High tops and high hopes

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Long Islander and NYU grad John Budion’s “Rockaway” retraces his ‘90s childhood


  • A still from filmmaker John Budion's feature, "Rockaway." Courtesy of ROCKAWAYtheFilm.com

  • John Budion's newest project "Rockaway," which premieres at the Long Beach International Film Festival August 1 through 4. Photo: Jill Apple

“At the end of the day, we’ve all got cameras in our pockets now. Anyone can shoot or film something. But if you can tell a story, that’s what will separate you from the rest,” said filmmaker John Budion.

His newest project, “Rockaway,” which premieres at the Long Beach International Film Festival August 1 through 4, is loosely based on his life growing up on Long Island with his older brother and their friends in 1994. To cast the roles, he looked to rising child actors from hit films and television. “The six kids carry the film; they’re phenomenal. The emotion in the movie is just the six of them,” he said.

A graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School now living in the Union Square neighborhood, Budion, 36, was able to train at post production facilities around his classes, which strengthened his film education. A fan of coming-of age stories, he credits filmmakers like Rob Reiner and Cameron Crowe as inspirations.

Did you always know you wanted to go into filmmaking?

No, I started out in visual effects and ended up directing directors on how to achieve the shot that they wanted to get and make their self look cool. And then I worked with a director, Jon Watts, who just did “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” I was doing a lot of visual effects for him. He was my age. We were both really young, about 24. And I realized that he was directing and I thought, “Well, I should be directing too.” He inspired me to get into directing and film my own pieces. Then I sort of blossomed from my background in visual effects to being on set.

What was your experience like at NYU?

NYU was great. I was there from ‘99 to ‘03. When I came to New York City from Long Island, I was 17 years old and had no idea what I wanted to do. I went into NYU’s Gallatin School, which allows you to form your own major, which ended up being perfect for me. I was interning and working hands-on with great directors and agencies for commercials when I was 17, 18 years old. So I would go to class and around my classes, I was interning at very high-end, post-production facilities in Manhattan. So I was getting the hands-on training and the theory training at NYU, so it was a double-sided education that really worked out for me. And being in New York City was great too [...].

Who are your inspirations and mentors in the industry?

I love coming-of-age stories, so I’m a huge Rob Reiner fan. “Stand By Me,” “When Harry Met Sally.” I really gravitate towards directors who capture those nostalgic stories. Cameron Crowe, who did “Almost Famous,” another great coming-of-age film. But in terms of mentors, Vico Sharabani, an amazing and talented visual effects artist who turned me from a punk kid from Long Island to a visual effects assassin. I kind of have a reputation as being a very fast and efficient visual effects artist in Manhattan amongst the indie film crowd and commercial agencies. And I kind of owe a lot of my career to him. And then in terms of directing, I have to go back to my Long Island roots. I love Tim Van Patten, who is HBO’s go-to director for every major episode, executive producer on “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire,” and “Game of Thrones.”

Tell us about “Rockaway.”

Essentially, it’s about my brother and I growing up on the South Shore of Long Island. I pushed the drama because at the end of the day, you want to entertain an audience. The story is two brothers battling an abusive father that they have planted revenge on and they’re helped through their adventurous summer in 1994 by the four friends that they make that summer and it coincides with the New York Knicks run at the NBA finals that year. The young protagonist, John, who is based on me, has high hopes of a new life with his brother and mom. And also his favorite player is John Starks winning the championship for them. So it kind of happened coincidently while the story takes place. And we actually got John to come out to set; he had a little bit of a cameo in the film. We took pictures. We filmed a little bit with him. I told my parents that it would be this year’s Christmas card. It was kind of funny.

Where did you film?

We filmed for 20-something days on the South Shore of Long Island. So we were in East Rockaway, Woodmere. And then we filmed two days in a studio in Brooklyn. And half a day in the city. We’re New York- and Long Island-premiering the film at the Long Beach International Film Festival at the theater that all the boys I wrote about grew up going to. It’s a brand new Regal theater that just had all these renovations that Long Beach is using for the festival. We also spent our summers in Long Beach, so it’s kind of a homecoming for us as well.

How did you cast?

[...] I hadn’t written anything in my life before. I wrote this script and thought it was so wonderful. And I had people in the industry read it and they said, “This is terrible.” And then I actually taught myself how to write and I got the script to Cory Thompson, a good friend I went to NYU with, one of our associate producers And then I actually taught myself how to write and I got the script to Cory, and he said, “Let me run this script by Billy Hopkins and Ashley Ingram. They cast 20 to 30 films a year, all on the Oscar level, such as “Mudbound,” “Good Will Hunting.” Their IMDb page is a Rolodex of amazing films. Billy and Ashley loved the script. We immediately met for lunch and sat down for two-and-a-half hours. Every young adult male actor wanted to be in this because they get to be an adult in the film. It’s that life they live away from their parents. There’s cursing, the drama of what you used to do in the summer before you had all this social media stuff and phones. You were kind of on an adventure all day.

Thompson, a good friend I went to NYU with, one of our associate producers....at this part- And then I actually taught myself how to write and I got the script to Cory, and he said, “Let

Tell us about the kids you chose for the roles.

I saw the film “Brooklyn,” and loved James DiGiacomo. He reminds me of my friend, Dom. We immediately made the offer to James; he loved the script and accepted the role. I’ve always loved “The Americans,” and Keidrich Sellati who plays Henry Jennings reminded me of my brother in the sense that he came into a callback and, like my brother, didn’t really care if he got it. But he nailed it. And Billy and Ashley brought in a bunch of people and they are all seasoned actors and we just did a little bit of a read with some of them. I found Tanner Flood, who’s a Long Island native. He’s on “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Moonrise Kingdom.” And Colin Critchley. He read for so many parts. I knew he had to be in the film; I wasn’t quite sure where to put him. And then Harrison Wittmeyer is a gem. He’s like a young River Phoenix. He didn’t have as many films under his belt as the other boys, but he’s just raw and phenomenal. And in the last role is 7-year-old Maxwell who plays me. He just reminded me of myself. Our birthdays are less than one day apart. He was wearing the same sneakers I was wearing in the callback session. He could bring out the emotions needed.


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