News Column

Brownsville native builds indie film around JFK assassination

September 9, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 09--For Brownsville native Tony Zavaleta, a short film based on the JFK assassination spiraled out of control, turning into a full-length, feature film.

"The Bystander Theory is kind of a fictional take on some real circumstances that happened the day of the assassination," Zavaleta said in a phone interview from Austin, where he lives and works. "(There are) some real circumstances and real people. I built this fictional world around a real event."

Zavaleta, who spent much of his childhood in Brownsville, wrote and produced the film, which is set to release on DVD on Sept. 17, a little more than a month before the 50th anniversary of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of the 35th president, John F. Kennedy, a murder that shocked the world.

"For an independent feature film, this was an ambitious story even though it was set in a small town," he said. "Tying anything to the Kennedy assassination is ambitious.

"This is not a story about conspiracy, but it does play a part in it."

In The Bystander Theory, Liz Jennings, played by Wendy Zavaleta, Tony's wife, inherits a house and all the possessions in it from a grandfather she never knew. The house is in a small, fictional town called Brockmeyer, which is actually Lockhart -- a small town east of San Marcos with more than 12,000 residents.

But the suspense begins right away, Zavaleta said, as Liz is approached by conspiracy-theorist radio personality Shamus Fuller, who is played by Brad Leland, an actor known for his work in the movie and television show Friday Night Lights.

"He's a local personality and gets word her grandfather may have been involved in the assassination," Zavaleta said.

And from there, the plot thickens as government "spooks" start making sometimes violent appearances and the overall mood in Brockmeyer becomes dangerous.

"A real mystery person is part of this story," he said, referencing the conspiracy theory that a mystery shooter was on a grassy knoll in Dallas the day JFK was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald.

But creating a fictional world around such a historic event isn't easy.

Zavaleta said producing and writing a feature film was a huge undertaking, and the entire movie was shot in less than a month.

"It was a 25-day shoot, which is awfully fast. We shot it in December and it was cold and we did a lot of overnights," he said. "The long days, tight schedule, cold, rainy; making a feature film is a challenging and grueling process and you hope that you get the film you want to make, but it's tough -- no doubt about it."

He said the film's cast includes a number of Brownsville natives, including former District 27 state Rep. Hector Uribe, who most recently lost the 2010 race for Texas land commissioner.

"He plays a funny character: the well-dressed Mexican," Zavaleta said. "He is in a scene at the end of the Theory. He plays the sheriff."

The movie is already on Netflix, but won't be available for viewing until the film's official release on Sept. 17. Zavaleta said the video will be on demand from major networks like Time Warner on Nov. 1, but that date could be subject to change.

The Bystander Theory has a Facebook page and was produced by Sixth Floor Films Productions. A trailer can be found on YouTube. In July, the film won a 2013 Silver Ace Award from the Las Vegas Film Festival.

Zavaleta is a marketing director in Austin who has had success in short film competitions that include Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Screenwriting Competition, The American Screenwriters Association Screenwriting Competition, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, and the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards.

mreagan@brownsvilleherald.com

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