Director John J. Budion said he was unsure how to react. There he stood as the audience gave his movie “Rockaway” a standing ovation as the credits rolled at the Catalina Film Festival in California on Sept. 30.
“I almost started choking up a little bit,” Budion recalled. “I just kind of stood there and was like, ‘Wow, people really like this. We made something that people really like, not just our friends and family.’ I thanked everyone and maybe did a little bit of a bow, but I don’t remember.”
“Rockaway,” a coming-of-age film about Budion’s experiences growing up and forming friendships in East Rockaway, had its West Coast premiere at the festival, and beat out eight other movies to win the Best Feature Film award. It was one of 113 films shown that weekend.
Budion, 36, a 1999 East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School graduate who now lives in New York City, spent nearly three years writing, filming, directing, editing and tweaking the film, which is set in the summer of 1994. In it, characters based on John and his brother, Anthony, spend time with their best friends Brian, Sal, Billy and Dom, and devise a plan to take revenge on the Budions’ abusive father.
“Rockaway” made its debut at the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival in August, and won the Audience Award for Best Feature Film. The debut created a buzz leading into the Catalina festival, which is held on Santa Catalina Island and is in its eighth year. According to Budion, Charlie Chaplin used to screen his films on the island, and Marilyn Monroe once lived there. “It’s like Hollywood’s playground,” he said. “Hollywood used to flock there in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s.”
Tim Kennedy, a co-founder of the festival, called the casting and directing of “Rockaway” “brilliant,” and said he was shocked that it was Budion’s directorial debut. Kennedy added that the film evokes a wide range of emotions, and likened it to “Stand by Me” and “The Sandlot.”
“I remember the first time when I saw [it],” Kennedy said. “I told John I was on the end of my couch, and I was crying and was thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”
The movie reminded Kennedy of growing up and hanging out with his own friends. “I hope it gets full distribution,” he said. “It would be a shame if it didn’t.”
Budion said that after the movie was screened in Catalina, he and the cast members changed into tuxedos and were interviewed for about an hour on the red carpet before the awards ceremony at the Catalina Casino Ballroom in Avalon.
Colin Critchley, 14, who lives in New Jersey, said it was a pleasure to work under Budion’s direction because he was open to feedback from the actors. Critchley auditioned for the role of Billy, the athletic leader of the group, but was cast as Sal, a character he described as a loudmouth. He said it was a little challenging playing a role that was opposite his own personality, but he managed to add some swagger and a New York accent to the character.
“It was fun,” Critchley said. “Because it’s so different, it was — not hard, but it was out of my comfort zone, in a way, because I had never done anything where I was that type of character.”
He said that when “Rockaway” was announced as the winner for Best Feature Film, the cast screamed and there were highfives all around. “All of the hard work paid off,” Critchley said. “It’s just awesome to see that happen, and to see where all of those hours of acting and doing a take over and over and over again — to see where it gets you.”
Harrison Wittmeyer, 16, of Philadelphia, ended up in the role of Billy, and said it was amazing to work on the film and to experience its success.
“It was basically a whirlwind of emotions,” he said of winning the award, “but the main emotion that shone through was, we were all just really happy and really proud of everyone who made the film and of ourselves, too.”
Wittmeyer said that he and the other actors bonded during filming, and still keep in touch. One of the reasons they clicked, he said, was because Budion put them all in a hotel together so they could get to know one another. He noted that they almost got kicked out of the hotel, and that their parents were called after they ran around in the hallways. “I have five new, amazing friends that I’ll keep for the rest of my life,” he added.
The other cast members include Keidrich Sellati, of FX’s “The Americans,” who plays Anthony; James DiGiacomo (Dom), who has appeared in the sitcom “Kevin Can Wait” on CBS; and Long Island native Tanner Flood (Brian), of Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Veteran actors Wass Stevens (“The Wrestler”) and Marjan Neshat (“RoboCop”) play Budion’s parents.
Budion, who has several credits as a visual effects artist, said he has lofty goals for “Rockaway” now that it has been recognized. He said he is still deciding where it should make its New York debut, and he hopes it can be screened at next year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Budion said he hopes the film is eventually widely distributed in theaters. “We’re continuing to push for festivals while we open up a dialogue with distributors and sales agents,” he said. “I think it’s definitely a summer movie, so we do have a little bit of time, but I want to maximize everything that happens and ride this wave.”