By Stan Friedman
REDWOOD CITY, CA (November 13, 2014) — A neighbor had asked Tony Gapastione “six or seven times” to consider helping a teacher at her child’s school perform Shakespeare.
“I love Shakespeare, that’s what I grew up doing,” says Gapastione, an actor and the creative arts pastor at Peninsula Covenant Church. But “I had no time to direct a bunch of kids, most of whom spoke English as their second language. Finally I said I would meet this teacher.”
Gapastione quickly caught the vision, and for the next two years he taught performance arts at local schools where arts budgets had been decimated. It was those experiences with the students and admiration for their teachers that led him to write and direct his first short film.
It also stars Loretta Devine, an Emmy-winning actress who has appeared on television in Boston Public and Grey’s Anatomy as well as in films such as Waiting to Exhale, The Preacher’s Wife, I Am Sam, Urban Legend, and Crash.
The film, 1440 and Counting, tells the story of 67-year-old elementary school teacher Debra Nickel who is counting down her last day of teaching—1,440 minutes. But her life is interrupted by a former student who is out of jail on parole. He is desperate to get his son out of foster care, and he believes Debra (played by Devine) is the only person who can help him.
“In our community, 60 percent of kids aren’t proficient in reading by the time they get to fourth grade, and statistics say that their chance of going to prison is greater,” Gapastione says. “I began to imagine what would happen to these kids and what would happen with those teachers, and all of a sudden this story came to mind about a teacher who was retiring after her 40 years and wondering, ‘Have I done any good? My kids are in gangs, or my kids have been shot, my kids have been deported.’”
He enlisted the help of some friends and raised $40,000 through Kickstarter. A talent agent whom Gapastione had met and attended a Bible study for actors with in Los Angeles offered to help him cast the film. “I didn’t realize what a top-tier agent he was,” Gapastione says.
On the day he hit his Kickstarter goal, the agent sent him a list of possible actors. At the top of the list was Devine’s name.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Gapastione says. “I’m huge fan and I loved her in Boston Public.” The director sent his resume and script to Devine but remained skeptical about whether an actress of her caliber would want to participate in a short film directed by a first-timer.
When he picked Devine up to start filming this past summer, Gapastione had to ask why she had agreed to portray the role of the teacher.
Gapastione describes what happened when he asked actress Loretta Devine why she agreed to appear in his movie and what it was like to direct the Emmy Award winner.
Devine wasn’t the only experienced actor Gapastione was able to enlist. Jeremy Ray Valdez, who plays the role of the former student, has appeared in nearly 40 TV shows and movies.
Although Gapastione is a full-time pastor, he says the movie is not a “Christian” film though it depicts themes that Christians can relate to. “The whole story is about how every minute of our life is worth something. We might be counting down the minutes until our life is done, or we might look around and see all this collateral damage, but my perspective is there’s this bigger picture for your life.”
Gapastione’s script took fourth place among 200 entries in the 168 Film Festival in Los Angeles. He currently is editing the film and submitting it to other festivals. He was able to submit it to the prestigious Sundance Festival even though it was not completed because they only require that it be 80 percent finished.
“The chance we get in is super small because 8,000 people submit, and there are 150 chosen,” he says. “But I felt good. It was just a bucket list to send something to Sundance.”
Plans are to have the film ready in January next year. The video will only be available at film festivals initially but probably will appear on YouTube at some point, Gapastione says.
Gapastione had to learn some directing basics while on the set.
He hopes the short film will serve as an introduction to his work so he can get backing for larger projects. He already is planning at least two other films, including one that is feature length.
Though the experience of directing was stressful, Gapastione is eager to do it again—as long as it doesn’t mean he has to curtail his acting.