David Bellarosa is a filmmaker from New Jersey currently living in Austin, Texas. His first feature film, Here We Are, is a terrific coming of age story about a writer that finds himself seemingly trapped, broke, and stuck in Austin. Unlike typical slacker films, this is one of hope.
What can you tell us about the film?
Here We Are is my first feature film and it takes place in Austin Texas. Its “hero”, young writer Andy Moretti (Alex Dobrenko), is in somewhat of a financial cul-de-sac at the moment and owes his older brother / landlord a good deal of money for backed rent. Andy has plans to hit the road in his broken down RV with his girlfriend, Haley, a sign language interpreter, but she leaves him suddenly for her handsome Deaf friend Trevor (Russel Harvard - Fargo, There Will Be Blood).
Andy hears about Medico, a medical research facility on the outskirts of town that tests pharmaceuticals on people for money. And so, to pay back his brother, fix up his RV, and finally get the hell out of town, he check himself in. There, amongst a number of other lovable losers, much like his friends on the outside, he meets Misty, a young woman with whom he shares a true connection. If he can survive the testing and keep a cool head, he may have just found the co-pilot on the road of life he’s been looking for all along.
Medico is a place that I made up, but the drug trials are a very real thing. I had friends and a roommate at the time who did them. I tried to do a couple for research and to help get some more money together for the film, but I failed the health tests -- once because I was one over the BMI limit and the other time they found tobacco in my bloodstream. I couldn’t even do that right!
I’ve seen a lot of indie films in the past few years, but I think yours is the first one I’ve ever said, “Man, I’d love to have that soundtrack.” How important was it for you to have music be a rather integral part of the film?
Thank you Gary! The soundtrack will definitely be available in one way or another when we release the film and that’s something for us to look forward to for sure. Music in movies is one of the major things that gets me into a project and keeps me going on it. I put a lot of time into that. I pick out songs for scenes sometimes years ahead and I hold onto them. I’ll hear some music and it can inspire a great sequence for something I’ve been thinking about for awhile or it’ll help me find a solution to something I’ve been struggling with narratively. The music gets me excited to write the scenes and keeps me excited when editing them, often times months and months, sometimes even years, later.
A lot of my friends are talented musicians and they’ve inspired me quite a bit over the years. They’re out playing music almost every night. I’m always thinking about my stories. And so I go out and listen for music for my stories. If I find something that fits somewhere or inspires me, if I don’t know the person yet personally, I’ll usually go up to them and introduce myself and talk to them about the song. I’ll then go home and listen to it about a thousand times, probably in an autistic way, annoying my fiancé, friends, and probably even my dogs. If it holds up to all that, then it’ll likely someday make the cut.
Do you think a film set in Austin demands it?
Austin is certainly a great music town. That’s definitely one of the things I love most about it. But I think Austin is a different place for everyone now. I’ve got my own Austin that I’m living in and my Austin movies demand it!
One of the things that stood out for me was all of the sign language. Is that a big thing in Austin or among your circle of friends?
Austin has a thriving Deaf Community and it’s largely because of the Texas School for the Deaf. Deaf culture made it into the film because for years I worked in the camera department for the big concerts at SXSW and they always had an ASL (American Sign Language) Interpreter on stage throughout the performances, interpreting the lyrics and music to the Deaf audience members in the front. I was just enamored by this. They were so good at it and everything was so expressive. It was this incredible form of performance art that I had never really seen before. I of course developed a crush on one of the performers and she of course wanted nothing to do with me. Nonetheless, I came up with an entire daydream of our relationship, front to back, and how it would ultimately end with her leaving me for a really handsome Deaf guy and how I wouldn’t be able to compete with that in any way at all. That found its way into the writing of the movie as a perfect metaphor for Andy and Haley’s relationship, and a commentary about being yourself, being true to who you are, and the discrepancies in communication we so often face in relationships, especially when two people are just not right for each other and for whatever reason, usually a very obvious one, there is this complete lack of understanding for one another.
Speaking of plots, I liked how your film followed both a traditional theme (boy meets girl) while keeping a Kerouac-like lust for life and hitting the road. Did you ever hit the road yourself? If so, did any of the people you met along the way get represented in the film in any ways?
In many ways I set out to make what I consider to be an alternative Hollywood film. I actually did hit the road. I wanted to ever since I was a teenager reading about Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation in Mrs. Bailey’s creative writing class at West Essex High School in northern New Jersey-- not far from where he actually took off from himself. I left New York and New Jersey in the winter of 2009 after working on movies in New York for several years and a brief stint selling furniture with my father back at home. I got about five grand together and left. Went first to Asheville, North Carolina where one of my best friends from New Hampshire had been living for a little while. He actually rode a bicycle there all the way from Boston. I did not. I drove a hunter green 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. My cousin Diana happened to have a cabin in the woods of the Blue Mountains not far from town so I went there for the winter and lived and wrote. Spring came a few months later, then summer, and so it was time for her to start renting it out to vacationers. The plan was of course to head West, to California or Seattle. I had a friend in Austin Texas who recorded the sound for my early films in school and I always had a good feeling about the place. We decided we would head there after spending some time in New Orleans. My friend and his girlfriend were nice enough to let us stay a little while, mostly outside, in a tent in his backyard, in the hot dead of my first Texas summer. We loved it though, very much, and I started making friends very easily. Not much money, but a lot of friends. Austin was a very easy place back then, especially to meet people and have a good time. Everybody was on some kind of mission and everybody wanted to know about each other. It was completely different then New York City. I picked back up my teenage career of being a short order cook and my friend became a baker. We wrote a lot. Poetry and short stories. Eventually he left and I stayed. I made some more friends. I made a few music videos for some bands in town, some who are featured in the film, and started writing Here We Are. What was supposed to be three months had turned into a year and a half. It definitely was this period of extended adolescence and I was happy for it. There was nothing pretentious or superficial about it. I had laughed more in that time then I did in probably a decade, but, like all great fleeting moments, it ran its course and people and life started moving on. I decided it was time to keep going and I finally made it to California. The long way. I spent a little over a year there. A dog came along. I worked on a couple of films again and then somehow became an Israeli locksmith. This is a longer story. To cut it short, I made some money, more then I ever did in my life and mostly cash. I bought a ton of used film equipment and moved it all back to Austin Texas and began the search for the house for the film and my next home. I found it.
Do you think people are slackers because they are lazy or unambitious? Or because they get caught up in a circle of friends who are that way?
I think it depends. I think there are many different kinds of “slackers” out there and I agree some are certainly lazy. But I think a lot of who people consider slackers are just still looking for something and trying to figure it out. I think there are plenty who just either don’t see the point in trying so hard or just aren’t that competitive. And there is a very large contingent that I really believe just haven’t given up on their dream yet or some talent they feel they may have, whether it be music, writing, painting, etc. Things that are very hard and take a long, long time to master and, if ever, be successful at. I get it.
I think the movie, like all movies, is about a moment in time in a very specific place. That place happens to have been a small city, like a few others in the United States, that for a long while allowed people to do what they wanted to do and the time, sometimes too much time, to try and get it all together. A circle of artists could make their work and for all intents and purposes really be artists or musicians, despite the lack of fame and fortune, while getting by doing odd jobs or selling things on Craigslist or working at a record store or washing dishes, and they could all be together in that, going through life.
On the film’s kickstarter page it says, “It also deals with what the writer calls ‘the epic poverty of ambivalence’ amongst ‘Generation Why?’ Americans.” Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Part of me feels like the movie is almost some kind of permanent period piece. It feels like a different time. And it was, for me. I feel like now the movie could almost just be called “The Obama Years” or something. I just felt a lot of people at the time were going through the same thing and I think a lot of people still are.
Generation Why? meant a generation of people in their early twenties that were trying to figure out what the point of it all was and where they fit in. Unlike their parents generation who seemed to have it all figured out and knew what they were after all along. Like a, “Why are we doing any of this? Why even try? We’re f**ked anyway.” kind of thing. With such great uncertainty comes...
Tell me about yourself. Where are you from in New Jersey? When did you leave?
I grew up in Fairfield and North Caldwell and spent a lot of time seeing movies as a kid at the Loews/Sony Cineplex by the Willowbrook Mall. Also in Montclair, at the Claridge, the old Screening Zone, hanging around Cafe Eclectic and exploring the now long demolished, abandoned Overbrook Sanitarium.
I left in 2009 and have since lived, worked, and made friends all over the country. I have been a salesman, a locksmith, a carpenter, a short order cook, a fork lift operator, a neon sign maker, and done about every job you could do on a movie set or in post.
I’m lucky to have made such a nice home for myself in Austin, Texas where I live now with my fiance Nina, three dogs, six chickens, and three fish.
I do plan to return to New Jersey at some point in the next five years to make a movie I’ve been writing for a long time. It’s about alcoholic orphans and it takes place around a church in a small town in north Jersey at Christmas time. It will be the last movie I make as a young man.
I hope people come out to see Here We Are. I know some family will for sure and that’ll be nice. But when you’re the guy who left town, it’s hard to say who will actually show up! Either way we’re going to have a good time. I’ll be on campus and around town promoting it and talking to people in the days leading up to the screening. There’s usually a good deal of young people who catch the movie and really relate to it and want to hang out after the show.
This was your first feature film. What did you learn along the way? Any advice for new filmmakers?
I learned a ton. It’s a hard thing to do, making a movie. And I definitely did it the hard way. We made an ambitious film. Now doing pretty much anything else in life seems significantly easier. Making this next movie will be a lot easier. Easier to do even better and easier to turn around quicker. I’m excited for that.
New filmmakers should look forward to dropping the angst they have carried with them for a long time about finally making their movie. The angst that gets in the way of a lot of things and can be tough to be around for friends and loved ones. That is a real thing and when that goes away, it feels terrific. You will eventually find new some angst though, but that angst is the same angst that most people have, so I guess that’s okay.
New filmmakers should be wary of some of the different kinds of people that come around when one makes a movie. Some you put there yourself and some just somehow show up. Both can be good or bad. Some don’t play well with others. Analyze people’s intentions and know what motivates them. Do the same with yourself. Success may be a long way away or never, but if you intended to make a good movie and you did that, well, you’re somewhat on your way. I hope.
Here We Are will be screened at the New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick on Saturday, February 2 at 7:00pm
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.