders on, your focus is to get the film shot,” Gaspersz says, “and the reality is, when we came down to looking at the type of deals we were being offered and the limitations that were there, we just wanted to give the film a chance to soar.”
In April of this year, after almost five years of post production and finding the right distribution company, it was announced that Paladin Films had picked up the rights to the film. “AFTER is an exciting debut that is thoroughly absorbing, beautifully acted and, in a number of ways, genuinely surprising,” Paladin president Mark Urman said in an official statement, “Pieter and Sabrina are a fresh, new filmmaking team, and I look forward to working with them.” Gennarino is very honest about the near 12 year trip the film took to get from page, saying “we just took our time to make sure that we were putting out the best product we could and it sucks man, it takes a of patience to do that. Because you just want to throw it out there and get on to your next gig and create more and do more and doing it this way is a labor of love and we just knew we could do better than most people were offering.” With several more projects in the works, hopefully this is just the first of many films from the duo. Gaspersz adds: “we’re not people that quit. We plan on making films for the rest of our existence, so what’s five years?”
Gaspersz and Gennarino’s AFTER opened in NYC last weekend and expands to Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tampa this week, and Boston, New Jersey and Chicago August 22nd.