‘American Wrestler’ sequel filming around Petaluma

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Now two-thirds of the way through a 30-day film shoot, locally-raised producer and actor Ali Afshar has returned to Petaluma to make the sequel to his recently released sports film “American Wrestler: The Wizard.” That’s why observant Petalumans may have noticed the likes of Sean Patrick Flannery (Indy on the “Young Indiana Jones” series, among other roles), Tommy Flanagan (“Gladiator,” “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”), and two-time Emmy winner Bryan Craig (“General Hospital”) out and about in town.

The new movie, currently titled “American Wrestler: The Fighter,” is being produced by Afshar’s ESX Films production company under the Forrest Films banner, and is expected to be released next summer by Warner Bros.

Born in Iran, raised in Petaluma, and graduated from Casa Grande High in 1991, Afshar would appear to be successfully turning his old stomping grounds into a kind of “back lot” for his filmmaking efforts. The currently lensing film is his seventh consecutive production to be shot in Petaluma since September of 2014.

The first film was “The Wrong Side of Right,” eventually renamed “The Dog Lover,” followed in quick succession by five more. “American Wrestler: The Wizard” — named for Afshar’s old Casa Grande wrestling team nickname — was shot in April of 2015. Featuring performances by George Kosturos, Jon Voight, and William Fichtner, it was officially released last month in a special nation-wide one-day-only theatrical event, and is now available on DVD, and through various streaming services.

“The first movie was inspired by my family’s story, moving to Petaluma in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” said Afshar, Monday morning, as filming took place at the former site of Adobe Lumber, on Old Redwood Highway. As the day grew quickly warmer, a cluster of trailers and trucks surrounded a makeshift make-up station, where stunt performers have bruises, blood and other effects applied. Inside one of the warehouses, a major fight scene is filmed with George Kosturos, star of the first movie, engaged in a pivotal battle.

“In this new story,” Afshar explained, “the kid goes to college and tries to get his family to come to America, but he basically has to raise money to smuggle his family out of Iran. He gets involved in underground street fights. It’s a little darker than the first one, but it’s got that inspirational, all-American ‘Protect the Harvest’ feel.”

Protect the Harvest is the nonprofit organization founded by businessman Forrest Lucas, of Lucas Oil. Founded with a mission of protecting the rights of hunters, fishers, farmers and ranchers, the charity has underwritten all of Afshar’s Petaluma-made films.

“There are definitely messages in these movies,” acknowledged Lucas, who serves as Executive Producer on the films. “You’ll pick up a message, you’ll shed a tear, and you’ll end up with a good feeling when it’s over.”

Noting that filming in Petaluma makes good economic sense, Lucas — reached at his home in Indianapolis — applauded the resourcefulness of the film crew and Afshar, but insisted that making money from the films is secondary to making moviegoers think and feel.

“We’ve definitely got a real good team together,” he said. “We’re getting some good deals and bargains, by making all the movies in Petaluma. I’d love to make some money from them, or at least make our money back, but they’re mainly just a way to tell stories about becoming a better person, learning to help people out.”

The new “American Wrestler” production is currently employing a crew of more than 80 people, not counting the actors and extras, many of which come from Petaluma.

“This crew has been with us for awhile,” said Afshar. “Petaluma has become a kind of second home for a lot of them.”

To house all those people, ESX rents six houses in the area, year-round, for the cast and crew to stay in when filming.

“Then we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in overflow lodging, at local hotels,” Afshar said. “And don’t forget the food. We just went to the Shuckery last night. Every time we go to a restaurant we spend two or three thousand dollars.”

He estimated that the seven films made so far have contributed more than $20 million to the local economy. Additionally, he added, the streak of local productions benefits the community by spreading the word, throughout the filmmaking industry, that Petaluma is a good location to make a movie.

“This is a great community to work in,” said director Shaun Paul Piccinino, taking a break as Kosturos has a bit more blood applied, and his stunt double rehearses some moves for the next sequence. “Everyone’s been great, the junior college lends us mats. It’s a real community effort, making a movie here.”

Afshar, who plans to make three more films here over the next several months, agreed.

“I could shoot these movies anywhere, but I keep coming back here because it’s my home town,” he said. “This is my home turf.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com.)

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