Local actresses light up screen

Though acting is in her blood, Kari Wishingrad didn’t find herself drawn to the silver screen until sometime after moving to Sonoma 18 years ago.

“I grew up in New York City and I’ve been doing theater since I was a little kid,” Wishingrad said Thursday. However, “My interest in film started peaking around the late ’90s.”

That interest has led to a few films by now, including “Neon Sky,” one of a couple North Bay-centric movies appearing in this year’s Sonoma International Film Festival. SIFF’s program describes the movie as “the story of a small traveling carnival struggling to keep their way of life alive as they make their way across the highways and back roads of Northern California.”

Wishingrad has been in bigger-budget movies, “but this is the first movie that is (screening) here in my home town.”

When she first heard about the film, “a light bulb just went off in my head,” Wishingrad said. “I do this periodically – my intuition will kick in about a specific movie.” She contacted the writer-director, Jennifer Juelich, and eventually they met at a friend’s house in Napa. Wishingrad was given the role of Margie, sister of the lead character and a sorrowful individual.

“I was in all the sad scenes,” she laughs. “And I had to do a lot of crying.”

Some of those scenes were cut after an early version of “Neon Sky” was deemed too much of a downer by audiences. Wishingrad hadn’t seen the new version yet, although a number of her scenes remain.

The film debuts Friday at 8:45 p.m. in Burlingame Hall, then again Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at Murphy’s Irish Pub. Many of the filmmakers involved in “Neon Sky,” including Juelich, cast members like Wishingrad and the movie’s big-time producers, will be present for the Friday night screening. A Q&A with them will be held afterwards.

Kelly Burk is another North Bay resident with Sonoma connections, a busy moviemaking career and a new film screening at SIFF.

In her case, Burk plays the title role in “Roxie” – and a complex role it is.

“I am an escort,” she said, explaining that her character is hired by two old friends who together own a marriage and family counseling practice. The older men, away together for a therapists’ conference in San Francisco, meet Roxie, and she becomes “the catalyst for screwing up these guys’ lives,” Burk said.

Like “Neon Sky,” “Roxie” was painstakingly put together over years and evolved as the artists collaborated. The result is a heart-wrenching work that “really morphed a lot from the original draft,” Burk said.

Burk said “Roxie” was shot in 17 locations around the Bay Area including in Sonoma County, and put together by five main filmmakers with the help of 22 supporting actors. Among its charms, she said, is an outstanding soundtrack.

“We kept upping the ante,” she said. “We did Indiegogo crowd funding, we found angel investors. … Three-and-a-half years later we have a finished product. And I’m just really proud of it.”

“Roxie” screens Friday at 8:30 p.m. at Vintage House, and again Saturday at 9:15 p.m. at Burlingame Hall. The filmmakers, including Burk, director Nick Frangioni and actor-producer David Usner, will be in attendance.

Like Wishingrad, Burk said she was happy to be sitting in on a screening so close to home. A Petaluma native, she lived in Sonoma Valley for a few years in the early 1990s – staying in Agua Caliente and waiting tables at Marioni’s (now the site of Mary’s Pizza on the Plaza).

Burk says it was fun working at Marioni’s, and describes that time as her “day-job-while-struggling-artist thing.” Today she lives in Sebastopol and works as a project assistant for a civil engineering firm.

Wishingrad also has a regular job to pay the bills: professional organizer.

“I go to people’s homes and offices and help clear out people’s clutter,” she explained, adding, “It’s a very rewarding and satisfying career. I really enjoy it, I’m really good at it.”

She says that job requires a “different type of creativity,” but her thoughts about filmmaking seem to describe a first love.

“I love storytelling and I love sharing experiences and the human heart. … And movies have the ability to do that. To reach people on a bigger level.”

Burk also remains dedicated, and though she warns that, “This filmmaking business is not for the weak at heart,” she adds: “I’m trying my darnedest. … This is what I want to do.

“When the passion’s there you have no choice.”