Article By: Maria Shamkalian
What is your most recent success and how did you accomplish it?My debut feature documentary “At The Drive-in,” which chronicled The Mahoning Drive-in Theater in Pennsylvania, won Best Local Feature at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival and screened all over the country at film festivals and Alamo Drafthouse Theaters. It’s now available on DVD, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, and many other streaming platforms. I shot, edited, and directed the film myself as a passion project and it took over a year and a half. I wanted to see if I could employ my style and process for shorts on a feature. The film was released by MVD Entertainment, a company located in Pottstown, PA.
How did you get started in the film industry?After graduating from film school I tried to get a job with a production company but it wasn’t going well. I took a few jobs working as a Production Assistant on feature films but didn’t really like that. It wasn’t until I started making short documentaries as a full-time employee of Franklin & Marshall College where I discovered my love for that genre.
Why do you choose to work in PA and what do you love the most about working in Pennsylvania?Both of my feature length documentaries are about small stories in Pennsylvania. I’ve done that because I want to tell a story that can only be told here. With my drive-in documentary I didn’t want to make another documentary about drive-in culture because it’s been done before. I decided to focus on one specific drive-in theater’s story because no one heard that story before. I keep the stories small and specific while introducing more general and universal themes in the background. I was nervous only people in Pennsylvania would enjoy my films but “At The Drive-in” screened everywhere from Los Angeles to Savannah to Omaha to Texas and beyond and the reception was always unbelievable. I think people across the country enjoyed seeing something from a different point of view and people in Pennsylvania enjoyed seeing their own region on the big screen.
What are some of your favorite shooting locations in Pennsylvania?Anywhere old fashioned. My two features were shot in Lehighton, PA and Lancaster, PA. I love the Elysburg area around Knoebels. Anything that doesn’t look modern interests me.
What do you love the most about your job?Meeting unique people. My work (from feature documentaries to my paid video production work) is all about discovering interesting people and presenting them authentically to the world, quirks and all.
What is your most memorable, most awkward, or funniest on set story?It was probably my first ever short documentary shoot for Franklin & Marshall College. I was covering a physical therapist who was an alum of the college and one of her patients was an 18 year old kid who was paralyzed from the waist down. I was filming their session and he pulled himself up on to a bed and she congratulated him for making history. I was confused until they explained it was the first time he was able to do that… and I captured it. He was extremely happy and proud. The moment inspired and surprised me. That was when I realized I wanted to make documentaries.
Do you have any upcoming Pennsylvania-based projects?I’m finishing up my second feature length documentary and it’s about the super charismatic Robert Brock and his magical marionette theatre in Lancaster, PA. He lives above the theatre with his mom, Mary Lou, and together they have kept this quirky marionette theatre going for thirty years.
PAFIA has been working hard on increasing the film tax credit in Pennsylvania and bringing more film work to our local crew and talent, but we must all unite to really make a difference. What can you tell our elected officials about the importance of PA film industry and the difference it has made in your life?The PA film industry is important for a variety of reasons. It obviously creates jobs. It can generate tourism. People come from all over to see the Rocky steps and we can create more. The number one comment I see online from people who just watched At The Drive-in is “I have to travel to Pennsylvania now to visit this drive-in.” I see that constantly. That’s the power of film.
What is your advice for the aspiring actors and filmmakers? Some steps to take? Some mistakes to avoid?Don’t be afraid to tell smaller specific stories. It’s really the only originality left. Your stories can be small and niche but your themes should be big and universal. And don’t listen to anyone in online message boards.
What are some good strategies to find more gigs?Create the gigs yourself. It’s 2020. Keep creating gigs and the people and opportunities will find you. If you’re something like a costume designer and don’t create “gigs” then just keep designing costumes and posting photos online. Sometimes you will have to do plenty of work that no one sees before you get a big opportunity. Just go research Leonardo Da Vinci’s career timeline.
What are some of the most valuable lessons that you have learned about this industry and wish you knew earlier?
Gear doesn’t matter as much as you think. I worked on feature films as a Production Assistant that had big time rigs, RED cameras, and massive lighting packages. The final products would lack the heart, creativity, and story that is essential for movies.
What is your favorite film shot in Pennsylvania? Unbreakable (directed by M. Night Shyamalan)
What is your favorite project that you worked on?At The Drive-in
What is your biggest aspiration in this industry?I just want to be able to continue making my films and sustain a living doing it.
What would be the best way for our local PA cast and crew to submit to your upcoming projects?I always welcome people to reach out. I’m always looking for a good producer as well. And who isn’t looking for an investor? My e-mail is AL@monellifilms.com or just hit me up on social media (@monellifilms). Please follow my films (both shot in PA) online as well:
Pennsylvania Film Industry Association (PAFIA)461 Cochran Road, Box 246Pittsburgh, PA 15228(717) 833-4561 firstname.lastname@example.org