It’s a January morning at the Salton Sea in southern California. Red and orange rocks dominate the terrain. A refinery bellows smoke on the opposite side of the now dried up sea, which spans across the horizon. A “Breaking Bad” style RV rests in a parking lot under the baking sun, having just made the three hour trip from Los Angeles. One hundred yards away, a six foot hole has been dug on a sand dune. A homemade metal door sits perfectly on top of it. To the right is a homemade tree, constructed from real branches, soaked in papier mâché and painted brownish grey. Burrowed in the branches is a GoPro camera, aimed at the hole. Cinematographer Matthew Stenerson stands above the hole, a camera rig resting against his chest. Below the dune, six people stand and watch.
Kurt St. Thomas sprints up the rocks in his torn-up Converse sneakers to cover the metal door with dirt. He wipes away any visible shoe prints before running back down the hill. He turns around, pushes his bleached-blonde hair to the side of his head, and screams “ACTION!”
Mike Gioscia bursts out of the hole in a leather jacket and thick-framed glasses. A big, grey beard hangs off his chin. He somersaults out of the hole and looks around in awe, taking in the fresh, warm air. He runs back and forth, waving his arms in delight. Stenerson weaves around him, capturing the scene. Suddenly, Gioscia extends his head towards the sky, like he sees something. He crouches in fear and bolts for the hole. He leaps halfway in before yelling “CUT!” Gioscia looks at St. Thomas; they both nod their heads in approval.
Gioscia’s work is not done yet; they have more takes to shoot. He has to leap out of the hole, run in circles and jump back in three more times before he is satisfied with what they filmed. He is exhausted. His jacket is covered in dirt and brown smears run up and down his pant legs. But still, his job is not over. Between gulps of water, he tells Stenerson where to set up the equipment next, and then walks into the RV to grab his big binder of production notes.
Gioscia’s job is never over on set because he is the man in charge. Not only is he the lead actor in his third feature film, a post-apocalyptic thriller titled “The Last”, but he is also the writer, producer, and co-director with longtime collaborator and friend, Kurt St. Thomas. They met in Boston in 1992 while working together on WFNX, an alternative rock radio station. Sparked by their mutual love of movies, they decided to pursue filmmaking. The first of their three films, a black and white thriller titled Captive Audience, received multiple awards. The honors included the President’s Award for Best Picture at the Nashville Independent Film Festival, Best Screenplay at the Toronto Independent Film Festival, and Best Picture at the Magnolia Film Festival.
As Mike Gioscia’s nephew, I was lucky enough to accompany him on the set at the Salton Sea, and was able to get a first-hand look at what it means to be a film director, even though I was drafted as set assistant (a.k.a. painter). A year later, I was able to sit down with him in his suburban Massachusetts home to ask him some questions about how a low budget film is produced.
“He has half the deed done who has made a beginning.” Gioscia quotes the great Roman poet Horace after I ask him whether it was easier to begin writing the script or to keep going. “It’s definitely harder to start, but once you keep going, you realize it wasn’t as difficult as you first thought.” Gioscia has written over thirty scripts, and also has numerous ideas and outlines just waiting for a full story. “I try to write what people actually say. I try to make it real. I listen to people. I also try to keep my action sequences simple to shoot.”
Gioscia is a veteran of the low budget film world. “Some low budget films of the 90s really gave me my inspiration and confidence, like Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, Clerks, and Living in Oblivion. Especially that last one, because it was a movie about making low budget movies, and Steve Buscemi absolutely nailed his role as the intense and hopeful director.”
Gioscia’s latest film is one he knew he could show on a limited budget. It also helps that he is passionate about its topics.
The film follows a lone freedom fighter named Mars Flavian Blair, played by Gioscia, who relays broadcasts of freedom against an all-powerful corporation out of his post-apocalyptic bunker. He is running out of food and water but can’t leave because a team of female assassins are closing in on his location. It is a race against time to get his message out to the largest crowd of people possible.
“I’m concerned like a lot of people about the state of the world, like climate change, never- ending wars, political corruption. I find writing to be very therapeutic; the writing gets out my thoughts. And the film gets my thoughts to the people.” Like Mars, Gioscia is a man working against the opposition, desperately trying to get his message out to the people. He’s working underground and won’t let the all-powerful Hollywood stop him.
A small, one-room building rests behind St. Thomas’s back porch at his Glendale, California home. This room is usually where St. Thomas broadcasts his real radio channel, but for months it was home to Mars’s post-apocalyptic bunker, a set St. Thomas had been building for months. Black papier mâché walls hung against the real walls. An old, dusty leather chair swung back and forth in the center of the room, facing four out of date televisions covered in a rusty orange. Behind those TVs was Mars’s mainframe—a suspended black wall cluttered with knobs, tubes, and buttons. This futuristic equipment was actually a collection of plastic dishes, soda bottles, Red Bulls, and Home Depot tubes painted pure black and hot glued to the wall. The orange rust on the television (and everything else for that matter) was a small coating of cinnamon. A homemade ladder, also just wood painted black, was tucked in against two papier mâché walls that led up to the metal door and into the Salton Sea where Mars Flavian Blair, after consuming a futuristic psychedelic drug, escapes through to perform his reconnaissance trip. And that metal door was actually a piece of wood painted black, with scrabble pieces uniformly glued to the top in neat rows. This is the magic of low budget cinema.
Essentially, low budget films get no funding from major studios. All of the expenses must come from the people who are directly involved with the story, like Gioscia and St. Thomas. “It’s hard to get all of the pieces together when you don’t have a large crew. It’s cool you have all of the rights and freedoms in the creative background, but keeping things moving and everything together like set design, casting, the script, budgeting, crew, food, editing, score; a lot of things. You have to be patient.”
A year later, Gioscia still has his glasses, still has the big, grey beard, and is currently working on submitting the finished product to film festivals such as Screamfest LA, Coney Island Film Festival and New Orleans Film Festival. Gioscia explained to me how simple the submission process has become: it is as easy as paying the fee (usually between thirty and sixty dollars), linking a private Vimeo copy for the committee to watch, and waiting for a reply. More than two years after writing, shooting, and editing, the film is finally ready for release.
I left Gioscia with a final question: where did you find the confidence to begin this filmmaking journey? “We were just enjoying the creative process, becoming artists. We had no real goals. Any reward was gravy. We travelled to festivals, we won awards. It gave me the confidence to create more art and to say more things. That was success.”