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East Rockaway native directs coming-of-age film in his hometown

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The crew set up for a rehearsal on Centre Avenue outside Anthony's Pizza on June 30.
The crew set up for a rehearsal on Centre Avenue outside Anthony's Pizza on June 30.
Nick Ciccone/Herald

In 1994, John Budion was a teenager and a student at East Rockaway High School, trying to make sense of the world. Now, he’s directing an independent film based on his childhood, centered on that year — and he’s filming it in the village.

“My brother and I moved here in fourth grade, and we met a group of guys that just embraced us as one of them before we even knew them that well,” said Budion, who’s now 34. He attended Rhame Avenue Elementary School, and graduated from East Rockaway High in 1999.

Though this is Budion’s first feature film, he has worked in the entertainment industry for more than 15 years, predominantly as a visual effects artist. He has worked on films such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Adjustment Bureau” and “Begin Again.” When he developed the idea for a film based on his own experiences, he taught himself screenwriting theory and spent nearly two years refining the script until he was satisfied.

“Every single word is calculated — it’s there for a reason,” he said. “There’s a cleverness to everything that happens [in the film].” Titled “Life Now, Life Then,” the film follows two brothers and their friends in the summer, as the boys plot revenge against their abusive father.

He drew inspiration, he said, from the lasting friendships that he formed as a teenager. “I always connected with coming-of-age films and the nostalgia of growing up,” he said, citing “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies” as two of his favorites. “So I wanted to write something about my friends growing up, and those real bonds that I feel like are almost lost a little bit now with social media and stuff.”

As onlookers stopped to see what was going on, about 30 crew members dashed up and down Centre Avenue on a sweltering summer afternoon last week, preparing to shoot a scene. Prop cars from the early 1990s lined the street.

The film features several up-and-coming young actors, including Keidrich Sellati, of FX’s “The Americans,” and James DiGiacomo, who is set to star in a new CBS sitcom alongside Kevin James called “Kevin Can Wait,” which is also being filmed on Long Island. Line Producer Deidre LaCasse said that although it is early in the production, the young actors have already bonded off camera, hanging out and playing basketball between takes.

Budion said that in the early days of the 25-day production schedule, he has been impressed by the young actors’ abilities. “These are all talented, well-versed kids,” he said. “To bring them all together is just going to be magic, and it has been so far.”

The film is shooting predominantly in East Rockaway and Hewlett, and Budion said that although it has fictional elements, he mined a lot of material from his own experiences growing up. “I wrote a lot of the scenes with East Rockaway in mind,” he said, and called the village a “hidden gem.”

He is hoping to submit the completed film to the Sundance Film Festival next year, and then solicit distribution deals to get it into theaters. The Sundance Institute, a nonprofit organization founded by Robert Redford, runs the annual film festival, which aims to support independent filmmakers and their work.

With the logistics of distribution a faraway concern, Budion said he is just trying to enjoy the filmmaking process. “To have a team come together, [who] are mainly doing it because they love the script, is really rewarding and special,” he said. “I think everyone feels that we’re doing something really great.”