As much as the position is often seen as the visionary on any film, a director is only as good as his or her crew. I used to multi-task so much as a kid making Hi-8 movies with my friends after school and on the weekends. When I tried putting that into practice in my earlier professional work, I got frustrated very quickly because it was too much work on my shoulders. Casting, producing, finding locations, hiring the crew, sleepless nights working on full shot lists, etc. This is why department heads are needed on film productions so that it does not all fall on one person.
After I had my polished draft of the script copywritten with the WGA and the Library of Congress, I started making a short list of the crew I wanted to hire. I had my DP from the first film Clint in mind to return and I wanted my gaffer Adam to be bumped up to first assistant director. For the latter, Adam not only has a strong eye for storytelling but he also did a lot to watch for my performance in my short film Night Stream which I also directed. Since Vendetta Games had a lot of emotional scenes in store for my character, I felt he was the right guy whose opinion I could trust. For everyone else on my list, however, cost and schedules would prove to be a difficulty in bringing them on board. The trick was to keep the crew minimal and to be resourceful with obtaining gear and locations.
For the cast, it was clear to me that the main leads of myself, Chris, J.R., and Drew would return. But then there were tougher decisions to make. The actors who played my character’s wife and son had moved away from the NYC area which meant that they would have to be recast. Other actors I had in mind to return either had personal issues to deal with, joined the union, or wanted to be part of bigger films with A-list talent. There’s never been hard feelings on my end for anyone who turned me down on a project. After all, it is show business. Besides, the way that it was all shaping early on, those closest to me would advise a change in the film’s title which made sense from a marketing standpoint. Why treat this as a sequel to a movie very few have seen when it can be promoted as a stand-alone story with returning characters?
Think of great sequels to classic films: Aliens, T2, The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Knight, etc. The one that stood out most to me was The Road Warrior aka Mad Mad 2. Though the original Mad Max was a smash in Australia and made Mel Gibson a star, it was barely released in America along with terrible English dubbing. Then Road Warrior came along three years later and would revolutionize action pictures as we know it. By not giving it a number after the title, the American audience perceived it as an original movie and were shocked by the fact that it was a sequel when the opening narration began. That was my direction for Vendetta Games: Continue where we left off, but don’t force the audience to see the first film to understand it.
The initial months of pre-production starting last fall and into Christmas consisted of finding actors through referrals, plotting the budget, and see where people stood as far as the main crew was concerned. I wanted actors and crew that had a good rep among those closest to me rather than put out ads for people would could be a headache as was the case in my previous films. We also made the clear decision not to hire union actors because of my own troubled experiences behind the scenes on my first feature when it came to paperwork and the things that go on with year end taxes after the production wraps. If you have a budget and a good line producer to hire actors that you feel will bring more eyes to the work, go for it. Otherwise, I would never recommend it to anyone starting out.
In an attempt to continue to work with actors I was comfortable with, I had started talking to Twisted Sister drummer A.J. Pero about possibly playing a villain role in the movie. We had gone as far back as my first feature Priceless where he played a Russian mobster. Of course, some people took issue with the casting, but I felt comfortable working with him and we became very good friends afterwords. Since that time, A.J. and I had collaborated on several scripts when he was at home and we made attempts to get them sold to production companies. As discussions of his band’s potential retirement started becoming a reality, A.J. wanted to start acting again. Not only would I have cast him in Vendetta Games, but he would have also reached out to his contacts to help us in set design for the complicated casino scenes later in the story. We were set to meet again in the spring a month before shooting until I sadly learned that he passed away on his tour bus due to cardiac arrest. Losing A.J. was no different from losing a family member. Even worse was the fact that I learned of his passing on the day I was set to screen my short film Tempted at the Garden State Film Festival. I picked myself up from my sorrow that evening and devoted my screening to his honor. I also know in my heart that he would have wanted me to continue pursuing this career as a filmmaker that has been a dream of mine for over 20 years.
Going back to the holiday season of 2014, I did more work on the script based on suggestions made by Clint. The script needed more suspense and certain aspects of the story needed to be scaled down for the budget. It would be easy to go George Lucas and make the sets all CGI; however, the polarizing reaction to the Star Wars prequels, 300, Green Lantern, and other CG driven films meant that the public wanted to return to that grounded suspension of disbelief. So I made it a mandate for this film to get everything done as physically possible on set so that there was less work to be done in post. It’s easier said than done as I would learn going forward.