The Wine Maker

Local filmmaker gambles on a million dollar maybe



Everyone, we're about to start! Buzzy, wine-sipping party guests pack themselves into a large living room -- some sit along the walls, some lie on the carpeted floor -- to watch a what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation-esque slide show chronicling the latest artistic exploits of their friend, their relative, their daughter, their St. Bernard's High School graduate Maria Matteoli. It's November 2011 and she's just finished shooting a movie -- mostly in Spain -- called The Wine of Summer.

Firmly gripping a near empty wine glass, Matteoli stands to address the 60 or so crew, friends and family. With all eyes reverent and fixed on her, the young filmmaker speaks quickly, excitedly, dispensing heartfelt couldn't-have-done-it-without-yous to enthusiastic applause.

After the slideshow, the screen is filled by one of the stars in the movie, Academy Award-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden.

"Working with Maria Matteoli is very interesting because she may as well hold Clint Eastwood's hand," Harden says. "They have the same faith in first takes."

(She would know, of course. Harden was nominated for another Oscar for her work in Eastwood's Mystic River.)

The praise train rolls for the hometown gal: "It's actually astonishingly easy working with her ... with a lot of first timers, you'll see other people try to come in and try and take over the set. There's none of that. It's her set."

But tell us more, Ms. Harden. Does Matteoli have what it takes to make it? "Hello, she's coming in under budget and under time. That girl's got a career ahead of her, just for that alone," the actress declares.

The prediction of future film industry success draws actual cheers from the audience. It's as if Matteoli has hit her first home run in the majors. Humboldt County doesn't host many wrap parties. But if Matteoli has her way, there will be a lot more.

Last fall's celebratory evening was but a brief palate-cleanser on Matteoli's Wine marathon. With all the moving pictures she needed for her movie securely captured, she then began editing, working with second assistant director Malcolm DeSoto. They spent a grueling two months chained to their laptops in neighboring apartments in the same Old Town building.

While the movie makers have journeyed from Old Town to Spain and backed again, crossing literal and figurative oceans for the film to reach this stage, there is a lot more to go. In the crowded movie marketplace it will still take some sweat, savvy and luck to ensure that Matteoli's Wine doesn't end up forgotten in someone's cellar.

"How are you, dude?" Maria Matteoli greets me as she sits down, her thick dark hair falling well below her shoulders.

Contrary to the more serious, restrained tone of much of her artistic output, the director is all smiles and rapid-fire verbal enthusiasm about the path that led her to pouring out her Wine in Spain.

Matteoli always wanted to make movies. Filed away in her "when did you first know you wanted to be a ..." drawer, the now 35-year-old freely and giddily recounts the first filmmaking bug bite she endured at the age of 4. Back then she would instruct family members on how to perform in grainy home movies. Soon after, her kindergarten teacher told her parents, "Maria is going to be a director when she grows up.'"

But that would come later. Matteoli first tried her hand (and the rest of herself) at acting, taking classes in San Francisco and later New York, but found herself underwhelmed at the roles that seemed like necessary steps to "breaking in."

"OK, you can be ‘rape victim No. 3' or in this scene you take your shirt off," Matteoli recalls. She remembers going to numerous auditions and leaving passionately thinking, "I don't even want this role."

Final clarity was to come. An experience from Matteoli's still-wanna-act era ended up as dialogue for Shelly, the acting coach played by Marcia Gay Harden in Wine. After devoting three years of her life to acting, Matteoli was sitting in acting class when a fellow student bursts in joyously screaming. Classmates knowingly started clapping and gathered around her for a celebratory hug fest. Matteoli asked what the hubbub was and was told the student had landed a prestigious role. In fact, she had bested more than 500 other auditioning hopefuls to get the part ...

In a Subway commercial.

"And I remember having a cathartic moment: This is what I'm doing?" Matteoli says. "I don't want to be in a fucking Subway commercial! I don't want that to be the ultimate goal!"

Discouraged, Matteoli left New York to return home to Humboldt in 2004 and "busted out a film degree" at Humboldt State University in a year and a half. She worked on a number of local projects -- notably the indie, dramatic film Humboldt County, a handful of local music videos by her brother Mario's band The Preservation, and Humboldt Made's series of Love, Humboldt promotional videos.

But those projects were a warm up. When the last elements of Love, Humboldt wrapped in February 2010, Matteoli flirted with a move to Los Angeles -- if you're going to have a film career ... --  but decided to stay on the North Coast after falling in love with an apartment she'd by chance been told of in Old Town Eureka above what is now The Speakeasy. The space clicked. The atmosphere and the downtime she allowed herself inspired her to finally sit down and write out the screenplay she'd been kicking around in her head for years.The Wine of Summer poured out over several weekends in May 2010.

Matteoli compares the seemingly brief gestation for her baby to her friend Talisman jewelry-maker Christina Swingdler's explanation for how long it takes to complete a piece of jewelry.

"I would say, ‘How long does that take you?' And she said, ‘Well it took me about 12 hours plus 20 years," Matteoli explains. "That's basically what The Wine of Summer was like: a culmination of all my life experience that just [insert plopping noise] plopped out me."

For the first time in life, Matteoli felt that her abilities would allow her to pursue her ambitions.

"I could see it from start to finish in my head," Matteoli says. "And it's something I could accomplish without a huge budget."

Matteoli has rightfully boasted that the funding for The Wine of Summer has come solely from Humboldt sources ... and no, not those sources. Really, she swears. That "not huge" budget adds up to roughly $1.3 million -- a drop in the bucket in an age of $200 million studio blockbusters. And yet, still not chump change.

When initial potential funding sources fell through, Matteoli sought the advice of Humboldt County directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs, with whom she'd previously worked. They told her that when they were trying to secure funding for their film, they traveled the country with a PowerPoint presentation hitting up their friends for $100 here, $1,000 there.

Heeding their advice, Matteoli held an event in March 2011 called "Passport to Spain" at the home of local actors Bob and Lynne Wells. She played a try-to-make-Humboldt-look-like-Spain trailer of The Wine of Summer and asked if anyone would like to be investors. A few signed on -- including the Wellses. One who was inspired to pony up that night was Speakeasy owner Karina Estrada. She would go on to become The Wine of Summer's executive producer.

Despite the fact that their families knew each other and grew up two blocks from each other in Eureka, Matteoli and Estrada only really got to know each other two years ago when Matteoli moved into the apartment in the building Estrada owns in Old Town.

Wine is Estrada's first foray into feature-length filmmaking. How is it that she was able to finance Matteoli's ambition? Karina Estrada's father, a Mexican national, lives south of the border and has many real estate holdings. Over the past several years, he's given her money to invest in various projects (one being the building in Opera Alley -- she estimates it cost around $1 million dollars to purchase and renovate -- another being Matteoli's film.)

Estrada is aware of the financial risks involved, dutifully noting that most indie films do not make their money back. Financial paperwork she filled out pertaining to the film carried a disclaimer outright stating that this was "a high risk investment."

"It's a really horrible investment realistically," Estrada freely admits. "But not if it's Maria."

Estrada's resolve to fund the project was tested as the crew traveled to Spain and expenses grew.

"It started out as a much smaller number, so I was much more comfortable with it." Estrada recalls. "Then it kinda doubled but I was already invested in it so if I'd decided not to [continue] I'd have lost money. So, fuck, take it all."

"She tricked me, that little sneaky Italian bitch," she adds, smiling. There's no turning back now.

And so, last November, the streets of Old Town Eureka were briefly cordoned off and transformed into a film set. At times Matteoli, ears consumed by giant headphones, peered over the shoulder of lead cinematographer Andy Rydzewski into the Red Epic camera display screen to see how a shot was being framed. Occasionally she'd pull actors aside to cast some directorial scene vision.

Local extras walked identical paths through multiple takes. Actors Ethan Peck and Kelsey Chow delivered lines into really expensive cameras and ludicrously long boom mics ... all in front of Los Bagels. Hold up. Wait for the loud pickup truck with the lift kit to pass. OK, action!

An additional scene was shot inside Eureka Books featuring Wine star 26-year-old Peck -- yes, the grandson of Hollywood mega-legend Gregory Peck -- buying a book from a clerk played by local Nancy Vellutini. Crew members directed light with giant circular discs. Between takes, Vellutini -- many years Peck's elder -- tells her young co-star how much she appreciated his grandfather's work.

The majority of Wine's shooting budget was spent Spain-side. But despite the cost associated with ushering actors and crew behind the Redwood Curtain, Matteoli always knew she wanted to also shoot in her hometown.

"Everybody said don't shoot here," Matteoli says. More seasoned industry figures told her, "Shoot in L.A. Shoot in Spain. Don't shoot in Humboldt."

But Matteoli invested in the community she felt had invested in her. While there may be an Academy Award winning actress attached to the film, a significant portion of her crew are Humboldt-bred friends, notably cinematographer/HSU graduate Rydzewski, costume designer/Monster Women drummer Aimee Taylor, makeup artist Heather Rust and editor/Runaway Kite founder Malcolm Desoto.

"Just because someone is from Humboldt, doesn't mean they aren't as talented as anyone else," Matteoli says.

While Matteoli and her crew have enjoyed the new, exciting process of big(ger) budget movie making, let's remember: at the center of all the hoopla -- the beautiful actors, the romantic locations, the dreams (potentially) fulfilled -- is a yet-to-be-seen piece of art. Also keep in mind, the subject matter is not the fodder generally consumed by the American, movie-gobbling populace. Think "indie." Think "art house." Transformers 3 this ain't.

Here's your Wine of Summer preview: The story centers around a California 20-something named James, played by Peck, who diverts from a lawyerly career path to instead pursue an acting career. While studying under the acting coach Shelley, he becomes particularly fond of a play called Tinto de Vereno (The Wine of Summer -- now you know). After his girlfriend breaks up with him, James flies to Spain to find himself and encounters his favorite play's playwright, Carlo Lucchesi, played by Bob Wells. Lucchesi is dating a much younger woman (played by established Spanish actress/celebrity Elsa Pataky) while still pining for a past love (played by Sonia Braga). Is James capable of becoming the actor he desires to be? Stay tuned, kids.

For a first time screenwriter/director, Matteoli has been able to corral a fairly impressive cast. While it's been suggested the film has an ensemble feel (we, like most, haven't seen it yet), the lead role essentially belongs to Peck. Matteoli's first "James" fell through, but she claims this is an instance where what you end up with is better than what you planned.

During an interview at Eureka's Carter House Inn, Peck recalls the 21st century way in which he secured his first feature-length leading man role: "We only met over Skype before she offered it to me which is pretty cool and unusual," he said. "That takes a lot of faith."

While The Wine of Summer is essentially edited and complete, the film has yet to screened for anyone outside of the Matteoli inner sanctum. The reasons are strategic: The filmmaker-status-catapulting Cannes Film Festival won't accept any film that has premiered any footage publicly. Matteoli and crew spent the first couple months of 2012 editing the film so they could shoot for the stars and meet Cannes March 15 deadline for submissions. To Matteoli, being selected would be "amazing and miraculous." If the dream is to come true, it'll be soon -- Cannes announces its selections on April 19. [Update: The Wine of Summer did not make the initial cut.]

But if that doesn't pan out -- and it's a long shot -- there are a few options to move the film forward. Matteoli is in talks with sales agents who could find the film larger distribution. There is, of course, also the Sundance Film Festival, but that's not until January 2013.

Humboldt County film commissioner Cassandra Hesseltine -- who helped produce indie films for 10 years prior to nabbing the North Coast gig -- thinks there are a lot of reasons why The Wine of Summer could potentially make it to Cannes and/or secure a distribution deal. Among them are the international cast and flavor of the film, as well as the varied backgrounds the actors embody.

"She was very smart with the people she placed in the movie," Hesseltine says. "One's an Academy Award winner. One was on the Disney Channel." (Kelsey Chow, James' onscreen girlfriend, stars in the Disney XD sitcom Pair of Kings.) Other notable members of the cast include Najwa Nimri -- four times nominated for the Goya, Spain's Oscar equivalent -- and Mimi Gianopulos, daughter of Fox chairman and CEO James Gianopulos.

And even if Matteoli decides to sit on the film for another year, there are, according to Hesseltine, wise ways she could use her time: Spend more time meticulously refining the film; screen it for people and get tenth opinions; Take the time to continue to learn about her craft and the industry.

Luckily, based on what she's seen so far, Hesseltine assumes Matteoli will continue to move forward: "What she doesn't know, she seems to go find out."

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