A tale of first love





Richie Demauro   JOE PERCE
Sarah (teenage)   RENA SOFER
Richie (teenage)   ALEXANDER BRADY
Richie's Mother   BARBARA SINCLAIR
Stephanie    TERESA SIMPSON 


The Story of One Low Budget Film

Like many low budget independent films, Sarah has a peculiar history. What makes this movie different is that it took twenty-three years to complete--no kidding! While the film sat in postproduction limbo, the cast and crew went on with their lives, most finding success in their chosen professions, most middle-aged now or better!

The film began as a post-film school learning vehicle. Ted Hunter and I thought it would be a good idea to make another movie before venturing into the real world of filmmaking. For guidance, we returned to NYU and enrolled in an independent studies course with the late Thierry Pathé.

Having found success in the real estate market, Ted was a wizard when it came to all things money and finance (see MoneySmart). Nothing, however, prepared him for the black hole called independent filmmaking. What essentially started out as a student film, quickly turned into more than we bargained for in terms of money, time, and sheer effort.


Shortly out of film school, Ted and I started a little production company called "Starfire Productions." Our ultimate goal was to make movies the way the pros do: pitch our projects to distribution companies to raise financing. Ted, however, decided to fully finance our "warm up" film. Considering the scope we had in mind, this proved to be an undue financial risk.

To his credit, Ted was generous in compensating the key players in the cast and crew. He paid a flat salary similar to the system later adopted by successful digital companies like InDiGent (Pieces of April, Tadpole). He felt that to get the best performance from people you had to pay them appropriately, which is not typical for such low budget productions.

The Script

Being a romantic at heart, Ted took a fancy to a story of mine about first love and loss. I was into dark thrillers, not his cup of tea by any stretch. Since Ted was putting up the cash, the love story prevailed.

We worked the way most film partners do. Together we created the story structure, after which Ted would go off to do the wordsmithing while I busied myself with the technical aspects of production. Later, I would tweak his work. This centered mostly on giving the dialogue a more filmic (streamline) feel, an issue that would come back to haunt us in production and later in postproduction.

The script came in at fifty pages. At the standard count of one minute screen time per script page, this translated to a fifty minute film. A whopping length for a short film.

We didn't know about "ideal running time" for the purpose of marketing. In the film festival world, a fifty minute minute film can be classified as either a "long short" or "short feature," depending on the venue. In the real world, however, there is no market for such a running time. Fresh out of film school, who knew?

At the time, I had a student film called The Dummy making its rounds on cable TV. In the 1980s, cable did none of its own production and was hungry for product. The Dummy was a seven minute "low tech" horror film. A bit embarrassed by it, I tried to get the film pulled when I started working for NYU but had signed a five year contract with an automatic renewal clause. In all, it played for almost ten years on HBO, Showtime, and The Movie Channel. It would become the most screened short in cable TV history and inspire the Chucky horror flicks.

The point here is that a true short, like a true feature can find a market outlet if it is worthy. This is not the case for a film that falls between those ideal running times, which was the case with Sarah. Our strategic errors were mounting and we had barely finished the script!


Ted had the makings of a true producer. He would have been one of the best had he stayed in the business. In addition to being the executive producer of Sarah, he did all the front line production management.

Overall, he did an amazing job of pulling everything together using the available funds. The look of the film, especially the boat scenes, attests to this. Remember, this was before HD. The movie was shot on standard 16mm with the old 1980s pre T-grain stock and required full lighting, no "grabbing" shots.

While Ted's ultimate stumbling block was his own brand of film aesthetics, he was an excellent musician and much of the score, though uncredited, was inspired by him.

He went first class as much as he could. We held the auditions at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. Between the Backstage ads and agent recommendations, more actors showed up than anticipated. The audition process was grueling since we tried to give them all a fair shake.

One of my fondest memories from this period is of fifteen year old Rena Sofer. There were many talented girls auditioning for the part of young Sarah, but Rena came in like a whirlwind. With her red dress, raven hair, and unbridled enthusiasm, she blew us away. Rena was the embodiment of Sarah. She proved to be a joy to work with, as well.

Joe Perce immediately clicked with us and was cast in the lead role. Joe is a talented improvisational comedian with the ability to slip into equally dramatic roles. He kept the mood upbeat during our long hours on the set, even while shooting the grueling climax.


The film, now with the working title of The Only One, began production in 1986. Our goal was to capture the beauty of autumn in the New York/New Jersey area, so exterior principle photography was timed around the color change in late October.

This was a huge risk since leaves stay colorful for only two weeks and we could not do reshoots or pick-ups if required. Amazingly, the production schedule went off without a hitch. We managed to capture some beautiful shots, particularly in the park and backyard dock scenes.

Lou La Volpe & Ted Hunter (right)

The direction of the film was also a joint effort. Ted and I worked similar to the way we wrote the script. Generally, we discussed the scene beforehand and then I busied myself with the camera while Ted worked with the actors. After each take, we reviewed each other's work and perhaps did some tweaking for the next take. The system worked smoothly, but an old problem began to rear its head.

Ted loved contemplative scenes and was a big fan of Marlon Brando with his long pauses and internal dialogue. To me, this was a recipe for disaster since love stories tend to move slowly by nature. It was the very issue we struggled with in writing the script. This time I deferred to Ted thinking that we could fix the pace in postproduction. Little did I know that it would be over twenty years before I could actually do this!

Thanks to Ted's management skills, the filming of Sarah went off surprisingly well for a low budget production. There was a sync failure at one point, but we managed to salvage about half the night's work.

We also decided that we needed more coverage of the race boat test. Specifically, POV shots from inside the boat. Since I was the cinematographer, guess who had the privilege of doing this? Sitting in a race boat going a hundred miles per hour with a twenty-five pound camera bouncing on my shoulder is not my idea of fun!

Other than that, we pretty much stayed on schedule and within budget.


In a nutshell, Sarah/The Only One died in postproduction. Editing started out smoothly enough, but creative differences began to mount until the whole project ground to an unceremonious halt. No festivals, no distribution, no discussion.

Directly after production, Ted returned to his realty business because the market was taking a downturn. He left me to edit the movie, which we expected to be pretty straightforward. I had cut about a third of the movie by the time Ted came back to join me.

Unlike videotape, film stock is very expensive, even 16mm. For this reason we used a modified master scene approach during production. Specifically, we started each scene in wide shot and gradually moved closer with modest overlaps as the scene progressed. Hollywood, on the other hand, shoots the entire scene from multiple angles. The modified approach saves money but there is the risk of not having enough coverage if an angle doesn't work.

As I edited the movie, it looked like we did okay in terms of coverage. The shots were cutting together nicely and the pace was moving along at a speed appropriate to the unfolding story.

Unfortunately, Ted didn't think so when he returned. He felt the movie was moving too quickly. I was at my wits end with this issue having dealt with it during both the writing and shooting of the film. I held my ground and we had several arguments over it.

Ted was footing the bill so I conceded (reluctantly) and edited the film to his specifications. The version he was happy with came in at eighty-five minutes. This translated to almost two minutes of screen time for each page of the original script. Red flag. Big red flag.

After sound editing and scoring, we had a test screening for family and friends. This turned out to be a disaster, at least through my eyes. The film's pace was so slow that it obscured both the acting and the story. The movie was still a rough cut, by no means complete. I couldn't wait for it to end so I could go home and hang myself with the scant trims Ted allowed me to make.

Ted felt it, too. I didn't see him for three months after that fateful night. In addition to dealing with the disappointment of his festival dreams going up in smoke, he was busy salvaging his company in the middle of one of the worst real estate downturns in history. By this time, he (we) were just too exhausted to deal with the movie anymore. Personally, I just wanted to get on with my life.

Not only did Sarah die in postproduction, but it took Starfire Productions with it as well. Ted and I never made another movie together. In fact, Ted lost interest in filmmaking and went on to repeat his real estate success in the stock market. I returned to NYU, this time to work for the school, eventually becoming their Production Supervisor of twenty plus years.

Although I collaborated with Ted for a few years after that, neither one of us ever mentioned Sarah again.


In the summer of 2010, I learned that bootleg copies of my wacky student film The Dummy were popping up on the Internet with a bit of a cult following (see Cult Movie Database). As it turns out, the movie was the source of nightmares for a generation of kids watching late night television in the 1980s. Those kids have since grown up looking for the movie. The stories they tell are very funny. Some were not sure if they saw The Dummy, imagined it, or dreamt it.

While digging out my copy of The Dummy to digitize for the Internet, I came across a video copy of Sarah. I stared at the cassette for a long time, no longer feeling the old dread and disappointment. Years ago I wanted to re-edit the film based on the pacing that I thought was appropriate, but as family and career became my focal points, there was just no time for it. The idea was all but lost except for a few fleeting moments over the years.

I always felt that Sarah had some merit. It's a sweet story about first love and a lot of talent went into making it. For example, Rena Sofer went on to become a successful TV actress with roles in many hit shows, most recently 24 and  Heroes; Joe Perce won an Emmy for his work in commercials; and Alexander Brady has appeared in films and theater, currently on Broadway in Come Fly Away. On the production side, Nancy Deren won an Emmy for production design on Pee Wee's Playhouse and Stephen Sywak became a mechanical engineer in the entertainment industry, working on such projects as Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Not only were there a lot of talented people on the set of Sarah, but it was also a formative moment at the beginning of our careers. To me (perhaps a romantic next in line only to Ted) this is something special. It's a shame the film sat on a shelf unfinished all these years.

Suddenly, I remembered something that I said to myself years ago--that I would re-edit it if Ted's pacing didn't work. With trepidation, I proceeded to digitize the analog tape and load it into my computer. I made a few preliminary cuts--things that I remembered bothering me. "Just for fun," I kept telling myself.  The truth is, I could barely watch the movie because it was so slow and it brought back some fraught memories.

After a few nights of tinkering with the film, I had my daughter look at it. Tasha is a filmmaker in her own right and a darn good editor, so I trust her. I asked if there was something there or was I wasting my time. She would have told me in a heartbeat to stop, which I was half hoping she would do. Instead, she said to continue.

With Tasha's encouragement, I used my memory and skills to tighten the eighty-five minute rough cut. When I was done, half the film was on the cutting room floor, to use the old vernacular. I was left with a tight forty-two minute fine cut . 42:30 to be exact. I found this number to be poetic since it is exactly half the running time I started with and close to the one minute to one script page rule of thumb.

In fact, the final cut resembled the screenplay we all started with. The change was very dramatic, the characters themselves becoming more dynamic with the change in pacing.

From a technical point of view, dialogue should cut back and forth on the words, using reactions (beats) sparingly. This keeps the scene moving forward, yet gives the reactions more power when they occur. Ted originally had me cut the scenes with beats at both the beginning and end of each shot. This, by definition is a rough cut and moves very slowly.

By trimming these shots, I was able to create the fine cut I strived for two decades earlier. Several "two shots" were inherently slow. Since I no longer had alternate angles to disguise action compression, I had to get creative with the available footage.

To complete the film, I added a few missing shots and sound effects, finished the sound mixing, made opening and closing credits, and corrected the color and density. The last job was the most time consuming.

DuArt Laboratories could not find the original negative or video master, so I worked with the video copy I had unearthed, which was reasonably good. I was disappointed that the original elements were lost but thankful to have at least the analog video, otherwise there would be nothing.

I will always be grateful to Ted for the opportunity he gave me and a bunch of budding actors, filmmakers, and musicians. I had a chance to hone my craft and truly learned a lot about independent filmmaking (the least of which is ideal running time!).

During the planning of Sarah, I had a debate with Ted about the romance genre. I felt that contemporary audiences are so sophisticated that love stories could rarely stand on their own. They had to be a secondary storyline or one of several primary storylines. Today, I believe it to be true for all genre scripts, which must do double and triple duty to satisfy audiences.

Despite this, Ted felt that Sara was about practice and learning, so we forged ahead. At some point we lost track of these goals and walked away defeated. The truth is we actually did achieve them and the things we thought we had lost didn't matter.

Twenty-three years later, Sarah is finally complete. It is what it is--a love story to the core, but it is also craft piece. I enjoy the work that went into it, from the fine performances to the ambitious music score. What gives me the most satisfaction, however, is that in its completion, the film allows everyone involved to look back and see that we did something pretty cool a long time ago.

August 24, 2010

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