Sept. 05--Her colleagues consistently describe Elisabeth Nunziato, director of the new Sacramento-set film "Stolen Moments," as "thorough."
It's a nice way of saying relentless.
Nunziato, a highly regarded Sacramento stage actress making her film-directing debut with "Stolen" -- a romantic drama-comedy opening the Sacramento Film & Music Festival Wednesday at the Crest Theatre -- acknowledges a persistent streak.
"I was the one saying, 'We can do better,'" on the "Stolen" set, she said.
It's a quality that's essential to directing, which she does a bit of during an interview at a Sacramento cafe, placing a reporter's voice recorder in an empty glass to better angle its microphone. She then rethinks things, removing the recorder and wrapping it in a napkin before returning it to the cup.
"I am going to pad this for you in case it gives you a little glass feedback," she explained with a smile.
Nunziato is so charming that the cup and napkin suddenly seem reasonable, even necessary. Open, friendly and prone to bursts of exuberance when she agrees with something you just said, Nunziato seems to know what's best for you.
Nunziato "always has this great energy that makes you feel like you are the most important person in the world," said Anthony D'Juan, who plays Eric, the professionally flailing, romantically conflicted lead character in "Stolen Moments." D'Juan, a Sacramento stage and film actor and director, has known Nunziato for years.
Determined, charismatic people get things done. "Stolen Moments," which was written by Bee theater critic Marcus Crowder (under his pen name Maurice Robie), might not have happened without Nunziato pushing it forward.
It takes many devoted people volunteering time, talent and locations -- "Stolen" makes thorough use of the Torch Club, Kasbah Lounge and other Sacramento businesses -- to make a no-budget film like "Stolen."
Those elements tend to scatter as the process wears on. But Nunziato, also a producer on the film, marshaled and then re-marshaled forces during a shoot that spread over 2 1/2 years.
Initially, Nunziato, who is from Sacramento and is a founding member of the B Street Theatre acting company, just wanted to produce. She had directed theater but never film.
But "it just started to shake out that I was really passionate about" the project, she said. The characters' coming-of-age-in-Sacramento experiences spoke to her, she said, because she'd had them herself, and in spots like the Torch Club, a location Crowder specified in his script.
The characters are in their 20s but clearly still maturing. The story follows Eric to work at an employment agency that's shady but provides a paycheck, and into overlapping relationships with two attractive women: one funny but flighty (Brittni Barger), the other more grounded (Danielle Mone Truitt).
The movie covers that period, Nunziato said, when "you're not a kid anymore -- you are taking care of yourself and you have started a career, and you are on your own. But (that) doesn't have anything to do with being a grownup on the inside. It doesn't have anything to do with resolving your boundary issues or ... understanding what a commitment is."
The film's actors -- most professional, all unpaid -- made big commitments of their own. "Stolen" was shot around Nunziato's and the film's other producers' other (paying) gigs, and relied on its lead actors to stick around for the duration. Had one of the three leads dropped out during the long shoot, the project would have been done for.
"To sustain the commitment of the people in front of the camera for that long is a Herculean effort in team-building," Nunziato said. "You have to keep people coming back over this incredible period of time, just for the satisfaction of performing, because they are not getting a paycheck."
It helped that Nunziato's husband and fellow producer, Jason Kuykendall, edited footage as filming progressed. "We could show the actors scenes throughout and that kind of kept everybody motivated," Nunziato said.
D'Juan's only quibble, he said, was that he would just be growing out his beard to the desired length when he would be called suddenly to go before the cameras again as clean-shaven Eric. And Truitt, a Los Angeles actress who has worked in Sacramento theater, acted in "Stolen" through a pregnancy, her baby bump sometimes obscured by props. She later brought her toddler son to the set.
Nunziato had worked with Barger at B Street, and she also knew Truitt before starting the film. But she was far better acquainted with her fellow producers: In addition to Kuykendall, a stage and film actor (he appears in "Stolen" as Barger's estranged husband) who also works behind the camera in film and video production, there's the couple's good friends Mike and Lynn Malmberg.
The Malmbergs make TV commercials and marketing videos through their Iron Mountain Films company. Mike Malmberg was director of photography on "Stolen," and Lynn Malmberg its art director and one of its editors. Kuykendall also edited, and supervised post-production, under the banner of NK Media, his production company with Nunziato.
"The two production companies' infrastructure carried the weight of the hard production costs" of filming, Nunziato said. "We used our camera and Mike's lenses."
Without Kuykendall and the Malmbergs donating their time and expertise, the film would not have been completed, Nunziato said.
Lots of indie films are shot over extended periods. They also look it. "Moments," though, shows professional polish, thanks partly to Mike Malmberg's inviting shots of the Tower Bridge and a nighttime K Street lit by the Crest's marquee.
"It's cohesive," Sacramento Film & Music Festival co-director Nathan Schemel said of "Stolen." That might sound like faint praise, but the biggest trouble with small indie films is a lack of consistency brought on by a lack of dollars and time.
But with "Stolen" "the world of the film works," Schemel said. "It doesn't contradict itself, and it feels real."
Most vital to the movie's cohesive quality are its performances -- actress Nunziato's directing specialty. Nunziato never compromised when directing actors, Mike Malmberg said.
"At first it was a little frustrating for me, because I thought we were spending too much time on rehearsal," Malmberg said. "But I eventually (understood) where she was going. Once we got the rhythm down, it worked really well. She knows what she wants from the performance and doesn't stop until she gets it."
On set, D'Juan said, "There would be points where the crew would be be saying, 'We have it, and she would say, 'No we don't.'"
The fine-tuning didn't end when the producers left the set. When sitting down to edit with Kuykendall or Lynn Malmberg, Nunziato would identify and then excise stutters or extra exhalations of breath that might interfere with the authenticity of a scene.
A two-editor system was vital, Nunziato said with a laugh, because she would burn out one editor "and they would kind pass me to the other one."
Though Nunziato said she is not tech-friendly, she supervised every aspect of production, from scouting locations with the Malmbergs to helping design the final audio mix this week with Kuykendall and sound editor Matt McDermott.
Though best known for acting at B Street, Nunziato has been on plenty of film sets. She has been fortunate, she said, earn a living exclusively in the arts for the past 20 years, via theater acting and directing jobs, commercials and parts in films ranging from local low-budget indies to the 1996 John Travolta movie "Phenomenon."
While still in the early stages of "Stolen," Nunziato visited a friend on the Vancouver set of "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol." The experience helped convince her that completing "Stolen" was as possible as completing a big-budget Tom Cruise film.
Shooting a film involves "the same process," regardless of scale, Nunziato said. "You either have money or you don't. But you are doing the same thing."
Nunziato said she sees the film's premiere Wednesday at the Crest as a "finish line," but also is looking a life for the film beyond that. "Of course everyone hopes for a (traditional theatrical) distribution channel," she said. But less traditional, "direct to consumer" distribution methods hold appeal as well, she said.
Nunziato is not sure if she will direct a second film. But if she does, she will co-direct with Kuykendall and raise money before shooting.
She is pleased to have directed at least one film, partly because it fits her larger philosophy of challenging herself artistically. She was inspired by local musicians, filmmakers and Renaissance men Dutch Falconi and Steve Holsapple.
"Their mantra is, you have to be uncomfortable as an artist," Nunziato said. "You have to try new things." As soon as they would master a new thing, they would chuck it."
There are only so many artistic pursuits Nunziato will try, though. There's a reason she's not known for musical theater.
"What I probably will never do -- because I want to spare all of humanity -- is sing," she said.
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