John Budion has spent the last 2½ years writing, directing, shooting, editing and reworking a coming-of-age film about growing up and forming friendships in East Rockaway. The result, “Rockaway,” will debut at the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival on Aug. 13.
Budion’s movie takes viewers back to the summer of 1994, when characters based on him and his brother, Anthony, spend time with their best friends Brian, Sal, Billy and Dom, and devise a plan to take revenge on their abusive father. “The boys I wrote about are the boys I met in the Village of East Rockaway,” Budion said, adding that he attended Rhame Avenue Elementary School with them, and they all remain friends. “I didn’t even change their names.”
According to Budion, the story is based on real-life experiences that he and his friends had, with fictional elements added to heighten drama. He said the Rhode Island event is one of the top festivals of the year and is an Academy Award qualifier. Budion, who turns 36 on Aug. 26, graduated from East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School in 1999 and then attended New York University. He started drafting the screenplay for the movie in 2014, under the title “Life Now, Life Then,” but he changed the name because he thought “Rockaway” was perfect.
Before writing it, Budion spent 15 years in the movie industry as a visual effects artist, working on films such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Adjustment Bureau.” He said he bought books to learn about writing screenplays, which helped him trim his script from 120 pages to 90.
Budion brought on Billy Hopkins, who cast “Good Will Hunting,” among other films, to help him find actors to play himself, his brother, his parents and his friends. Hopkins chose child actors from Oscar nominated films and hit TV shows. “There are kids 7 to 14 years old carrying this film,” Budion said. “You forget that pretty quickly because they’re so talented and so convincing in everything they delivered on-screen.”
Maxwell Apple, 8, who plays young Budion, said that Budion became a father figure to him during filming. “He is super nice and fun, and so I felt honored to get to tell his story,” Maxwell said. “He was able to direct me to be more like how he was as a kid — kind of shy.”
Maxwell said that he and Budion bonded on the set over their love of baseball and admiration for Johnny Bench. Budion even gave Maxwell a baseball card of the Hall of Fame catcher, and Maxwell said that they both showed up to a rehearsal wearing the same rare Converse sneakers. “It was creepy and super cool,” he said.
Other young actors in the film include Keidrich Sellati, of FX’s “The Americans,” who plays Anthony, and James DiGiacomo (Dom), who has appeared in the sitcom “Kevin Can Wait” on CBS. Veteran actors Wass Stevens (“The Wrestler”) and Marjan Neshat (“RoboCop”) play Budion’s parents. Budion said the film is reminiscent of “Stand By Me,” a favorite of his, and includes a narrator played by Frankie Alvarez (HBO’s “Looking”).
The majority of the movie was filmed in East Rockaway last summer. Budion said his childhood friends Neal Barbiero and Billy Glynn helped fund the film and served as executive producers.
Barbiero, who manages a hedge fund, said that since he and Budion became friends in middle school, there isn’t a character based on him in the film. However, he said, Budion discussed ideas with him during production. “He takes my honest opinion to heart,” Barbiero said. “I think some things he’ll change, some things he’ll disagree with, and I think that’s the beauty of my relationship with John. I can speak freely and know it won’t upset him.”
Barbiero and Glynn both said they didn’t hesitate when asked to financially support the film, and they expressed confidence in Budion’s vision. “It’s not just an investment,” Glynn said. “It’s a piece of my childhood on screen.” In addition to having a character based on him, Glynn, an NYPD captain, also appeared in the film as a police officer alongside his brother.
Glynn was supportive of the actors, and of Budion’s interpretation of their childhood. “I think he did an excellent job of nailing us all down,” Glynn said. “He got it right. It’s tough because time fades your memory a little bit, and you know them as adults, but seeing it on screen and reading the script, you kind of say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember the little intricacies of people’s personalities.’ I think he nailed it.”
Budion said that he was meticulous while editing the film, and that even a detail as simple as the sky staying consistent in every scene consumed him. “I’d notice something and say, ‘I guess I’m not going out this weekend,’” he said, laughing. “I’d make best friends with the pizza delivery guy and make the same sky in 500 shots.”
When he finished the film, Budion submitted it for consideration in the Flickers’ festival. He said there were about 8,000 submissions from 60 countries, and he was honored to have his movie be among about 300 that were selected. His goal is to gain exposure there and then take the movie to other festivals — and into theaters, if possible. “I think it’s going to do well, and I’m hoping it does well,” he said. “Our journey begins at Flickers’.”
The premiere of “Rockaway” is scheduled for Aug. 13, at 2:30 p.m., at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, 20 N. Main St. in Providence. Tickets can be purchased at http://riiff.festivalgenius.com/2017/films/rockaway_johnbudion_RIIFF#screenings.