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‘Action!’: On set with Petaluma’s Ali Afshar

Take a peek inside the movie-making process with ‘A California Christmas’ crew in Petaluma.|

“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.

”Rolling!“

“Rolling!”

“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.”

“Picture’s Up, rolling!” Bargellini called.

Extras dressed as soup kitchen clients ambled back and forth on cue, Swickard chatted with soup kitchen workers as they distributed lunch to a line of extras. At the end of the take, Piccinino is satisfied.

“Nice! Good job,” he calls through the open door. “All right guys, we’re moving on!”

-------

Outside, as the crew prepared for another scene, Swickard visited her trailer, parked nearby, to check on her 3-month-old baby and to say a few words to Josh Swickard, her husband and co-star in the movie. The two met in Petaluma while shooting another Afshar-produced movie, “Roped,“ also directed by Piccinino.

“We could tell there was chemistry between them,” he said, “so it was no surprise that they fell in love, and ended up getting married. “There was obviously something there. They got married, and then Lauren brought us the script that became ‘A California Christmas,’ which became our second movie together. And now we’re making a third.”

“A California Christmas,” shot largely on Afshar’s family ranch on the east side of Petaluma, was made with fairly limited expectations, at a time when Hollywood was down and crews were looking for something to do. It was made quietly, and surprised everyone involved when Netflix picked it up, and it went on to become the No. 1 streaming movie in the world for 10 days straight.

“So how could we not want to make another film together, the same team, in the same town where it all started for Josh and Lauren?” says Afshar. “What can I say? We’re all about love.”

Everyone would certainly love to have another hit movie.

“I do feel like there’s more pressure on us, with this new movie, because it’s the next one after ‘A California Christmas,’” said Swickard. “It did so extremely well, people expect this one to do even better. But with that pressure comes more muscle behind it. Everyone is working so hard with what resources we have. We’re getting a lot of production value from that hard work, because everyone on the team cares so much.”

This one is certainly a bigger production than the last, Piccinino acknowledges.

“It’s got a helicopter in it,” he says. “It’s got scenes filmed at the Fairmont Hotel.”

And of course, it’s got a donkey.

-------

Four days later, the champion donkey is back on set, this time for a scene recorded in downtown Petaluma’s Penry Park.

“Cut! Let’s move on!”

The crew, gathered around the donkey near one of the park’s towering palm trees, burst into applause. Afshar, standing near a table full of camera equipment, grinned proudly.

“And that’s a wrap for Hopie,” he said proudly.

“Thank you, Hopie!” said Bargellini, shifting focus to chat with Piccinino about the arrangement of cars on Kentucky Street which, in the upcoming shot, will represent a small residential neighborhood in San Francisco.

It’s the final day of shooting in Petaluma, and the crew had its hands full, just half-way through the required pages before shooting was set to shift to San Francisco.

“We’ve got a lot to do,” admits Oehm. “We have several more shots downtown, and then we have to get to the Petaluma marina and set everything up for an after-dark shoot on the River. The pressure is definitely on.”

The morning was spent at the Phoenix Theater, shooting a couple of quick scenes, followed by some traveling shots with a camera mounted on the hood of a pickup truck, all before moving down the street for several scenes in the park, including the shot currently being set up. In this one, Swickard sits on a bench with the street behind her, taking a potentially life-altering phone call.

Once finished here, after everyone has had lunch around 5 p.m., the production would slide half-a-block down Petaluma Boulevard for a few high-energy hours at Bliss Bridal & Black Tie, shooting a key montage sequence in which Josh and Lauren’s characters — assisted by another played by Afshar — will playfully try on a series of tuxedos and wedding dresses.

At the moment, though, looking over the park, Afshar admits to feeling a little sad that the Petaluma portion of the shoot is coming to an end.

“I’m always happy when we start shooting in Petaluma and sad when we stop,” he says. “Earlier in my life, there were times when it was hard living here. There was a lot of prejudice. But now, it always just feels like home.”

Stepping forward, he pointed to a bench overlooking Petaluma, with the Sonoma Hills in the distance.

“Want to hear something? When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and was told she had just a few months to live, we couldn’t find her for a while, because she came up here to this park,” he said. “That was 1981. My dad finally found her. She was sitting on that bench, crying her eyes out, looking across Petaluma to our ranch, because she knew she was dying. She lived two more years, but I think about that whenever I come here, and now — what, 40 years later? — I’m here making a movie. My 17th movie in this place. We’ve brought people like Sharon Stone and Dennis Quaid here to make movies. It’s pretty cool.”

Across the park, as Swickard prepared to shoot a very different bench scene than the somber one Afshar has been describing — the correct cars having now been moved into their proper position — a small squadron of crew members surround her, deploying an array of reflectors and sun shields, cameras and boom mikes.

“All right people, Picture is up!” goes the call, signaling quiet across the park. “And rolling!”

“Rolling!”

“Rolling!”

For three or four nearly-identical takes, Swickard gazes into the distance, removes her phone, scans a message, reacts with concern, attempts to make a call, then hangs up. She pretends that something catches her attention, turns her head, and smiles in recognition.

“Cut! Awesome! Really nice, Lauren!”

After the briefest of pauses, Piccinino is satisfied.

“Okay people!” he said. “Let’s move on!“

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