The VENDETTA GAMES Diaries: Part 1
By Mother Brain
“Let the games begin”. That was my motto entering the new year of 2015. I already had three short films with Night Stream, Tempted, and The Dinner going into film festivals, earning award nominations, and a few wins. I felt that these shorts gave me more confidence in my abilities as a director and also as an actor. None of them were easy to make, but all of them were liberating to produce without other people imposing their ideas or overstepping the boundaries of their position on each project. Now with that momentum steering me in the right direction, it was time to make my third feature film: A follow-up to my 2012 action thriller Dishonorable Vendetta.
It was back in 2006 at my alma mater Emerson College when I first conceived the screenplay because of my love for police action thrillers like Lethal Weapon, The Departed, and Heat. Although writing action films had appealed to me most of my life, I wanted to challenge my creative sensibilities by emphasizing grounded, complex characters with the centerpiece of the story being DEA Agent Keith Miller. Thereʼs a fine line between justice and vengeance that Miller walks and I wanted to keep the audience guessing as they follow his path which could lead to either redemption or self-destruction. I also wanted to depict the idea of having it all (i.e., wealth, cars, women, etc.) and doing drug dealing to fuel the excess can be a self-destructive path at the expense of the less fortunate.
As the script grew more ambitious, I had stopped to do my first feature film Priceless and figured I would make the other movie if I had moved to LA to shop it around town. But the motivation to produce it independently came from my friendship with Chris Corulla whose family I’ve been close to for years. I was surprised to learn he had acting abilities when I worked on his dad’s mafia movie which led me to send him my script. Originally, I had myself lined up to play the hot-headed Miller and Chris to play my family man partner Stokes. Then I chose to reverse the roles primarily because of my fear that festivals would not take me seriously as a director trying to play lead at the time.
In a nutshell, DV took an entire year to shoot. We had to work with everyone’s hectic schedules and heavy rewrites were in order whenever we ran into issues with actors and locations. I did manage to resolve most of my budgetary issues through producer friends on Staten Island who believed in my talents. I can never forget the time they put into the film as far as helping me shoot scenes and the late nights editing at the home studio. When it came to the business part, however, I have my regrets because of the lack of knowledge I had about film distribution and marketing. The creative side of me was always stronger and I felt they had the experience with generating a profit. The deal we made with a certain distribution company would prove to be a bust. By the time we started talking festivals, the ship had already sailed with the times. I still love those guys though. They still took that extra step with me while everyone else said otherwise.
DV was overall a positive experience because of the talent in front of and behind the camera. It’s where I cast J.R. Carter as my character’s boss Agent Marks and we struck up a friendship outside of acting. Then there was Konstantin Soukhovetski, a world class Russian pianist originally cast as a henchman but got expanded to the lead villain when his performance topped all the other main villains we had previously. The core of my crew remained tight with Clint Higgins as my cinematographer, Adam Chinoy as my gaffer, and my longtime friend Albert Albanese as my first assistant director. Most of these guys devoted their time without compensation. They believed in my talents while also seeing an opportunity to step up their games.
The thought of making a DV sequel came to me midway through the shoot. I was just so excited with what I was seeing from my actors that I felt the need to return to this world somewhere down the line. To do it right, however, the script could not be a typical sequel where it’s the same story redressed in a new setting. TV shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad were living proof that the best way to continue a story every year was to follow a natural progression for the lead characters. Knowing where DV ended, I knew where I wanted the sequel to begin for the three leads of Agents Miller, Stokes, and Marks. I also knew that I wanted the crux of the story to be in a casino setting because of the attraction of people betting their lives away one chip at a time.
As I spent two years shaping up the premise and my outline for the sequel, real life events affected my writing style. For myself and my main actors, we had dealt with losses in our families, rocky relationships, and health scares. There was even a bad car accident where some seriously stoned out kid crashed through the front yard of my home on the night I started writing the first few pages of the script. Ironically enough, I was writing a car scene when it had happened. Suddenly, I became less excited about writing fist fights and shootouts. I wanted to explore family dynamics, the struggle to maintain a good job while maintaining your sanity towards family, and yes even divorce. Everything ties together more than my marketing strategy would lead you to believe. I consulted with my returning actors and crew about the storyline before I had a nearly polished draft by fall of last year. From there, it was all about stepping up as a leader and putting a new production team together.