There are lots of moving parts involved in making a movie,” says filmmaker Thomas Marchese. “So many things that have to go right to get one made.” From start to finish, fortune smiled on this first-time feature film writer/director. His recently completed movie, “From Black,” will soon be available on both AMC+ and AMC’s Shudder streaming services, and a theatrical release is in the works. “From Black” is difficult to pigeonhole, though most will probably define it as a horror flick. It tells the story of a recovering addict (masterfully portrayed by Anna Camp of the “Pitch Perfect” franchise) who is offered a somewhat sketchy opportunity to reunite with her deceased young son. It is an incredible example of how, with a talented team, a low-budget independent production can look like several million dollars on the screen.
A Pacific Grove native, Marchese has harbored a lifelong interest in film, but his life took other turns, including stints as a musician and newspaper publisher in Seattle and a Soledad homicide detective. It was the latter experience that inspired his first documentary film, “Fallen,” released in 2017. That work provided a peep behind the blue curtain at the realities of law enforcement work, while he directed in his spare time. Ironically, he became part of his own project when he was attacked while responding to a domestic dispute, an incident included in the film. The documentary took home Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Hollywood Film Festival and was picked up by Netflix.
“I got lucky to have super legit talent around me and avoid the egos that working in Hollywood often involves,” Marchese says. “But even if you’re making a movie with private money, you still have to find experienced industry people who have faith in you.” One such key player was producer Kelly Frazier. Frazier has an impressive list of credits as a director, writer and producer of everything from country music videos to A-list feature films. “I had just finished a western and Thomas approached me with his script for a horror film,” she says. “I actually hate horror films, so I told him I’d help but wouldn’t work on it.”
Then she read the script.
“The writing was so good. It was smart, wasn’t contrived. The dialog was amazing. It wasn’t so much horror as it was about heartbreak and grief. I keep calling it a psychological horror film because it’s really more sad than scary. The main character has gone through hell. She’s made some bad decisions and is about to make an even worse one. The story was compelling and dealt with the lengths a mother would attempt to recover a lost child.”
Another valued member of the team was producer Vincent Cardinale. “Vinny grew up in Monterey and was associate producer on the HBO movie “The Fallout,” Marchese says. “He worked extremely hard on our movie and was a true ‘boots on the ground’ producer.”
With Frazier on board, the search was on for a lead actress. The cast of the western she had recently completed, “Murder at Yellowstone City,” included Anna Camp. “Anna had done a lot of light comedy—she was usually cast as a cutesy blond type—but hadn’t done much drama,” Marchese says. “Kelly was asking Anna about her opinion of various actresses for the role, and she gave us great advice, but no one rose to the top. We were almost at the point where we were going to have to put on the brakes. But then Anna said, ‘Hey. What about me?'” The director was amazed, thinking she wouldn’t be interested in a low budget film with a first-time director, set to be shot in Natchez, Mississippi, far from the comforts of Los Angeles. “I didn’t think she would want to do a horror film,” Frazier says. “Actually, I didn’t think her people would let her do it, but Anna saw this as a chance to do something different in her career.”
“I had total faith in Kelly, and she had total faith in Anna. I asked ‘Are you sure she can do this? It’s a very intense role,'” Marchese recalls. “Anna and I met, and she was adamant that she would crush it. She was so confident that she won me over and I became a believer that she was perfect for the role. And she was.” Another coup was the casting of accomplished actor John Ales as the male lead. He had worked with Frazier on several projects, including “Yellowstone City.” “We were really lucky to get him as well,” Marchese says.
When the cast gathered on location, it was readily apparent that there was something extraordinary afoot. “When we did our first table read in an old mansion in Natchez, Anna poured her all into it,” Frazier says. “That’s unusual because actors typically just give 20 percent at this point. It was chill inducing.”
“Anna just completely blew us away. We were in tears,” Marchese says. “That’s when we knew that we had something special going on here.”
Marchese says his “secret weapon” in the production was New Zealand cinematographer Duncan Cole. “Thomas and Duncan spent hours going over each scene before we got to Natchez,” Frazier says. “It was fun watching them geek out on lenses and techniques.” She says that even though Marchese was a first-time director and is an autodidact in film, he had a firm grip on how to get the look he wanted. This level of preparation was essential to a film company with limited resources. By the time the team arrived on set, the crew knew exactly what to do. “I have never worked with a director as well organized as Thomas was,” Frazier says. “There are barely any outtakes from the movie because everyone was so well prepared. Everyone brought their A game. It was one of those films where everything hit just right…this is one of the rare ones where everything clicked.”
So, what’s next for Thomas Marchese? “Before ‘From Black,’ I pitched a cop thriller script to Netflix called ‘Innocent,'” he says. “They liked it, but because I only had one documentary under my belt at the time, they asked if I’d consent to using another director. If I had been in my 20s, I would have said okay. But I was in my 40s and kind of late to the party. I said ‘No, I’d rather let it go than let someone else do it.'” He says that he will revisit that project next. And guess who will be on board? “I want to do every movie with Thomas and his team,” Kelly Frazier says.
For more information about Marchese’s films, visit www.darkroomfilms.com.