‘Action!’: On set with Petaluma’s Ali Afshar
“Cut! Let’s move on!”
Things move fast on a movie set, especially when the cast and crew has up to 20 pages of screenplay to shoot in a single day.
“Some days less, some days more,” notes production assistant Lily Oehm, a Casa Grande High School graduate now working on the crew of ESX Entertainment’s latest movie, “City Lights.”
It’s two days before the Fourth of July, and the crew was darting around Petaluma trying to wrap up local shots for the new holiday comedy, which explains the Christmas decorations that were recently moved inside Hermann Sons Hall.
Produced by Petaluma’s Ali Afshar, who founded ESX and has now produced 17 movies — many of them right here in his hometown of Petaluma — “City Lights” is something of a family reunion.
It brings together the same cast and crew of “A California Christmas,” the surprise Netflix hit that Afshar and company shot here last year with a skeleton crew at the height of the COVID-19 shutdown.
“We were the first production in California to figure out how to shoot a movie safely,” says Afshar, arriving on location for the first time today. Afshar is not only producing the film, he has a supporting role in it, though on this day his primary job was transferring funds to cover various expenses.
“That’s what a producer does,” he said with a wide grin. “We spend money.”
On set July 2, the temperature outside was rising, but the mood was cool and calm inside the building, where a large room had been transformed into a San Francisco soup kitchen for a series of pivotal scenes involving a life-sized Nativity performance and an emotional confrontation in front of the manger and Mother Mary.
“Did you see our donkey?” Afshar asked, pointing to the trailer where a small donkey could be seen waiting for its call. “That’s an award-winning donkey, a champion. Her name is Hopie, for ‘hope,’ because a building fell on her and she survived — there’s always hope, right? She’s a really sweet donkey.”
As Afshar headed inside, he noted that in a few days, the crew would relocate to San Francisco, where much of the film is set, to shoot for several days in the Fairmont Hotel’s legendary Presidential Suite.
“It’s the same room John F. Kennedy slept with Marilyn Monroe in,” he said. “That’s the rumor anyway.”
Afshar worked his way past several crew members and a number of extras dressed more for a San Francisco winter than a Sonoma County summer.
“’Born a Champion’ was filmed here,” he said, referencing the mixed martial arts movie shot in Petaluma two years ago and released last year, with a cast that included Dennis Quaid. “We shot the karate scene in this room.”
Then, a sudden shift in mood worked its way through the room.
“Picture’s up! Rolling!“ first assistant director Marco Bargellini called from one end of the hall. The all-important word echoed forward as crew members passed the message on.
“Good luck everyone,” says Bargellini. “And action!”
The shot at hand featured Lauren Swickard, also a producer and the movie’s screenwriter, serving soup to a steady stream of cold and hungry-looking extras. In a side room, director Shaun Paul Piccinino watched the action on a monitor. After calling “Cut,” he darted out to make a few alterations to the actors’ performances before ducking back inside.
“Welcome to fake San Francisco,” Piccinino said with a smile, settling back into his chair as the team prepared to repeat the scene. “We’ll shoot a lot of our exteriors next week, in the real San Francisco, but the interiors we can fake here — all but the Fairmont, obviously."
The entire crew demonstrates a level of comfortable camaraderie and playfulness that clearly works to dampen the potential stress of making a holiday movie on a tight schedule in July.
Though much of the plot of “City Lights” is being kept under wraps, Piccinino offered a general description of its themes.
“It’s a love story. It’s about the struggles of relationships, the pitfalls and problems that can happen, even in a good relationship,” he said, studying the monitor as the team prepared for the next take. “And it happens at Christmas time. So we have a kind of a Nativity scene happening, too. Have you met our donkey?”
DSX is doing three movies this year, shooting them all back to back. Crews have already completed principle shooting on one title, “That’s Amore,” also directed by Piccinino. Once the current shoot is complete, the team will shift over to another holiday themed project, tentatively titled “I Still Believe in Santa Claus.”