Petaluma native Brian Kavanaugh-Jones premieres new WWII epic starring Ben Kingsley

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Brian Kavanaugh-Jones credits his early love of movies with growing up in Petaluma.

“It came from my sick days in elementary school,” he said. “I couldn’t make it to school, but I could get on my bike and ride eight blocks to the video store where I’d rent, like, seven movies at a time.”

The Cherry Valley student had an early penchant for expressive genre films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and anything Roger Corman ever directed. So it was no surprise that the horror genre beckoned him into producing thematic scary movies like “Insidious” and “Sinister.”

He was a Hollywood agent, working at the prestigious Creative Artist’s Agency, when the low-budget, big-impact horror film “Paranormal Activity” hit the silver screen. It inspired him to leave his work as an agent to try his hand at producing, a task that requires many skills from finding financial backers to selecting the right script to assembling a strong cast.

Today, he has dozens of credits on his resume as the founder of Automatik Entertainment, a company focused on developing independent films. Recently, Fred Berger of “La La Land” fame signed on to be his producing partner in the Los Angeles-based company.

Kavanaugh-Jones is the latest Petaluma filmmaker to have a successful career in Hollywood. An incubator for talented auteurs, Petaluma has long ties to the movie industry going back to “American Graffiti.”

“Operation Finale,” Kavanaugh-Jones’ latest film, tells the true story of the harrowing campaign to capture Adolf Eichmann, a leader in the Nazi party who was the architect behind the “Final Solution,” a plan to wipe out the Jewish people using gas chambers, mass shootings and concentration camps. In the film, Eichmann is played by Academy Award-winner Sir Ben Kingsley, who gives a chilling performance.

After WWII Eichmann, like so many Nazis, fled to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Although the Israeli Mossad had close enough access to kill the mass-murderer, they didn’t want revenge, they wanted justice. The intelligence agents hatched a strategic plan to lull Eichmann into a sense of security before arresting him to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

“It was a story I hadn’t heard before, and I fell in love with it,” Kavanaugh-Jones said.

Directed by Chris Weitz (writer of “Star Wars: Rogue One” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”), the film premiered last weekend in New York and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.

“It’s been really fascinating to be a part of something that touches people so directly,” Kavanaugh-Jones said.

“Operation Finale” goes into wide release Aug. 29, but Kavanaugh-Jones had the distributor add Petaluma to the list of early screenings — it opens at Boulevard 14 Cinema this Friday.

His mother, Babs Kavanaugh, still lives in Petaluma with his step-father, Mike Witte. She’s gotten used to the star treatment that comes with having a Hollywood-connected son.

“We went to the premiere (of Kavanaugh-Jones’ film “Boundaries”) in L.A. and it was pretty fun, the limo, the red carpet and everything,” she said.

Kavanaugh said her son was always creative, from his days at Cherry Valley and McNear elementary, Petaluma Junior High and Marin Academy. “He was always making art,” she said.

For Kavanaugh-Jones, life with a thriving film career, a wife and three children in Los Angeles makes it hard to get back home for a visit. But when he does, you can find him enjoying the vistas of Helen Putnam Park.

“I think about Petaluma a lot,” he said. “I wish I were there more often.”

While Kavanaugh-Jones shot his WWII epic in Buenos Aires, Petaluma has been popular with filmmakers since George Lucas tapped it as a primary location for “American Graffiti” in 1973. City Manager John Brown said his office has issued 94 filming permits since 2013, which carry a $560 filing fee.

Production companies also pay for impacts of their shoots. For example, if filming requires a street closure, the production company must pay police to direct traffic. The Petaluma Downtown Association can also charge up to $500 a day when a production company wants to use Petaluma’s charming and historic downtown for filming, not to mention the $350 daily reimbursement that goes to any merchant whose business is impacted by filming.

Brown said his office doesn’t keep specific data on the economic impact of filming in Petaluma, but the Sonoma County Economic Development Board reported that in 2017, filming of commercials, documentaries, movies and television brought $4.8 million into the county, up from $1.7 million in 2013.

A city film permit does come with restrictions, meant to protect Petaluma residents from undue burdens. It only allows filming downtown Monday through Thursday, and will not allow any filming between Thanksgiving and Jan. 2, or any street closures during rush hour.

That hasn’t dissuaded several local filmmakers from favoring Petaluma for productions. Locally raised filmmaker Ali Afshar just wrapped his 11th film in the city, with a long-term goal of building a movie studio in town that would encourage even more productions. His films are often backed by Forrest Lucas, who will be honored by the Chamber of Commerce this Friday for his efforts in promoting Petaluma in his productions.

Another up-and-coming local filmmaker, Petaluma High graduate Austin Smagalski, just finished filming his first feature. “Donovan Reid,” which is now in post production, looks to have a 2019 release. The story follows a young man who pretends to be the long-lost son of a grieving family, and was filmed in Petaluma and Dillon Beach.

“After spending a few years in Los Angeles building a career, I was very excited to return to Petaluma for the production of my first independent feature film,” Smagalski said in an email.

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