Sunday, November 21, 2010

USC Grad Still Going for Broke

In Hawaii, as in Hollywood, the spark for a successful directing career can often involve a split-second moment of impulsive risk-taking. In the case of James Sereno, a 1991 USC Film School graduate who had moved back to his native land to transition from producing to directing commercials, the moment occurred in an ad agency hallway.

“I had recently gotten married, and my wife was living in Hawaii,” Sereno recalls during an interview with FilmStew. “She had kids from a previous marriage, and I didn't want to have them living in the LA craziness, so I thought I'd give Hawaii a chance.”

“I was walking down the hall of one of the agencies where I was freelancing, and I saw a storyboard on a wall for a PSA project,” he continues. “No one wanted to make it because there was no budget. I offered to produce it for nothing - if they allowed me to direct. I guess it was an offer they couldn't refuse. The spot won a couple of awards and my directing career took off. I was able to form a production company and now, Kinetic Productions is the biggest commercial production company in Hawaii, with four directors on staff.”

(r to l) Sereno, cinematographer Paul Atkins and 
RED ONE camera with Mysterium X sensor

After the award-winning short Silent Years and an expansive, acclaimed trailer for the 25th anniversary edition of the Hawaii International Film Festival, Sereno has completed his first feature film Broke, a drama that aims for the same sort of narrative relationship with Waikiki Beach that Leaving Las Vegas has with the Strip.

The drama expands upon a short made by Sereno in partnership with local writer Chris McKinney that was part of a fictional anthology about the islands. McKinney wrote the short with friend and actor Dante Basco (Hook, Take the Lead) in mind, who stars again in the feature-length version as hustler Ray, alongside Nadine Nicole in the role of his prostitute-girlfriend Misha. During this past summer's four-week shoot, the stark contrast of moneyed tourists and struggling locals came into focus one day beyond the scripted page.

“We had a guy come up to Dante and ask him if he knew where he could get drugs,” Sereno recalls. “He didn't know we were filming a scene and Dante just played along and made up some stuff. He was a tourist on vacation, just wanting to get high.”

Although Broke has yet to make it out onto the festival trail, Sereno is already busy with a number of other non-commercial projects. He's working with Basco on a biopic of a high-profile skateboarder; he and McKinney have another thriller script in the works; and this coming week, Sereno and McKinney will be pitching a dramatic series to MTV that the filmmaker describes as a cross between “The Sopranos and Entourage.”

(l to r) Basco, co-star Khalil Kain

It all adds up to some impressive new career momentum for the USC grad, whose workmates during an initial post-graduation internship at Columbia Pictures (assumed from John Singleton) included Michael Mann's daughter Amy and future Lost producer Bryan Burk. It is also a far cry from the second job Sereno suffered through in Hollywood.

“At Disney, I worked for a production company that will remain nameless,” he says. “The director of development talked all day long to her friends on the phone while I was doing all the work. One day, I sent the producer to the wrong restaurant, based on what the director of development told me. She of course, blamed me.”

“I knew that my days were numbered, and I was tired of the craziness,” adds Sereno. “I knew of one executive in another company who had a remote controlled door closer to his office, and he used to have the interns run to his office then slam it in their faces. At that point, I thought it was time for a change”

And so, Sereno segued to producing commercials with Team One, starting with spots for Lexus. It turned out to be a gateway to today's envious position far from the demented, door-slamming execs of Hollywood, one that comes with that most crucial of caveats for a creatively-inclined person: full control.

Broke was 100% privately financed through investors and my own company,” he reveals. “The individual investors wanted me to make Gidget Comes to Hawaii, but since I am the majority shareholder, I vetoed the idea down.”

The Waikiki reality

“In Waikiki, you have the most beautiful beach in the world and then the next block over, you have a bunch of low-rise hotels and low-end housing, where most of the hooking and drug deals are happening,” Sereno observes. “There's also the completely polluted Ala Wai canal, where a guy with an open cut fell in last year and later died [from infection].”

Waikiki Beach and the Ala Wai are one block parallel from each other, the dream and reality stacked side by side. That's what Broke is about.”

[Kinetic Films]

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