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Petaluma filmaker shifting gears

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“It’s not easy to get Hollywood’s attention sometimes,” says Ali Afshar, actor and movie producer. “But with the films we’ve made here in Petaluma over the last several years, Hollywood has definitely been taking notice.”

Afshar — who grew up in Petaluma and still keeps a home here — has been sheltering in town since the statewide quarantine was ordered. But just the day before this interview he drove down to his other home in Los Angeles for short while.

After making a name for himself as a performer in such films as “Three Kings” with George Clooney, Afshar has set his sights on making small, independent movies, frequently featuring his home town. “American Wrestler: The Wizard” was a semi-autobiographical tale based on Afshar’s teenage days, wrestling for Casa Grande High School. Frequently attracting big name talent to his projects — folks like Dennis Quaid, Jon Voight, Sharon Stone and others — Afshar has demonstrated an ability to make entertaining films on a small budget, and then put them in front of audiences who appreciate the generally inspirational message of the stories.

The pandemic, it so happens, has slowed down the momentum Afshar’s been building, just as h e is ready to take a big step forward.

“Since this started, I’ve been mostly hunkering down in Petaluma, doing some things from there while we released a bunch of our films on Netflix, which happened a few weeks ago,” Afshar says, speaking from L.A. “I’ve been on the phone with Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, trying to work out the details so we can start shooting another film in Petaluma, mid-June. If the county and the state will allow it, we think we can do it safely, so we’re in a bit of a holding pattern till we find out what’s possible.”

According to Afshar, film producers like Lionsgate and Paramount, along with some other major production companies, have been developing guidelines for safely making a film under the current ongoing health crisis. Those guideline will be strictly observed when shooting begins in Petaluma, he says.

“Everyone working on the film gets tested, and they move into the hotel a few days before the shoot,” Afshar explains. “We’ve already blocked a whole floor at the Sheraton. No more than ten people will work together on set, and they will be separated into ‘pods’ that only associate directly with each other and no one else. There will be a ‘base camp pod,’ a ‘hotel pod,’ an ‘on set pod.’”

The list of safety precautions goes on. Medics on location at all times. Disposable makeup supplies. Individually pre-packaged meals instead of the previous “craft services style” buffet to feed the crew. Disposable tablecloths. Frequent temperature checks for all cast and crew. And a whole series of protocols should anyone become sick or exposed to someone who is.

“There will be some very strict rules, to really minimize the risk to everyone,” he says. “Crew sizes are being slashed by more than 50%. Luckily, the movie we want to do in June has a small cast, and the main couple in the story will be played by a real-life married couple, so they are already in each other’s ‘pod,’ and that will make things a lot easier.”

Those actors, Josh Swickard and Loryn York, are, in fact, the stars of “Roped,” the film Afshar shot in Petaluma a couple of years ago, and which is currently racking up impressive view numbers on Netflix.

“They actually met on ‘Roped,’” says Afshar. “They had their first kiss on camera, and they ended up falling in love and getting married last year. So they are the stars of our next film, and I’m playing a small role. So the leads will be familiar with each other, and we’ll follow all the safety rules, but it will still be a challenge. We will have to be very careful, but we will do what it takes to get to make this movie in Petaluma.”

Additional industry guidelines are still being actively developed, he adds, with all of Hollywood putting its heads together to try and get the engine rolling again, without putting anyone’s health or safety in jeopardy.

To date, Afshar’s company, ESX Entertainment, has filmed 13 movies in collaboration with Forrest Films, financed by oil magnate Forrest Lucas. Most of those movies were made, at least partly, in Petaluma. “Roped,” along with the other recent Netflix releases – “Lady Driver,” “The Stand at Paxton County,” and “Bennett’s War” – are among the last of the Forrest Films productions to be released. According to Afshar, his next film will be made in collaboration with Warner Bros., which is developing its own list of safety rules for the coronavirus era.

The deal with Warner Bros. represents a fresh new set of opportunities for Afshar. While financed by Forrest Lucas, of Lucas Oil, the stories tended toward sports-themed actioners and dramas reflecting a conflict between conservative and progressive ideals. Having apparently concluded the Forrest Films portion of his filmmaking career, Afshar says the possibilities ahead are wide open.

“We can get into different genres, take on some very different kinds of stories,” he says. For example. among the planned projects Afshar hopes to tackle soon is a biopic about the German rock band The Scorpions.

“They were going to be in Las Vegas for a month in July, the Scorpions were, at the Hard Rock, and I was going to do some work with them, but that’s not likely to happen now, since so much has been canceled,” he allows. “But that’s definitely one we’re working on, followed by another kind of Nicholas Sparks-style romance, and we’re doing an action film with Warner Bros. I can’t tell you the title yet, but it’s going to be a sequel to a big ‘90s action movie Warner Bros. released. We’ve got a lot of things in pipeline.”

For now, he just has to figure out how to navigate in a strange new world.

“I’m not worried though,” Afshar says. “Making movies under difficult circumstances is what we’re good at. It’s what we’ve become known for. We’ll just figure out what needs to be done, and we’ll do it.”

And will the future of ESX Entertainment continue to include Petaluma as a shooting location?

“As often as possible,” he says. “Whenever it makes sense, I’m always happy to work in Petaluma. It’s my home town and it always will be.”

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