Back in 2011 I turned to my pal, the filmmaker/director Craig DiFolco, frequent collaborator with Sunnyside Films and said, “It’s so weird to think that this is what we do for fun.” We had just wrapped an incredibly heart wrenching scene on our feature Last Day of August. We dug down to some really tough emotions on that set (the film is about a probably-alcoholic, recently paralyzed man and his friends who try to intervene) but I can’t think of a way I would have rather spent my time. We went up against the double-edged sword of short resources and a lot of motivation (along with our great buddy, Sebastian Arcelus, of House of Cards fame) to stretch the pieces to fit, but I’ve come to think these limitations may be the secret sauce.
Because it turns out, people really liked the movie. The New York Times noted that, “The screenplay is intriguing, with expertly handled exposition…nice performances and nice work by Mr. DiFolco,” and Variety said it had, “…strong performances” and “dramatic power.”
Thrilling? Understatement. That Last Day of August was so well received came as a shock to us – we’re a humble duo by nature but we’re happy to welcome the validation for our process. A process that Craig and I have boiled down (and down and down) to maximum efficiency after three features and a web series.
What’s nice about Sunnyside Films and independent film in general is that now it can truly be independent. We can keep creative control and make decisions based on collaborative conversations with directors and writers and artists, as well as our own tastes. In a perfect world, that freedom and independence leads to a strong voice, and there is a commercial market for strong voices. It’s funny to think that a little film that you made with your great friends can make it all the way to theatrical release, VOD , and beyond… and that people like it. It feels very special.
Craig and I have been friends since high school, we’ve worked in a professional capacity together since 2006, and Sunnyside Films was founded in 2010. Along with Last Day of August, which is a drama, Sunnyside has two other features: the summer camp reunion comedy The Weekend, directed by Brian Avers, starring a huge company of twelve actors, led by Carson Elrod, Julie Sharbutt and Heather Lind, and Antidote, a cerebral horror flick (that’s a thing now), which was a collaboration with Craig’s brother, Pete. The range in genres reflects our ease with a few different groupings of family and friends according to our interests, and many of the actors overlap on the films. Heather and Julie were also in Last Day, as was Sebastian Arcelus, who is also iBro in iChannel, which I’ll get to in a second. Brian and Carson and I all know each other from grad school. Pete is Craig’s brother. So they know each other from…birth? What I’m getting at here is that we’ve been creating, almost without meaning to, an ever-expanding modern film ensemble, filled with people we’ve encountered in all different parts of our lives. I could write a whole blog post on how many friends-of-friends and chance introductions have allowed us to make our work even better than we could have imagined. There are a lot of extremely talented people in the world.
We didn’t start out to start a film company. Well, not officially anyway. In 2006 we embarked on a major project to create a an interactive surveillance doc-style web series based on elements from my real life, creatively re-imagined. We called it iChannel. As life rolled by in digital spurts, so did text messages from the audience, telling me what to do, how to do it and where to do it, throughout each episode. Though it was comedic, the series in hindsight seems almost satirically predictive about the kind of surveillance culture is now the norm. Weird, right? So many huge changes in the digital landscape since 2006, but iChannel is still relevant. (In fact, you can watch it HERE! If you want. No pressure.)
When we were first launching iChannel, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘Wait, I’m about to broadcast so much of my own life, within a fictional narrative, that is interactive with its audience…umm, this is scary.” It was definitely scary– but I would do it again in a heartbeat. Remember those weird things we do for “fun,” that I wrote about at the beginning? This would be one of those things.
Because again, turns out people really liked it. In fact, we sold that series to Fox International Channels in Italy and reinvested back into what would become the umbrella of Sunnyside Films. Calculated risk is such a big part of this business – I’ve learned that.
I’ve learned a lot (a lot) since we started. We had an idea of the kind of filmmakers we wanted to be, but it’s been exciting to see those ideas become reality. And they only become a reality if you’re willing to get your hands dirty and figure things out for yourself. It’s tricky, but it’s all about balance. It’s about figuring out what skills you have, and what skills you need. I mean, I have always felt that half of me is a passionate-artsy-type, and the other half loves spreadsheets and good font choices. You have to be able to know when to turn which side of it on and when. You know? Balance.
By day Craig teaches speech and drama at The Marymount School in Manhattan – his summers are often planned around our location scouting, writing timeline or production schedule, or all of the above. He says, “ultimately, we are the ones that are creating and developing the content and steering the ship along the way, and we’re making these at the right price point where we’re not subject to pressure from others. But we’re willing to give up control in situations if someone’s going to make strong, informed decisions that are best for the project and help us get the films out to audiences.” Which should probably be the dictionary definition of “Independent film,” if you ask me, but I might be a little biased.
A writer by nature, Craig brings the hybrid talents of sense and cents – or when to spend time and when to spend money. At Columbia he decided to focus on producing rather than writing/directing so he could understand the business of filmmaking and the logistics of putting together movies from start to finish. He, of course, wanted to write and direct, but he also wanted us to have the ability to make things ourselves, without relying on someone else to say yes. Again, balance.
By day I audition for film and television, and had a role in Martin Scorsese’s recent blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street. I have been lucky enough to share stages with legends like Sam Waterston, and Meryl Streep, and Kevin Kline, been directed by James MacDonald, Ang Lee, and Leigh Silverman, while also maintaining an active voiceover schedule, most recently as the voice of Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel and in many TV campaigns. Did you think we were done with the balance? We’re not. It’s still about balance.
Risk (You thought I was going to say balance again, didn’t you?) is a big part of this industry, and as a business, Sunnyside Films has invested carefully and strategically with time, skills, and resources. Our feature film trifecta was born in fits and spurts over three years and though the pace can be daunting – shifting back and forth as projects able or move forward full steam at a moment’s notice. But that’s what’s amazing and scary and wonderful about the business, you never know what may happen next, and each is enervating in it’s own way. All of a sudden you may be shooting a Scorsese movie for six weeks (#blessed) and have to put everything aside, and then a week later, you’re trying to put together pre-pro for a horror film, while doing voiceovers during the day. So much balance, guys. Olympic gymnastics team levels of balance.
The world keeps making it easier and easier to make your own work, and make it look good. I think each actor has an independent spirit that is truly his or her own, and being able to be proactive about creating content for yourself to give that spirit a medium and a voice (the internet is really good for this) is a no-brainer. You also learn so much about yourself as an artist when you create for yourself and people you believe in, which is the real value – the value is not the project’s ultimate success or failure – that doesn’t really matter. It’s about learning. And I firmly believe you learn by doing. And by doing again and again. (And again. And again and again. And then once more, for good measure.)
Hopefully this gives you a little peek into the Sunnyside Films family. We are, above all, collaborators. And in that spirit, we have created an online collective, FILMHACKER, a space for independent filmmakers to come together and share skills, experiences, tips, and straight-up wisdom. Check back soon for a post with more info on the how and why of that.
This website is Sunnyside’s home, but we’d like it to be your home, too. (See? We’re collaborating already. Doesn’t it feel good?)
Thanks for stopping by!