Union County Filmmaker Preps for Premiere at Rialto

'Close to Midnight' creator Ken Castellano screens his second film 'Return to Start' tonight at the Rialto Theatre in Westfield.

Writer and director Ken Castellano explores relationships at their beginning and end in his second independent film 'Return to Start', making its debut at Westfield'son Thursday, Jan. 5 and Thursday, Jan. 12 at 8 p.m.

In 2008, Castellano's semi-autobiographical first effort 'Close to Midnight' was an Official Selection at New Filmmakers Film Series in New York City.

The 38 year old said he knew after it wrapped that he "had the bug" and eagerly anticipated getting to work on his second feature.

For 'Return to Start,' which follows the lives of Vera, a children's entertainer, and Anthony, a bank manager, Castellano said he started thinking about how most traditional Hollywood movies show relationships coming together.

"I was interested in showing where relationships have the potential to be coming apart," said the newly-married screenwriter. "Both characters are – the female lead and the male lead – I guess, exploring the importance of relationships in their lives.

"Whether they're in one or just coming from one, the characters in the film are questioning where their relationships are, and that's very human, whether you're dating for one day or you've been married for 10 years. 'Is this where I want to be?' and that's no offense against that other person. That's where the genesis of the film started from."

Unlike, his first film, which was told from one character's point of view, 'Return to Start' vacillates between the viewpoints of the two main characters.

"When I sat down to write it, I thought it would be interesting to show both perspectives," the filmmaker said. "One of my friends happened to be a former children's entertainer so I used that as a basis for the female lead. And during college, I used to work in a bank so I unearthed those years' experiences. You saw interesting behaviors with money and the people who work there. It's very routine so I wrote that into the characters as well."

Another way this film differs from the first is that in 'Close to Midnight' the scenes were shot in a very composed way, whereas Castellano said he wanted to break away from that in his second work.

"We shot handheld and it gave the film a totally different feel and pace," he said. "It does something to the viewer. You kind of follow the character through their story."

The teacher by day, filmmaker by night also wanted to stay true to his Union County roots. Castellano said unlike the way New Jersey is treated in other current mediums, his film is an homage to the Garden State.

"It has a real Union County, a real Jersey feel to it. I wanted to stay authentic to New Jersey. Not what we normally see depicted on TV. Because I think the state is beautiful in its own way, I tried to pick locations that can attest to that beauty.

"is featured heavily. Down the block Sadie, a really small, really nice store for women is in it. Next door to that is the . In Fanwood, we shot at Two River Community Bank (and) The Goddard School and in downtown .

"All the location owners were great. They were real supporters of the arts. We tried to capture the essence of a lot of these downtown areas," Castellano said. 

Though the screenwriter said he has spent most of his life in the area, he did leave town to study English at the University of Notre Dame. He taught English for several years before pursuing a master's degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Though grad school was challenging, it prepared him to push himself creatively. Castellano said the script took him under 30 days to write. He then spent the next two months working on rewrites after seeking the constructive criticism of his colleagues from his first film.

While he said seeing his words come to life can be "very humbling," the full-time Information Technology Director at Roselle Catholic High School said the best part of the whole experience comes just minutes before the proverbial curtain is raised.

"The moment before it plays and the theater is filled is probably the most enjoyable," he said. "I grew up watching films at the Rialto, I can remember my father dropping me off there with my brothers. So it's a little surreal I guess. They've () really been great. They're a really indie-friendly theater."

Following the screening of the film, which runs approximately one hour, Castellano will hold a 15-minute question and answer session with the audience, something the artist said can be nervewracking.

"You open yourself up and people sometimes ask you the most pointed questions," he said.

But it will be good practice for Castellano, who plans to take his show on the road, literally. Following the Jan. 5 and 12 screening, the writer and director will hit the independent film circuit.

"I'm going to do the festival route and I think what's happened with independent films is people are just taking them to towns or cities that are indie-friendly and build a buzz as well. So it's almost like you're taking your film on a tour, so that's the plan, continue to build a film that way. I think there is a community of people in New Jersey who are supportive and excited about the independent arts and I like tapping into that network and getting them excited about it."

Staying true to the independent spirit of the work, Castellano said he scored the film to an indie-rock band from Texas, Teenage Cool Kids, whose music he listened to while writing the final third of the script.   

As much as he has enjoyed the process, it has not been without its struggles, the artist said.

"Financing of the arts now is incredibly hard, whereas maybe 10 or 15 years ago, funding was much easier to come by," said Castellano, who made the film for under $10,000 with support from backers of his first film. 

The Plainfield resident said another difficult aspect he has faced as a director is "personality management."

"If you're dealing with a cast and crew of 20 people sometimes that can take away from the artisitic. So after making the first one, I thought I would never make the same mistakes again and I ended up falling into the same patterns. I'd stop myself and say 'I have to approach in a different way.' I hope to improve," said Castellano who has a third film planned for his New Jersey triology.

An admirer of the work of filmmaker Sofia Coppola, Castellano said another challenge is creating dialogue that strikes the right balance between being witty and still sounding real.

During his day job, Castellano said he also teaches a media arts class and supports his students in their efforts to get in touch with their creative side.

"It's important, whether it's yourself or the people that you deal with, to encourage," he said. "The last thing you want to do is leave your dreams in a drawer."

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit 'Return to Start's website.



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