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Local filmmakers get Russo brothers backing to shoot feature in Sonoma

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When two Sonoma Valley High School graduates found out their first feature film was accepted to screen at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2014, they had no idea that two of the hottest young Hollywood directors would be sitting in the Park City, Utah audience.

But Joe and Anthony Russo - the directors of “Avengers: End Game, the highest growing film of all time - had gotten their first big break at Slamdance and they were eager to check out the talent.

They were so impressed by fledgling writer/director Jay Alvarez, 32, and actor Will Hand, 30, that they offered to executive produce the pair’s second film, “Dizzy Pursuit,” which is now in post-production, as well as their third film, “Something’s More Than One Thing,” which will be shooting in Sonoma this summer.

Despite being only a year apart in school and living less than a mile from each other on the east side of town, Alvarez and Hand didn’t know each other at Prestwood Elementary or at Altimira Middle School.

And as teens, Alvarez was busy writing for the Sonoma Valley High newspaper while Hand starred in short films produced by Peter Hansen’s media arts students and various drama productions. Both cite English teacher Alison Manchester as the most formative teacher in their high school career, but they never shared a classroom.

“We had never spoken but seeing Will’s performance in ‘The Elephant Man’ at Sonoma High stuck with me,” said Alvarez. “When I wrote my first feature film script, it was in my mind that he would play the main character.”

Hand was attending San Francisco State University and Alvarez was living in Portland.

“Jay called me up out of the blue to see if I was still acting,” said Hand, who was indeed still acting as well as running a local theater company.

“I was reading a ton of scripts but when he sent over his script for ‘I Play with the Phrase Each Other,’ it was the best thing I’d ever read,” said Will. “So we started rehearsing over the phone together.”

In those days, both worked hospitality jobs on the side, but Hand now runs a theater company in New York and Alvarez works in Los Angeles on commissioned scripts and script polishes.

That first film, “I Play with the Phrase Each Other,” which was financed entirely on Alvarez’s credit card, ended up getting attention from film festivals all over the world. And when it played at Slamdance, which focuses on emerging artists, the Russo brothers saw it, loved it and have been championing Alvarez’s films ever since.

For their second film, the Russo brothers and their friend, actor Robert Downey Jr., helped them to secure financing in a matter of a weeks via Indiegogo.

“They rallied their global fan base around our film,” said Alvarez.

The third film, the one that will be filming both in Los Angeles and in Sonoma this summer, will be their highest budget film yet, “by several orders of magnitude,” laughed Hand.

Alvarez describes the plot as “timely.’

“It’s born of the radical shifts in the culture of relationships that the internet has spawned,” he explained. “It focuses on the hyper-connectivity of contemporary romantic participants and the manner in which it has affected the nature of courtship.”

“So far I haven’t seen the internet depicted with as much convincing flourish and stylization as we will execute it with,” said Alvarez. “It’s going to be a formal innovation on the medium and a substantial updating of film to contemporary culture.”

“Something’s More Than One Thing” is their most ambitious film to date. The acerbic comedy has a cast of 10 main characters and more than 150 small parts, some of which will be cameos granted as thanks to the film’s L.A. and Sonoma investors. Everyone who contributes to the film financially also receives an equity stake in the film.

“But this way people can both experientially and financially invest in a film,” said Hand. “We love the idea of making the film something that’s fun for the whole community to participate in, whether through cameos or local product placements or filming at iconic local businesses.”

The pair are most excited about the opportunities they are also creating for Sonoma Valley High students. Investors are funding scholarship programs that will bring a dozen students to join them on set to get hands-on pre-professional training as well as to attend a three-day workshop in writing, acting and production with their film crew.

“Jay and I are big ‘learn by doing’ people,” said Hand.

And the students may meet Joe and Anthony Russo, whose mentoring guides Alvarez and Hand through every stage of production and whose role as executive producers will help them get distribution for the film.

Commenting about Alvarez for the Index-Tribune, Joe Russo described the young filmmaker as “immensely talented.”

“(Jay’s) debut film was one of the more unique movies I have ever seen,” wrote Russo. “He has a unique way of combining emotional truth with a tinge of absurdism and he’s one of the best dialogue writers I have ever encountered. Getting involved with him and helping him get his next movie made became a priority for me.”

“Having Joe and Anthony behind us on this film opens a lot of doors for us,” said Hand.

As they imagine the screening of their new film in late 2021, Alvarez can’t help but think about seeing “The Animal” starring Rob Schneider as a teen at the Sebastiani Theatre. The comedy has several key scenes filmed in and around Sonoma.

“When Sonoma’s City Hall came on the screen, the entire crowd erupted in applause,” he said. “It’s really thrilling for me to think of us bringing out that same kind of civic pride with our film.”

They hope to incorporate the Sebastiani Theatre in the filming and plan to premiere the film there about 18 months after they wrap.

Contact Lorna Sheridan at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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