Made in San Diego: SDIFF Presents “The Samuel Project”

by Brie Stimson November 6, 2018


hal-linden_and_ryan-ochoa_the-samuel-project_2-1Communication between the generations is often difficult, especially when a family member has been through a traumatic experience. That’s the message behind “The Samuel Project,” a coming-of-age story about a teenager who gets to know his grandfather through a school art project.

“It was more about Samuel in the beginning when we first started and after we were going through the script with Hal [Linden, who plays Samuel,] we were discovering it’s more the kid’s story, Eli’s story, Ryan Ochoa,” the film’s producer, Steve Weinberger, tells me. “We were realizing the story should be told from his perspective.

The story harnesses an old theme: that we often don’t know what our loved ones have been through and if we don’t open the lines of communication, we may never know.

The movie centers on Eli, an introverted high schooler who struggles to connect to his father. He isn’t interested in other subjects and wants to go to art school, a career that his father thinks is unrealistic. But the opportunity of a school art project comes up. “He does his whole project on his grandfather’s past, even though his grandfather hadn’t talked about his past for about 70 years. So he ends up working for his grandfather at the drycleaners for free just to get his stories. Getting his story wasn’t easy,” Steve tells me.

“It’s kind of the disconnect of the three generations and the non-communication really affects everything. The fact that they can’t really have a conversation with each other in the movie until the end because of Samuel’s story, that’s really the core of what brings them together – the kids’ art,” Steve explains. “His art project literally brings the family together. It wouldn’t have happened without that project. Samuel would have never told his story, the kid never would have had the confidence to do what he did … It’s really the non-communication between the three generations.”

The Old Globe Connection

The film was entirely shot in San Diego and many of the actors were pulled from a production of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” that was playing at the Old Globe at the time. “They had just an insane cast,” Steve says. He thought Hal Linden, who was playing Gaston in the play, would be perfect for Samuel. “I knew that he was going to be here,” Steve says, “so, long story short, we went through about four or five people, his agent, who got him the script, we met for lunch, that’s kind of how it started.” He says once Hal was onboard everybody wanted to work with him. “He was already in San Diego, had an apartment here,” Steve says. “Me and Marc [Fusco, the director,] would go meet him at this bar across the street from the Old Globe like every night of the week where the cast and everybody were hanging out and Hal would have his glass of wine, and he would sit with the script for two hours at the bar until it closed; and then we’d do it again the next day after the play.”

Steve met Mark Fusco about 10 years ago at Comic-Con and they became writing partners. The story is inspired by Steve’s cousin, Leslie Schwartz, who was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, and although Samuel’s story is fictional, it is loosely based on Schwartz’s experiences. When Schwartz was in the camps he was saved by a “woman in Germany that actually would feed him bread through a fence … on her way to work,” Steve tells me. “Leslie never talked about what happened to him just like Samuel. [You] weren’t supposed to talk about it. He says it was an entire generation that didn’t talk about their experiences. “Eli says to his dad, ‘Didn’t you know Grandpa’s story, what’s the deal? How did you not know?’ He says, ‘Well, I tried and he stopped talking, and I stopped asking,’ and in one line, we kind of sum up the whole story.”

The story was by Steve and Marc and the script was written by Marc and Chris Neighbors. “Kind of me, him and Hal really worked on the script a lot, but as far as the actual writing of the script it was Mark and Chris, and of course, Hal was a big force as far as the story goes: what we should keep, what we shouldn’t keep,” Steve says. “It became like a different story. It became more of the kid’s story than Hal’s and not Samuel’s.”

There were several other actors from the play who were also in the movie, including Liza Lapira and Philippe Bowgen. Ochoa, of Disney Channel fame, is also a San Diego native. “We actually had Donald Faison attached to the film, but then he got a pilot and had to leave the film. But then we ended up getting another guy that was in the play. We actually went to Justin Long first, but he couldn’t do it so then we went to Donald. It’s interesting, cause you’re sitting in a bar with the third guy you chose and the other two guys are right behind him that had to pass, it was a really interesting thing.”

Steve says with Hal Linden already in San Diego, shooting the film here made the most sense. Filming took about a month and Linden stayed in San Diego for an extra two weeks – there were even a few days when he was shooting during the day and doing the play at night. “Which really messed him up cause … it was just hard for him to remember all the lines from his play and he was doing rehearsal during the day … He’s literally like playing Samuel then at night playing … a French dirty old man dude in a bar … It was funny cause he’d forget what was going on,” Steve laughs.

Steve is a native San Diegan himself. He moved here when he was 11 and grew up in Tierra Santa. After graduating from San Diego State University, he taught special education and didn’t become a writer until he was 40 and was taking a turn as the stay-at-home parent.

The San Diego Jewish Academy Connection

The film shows a lot of San Diego, including the downtown skyline and Balboa Park. “We did shoot the movie at the San Diego Jewish Academy … they were great to us, they were amazing,” Steve tells me. In the film, SDJA masquerades as the public high school Eli attends. “They let us shoot the movie there and interrupt their school day.” The exterior of Eli’s house is in Clairemont and the interior is in La Jolla. For Samuel’s business, “we used a dry cleaner in Shelter Island,” Steve tells me. “We literally kept the drycleaner open, so people would bring their clothes in during a scene and we freaked people out because Hal Linden would be like the guy behind the counter and people would be like ‘oh my g-d, what? … We’d have to say cut and then someone would literally come in with their four or five items, drop them on the counter and then the lady who worked there who was ducking in the corner so she wasn’t in any of the shots would have to run up.”

Now in Theaters

The film won the Best Audience Film award at the LA Jewish Film Festival. It opened nationwide in New York at the end of September and made its San Diego premiere at the San Diego International Film Festival before opening in theaters here last month. The filmmakers attended the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis in September and opened in LA and 25 plus cities at the beginning of October. “We got in AMCs and Regals, which is like impossible for a tiny movie like ours, like that never happens,” he adds.

He says the story is important to them as filmmakers, and at festivals across the country they have gotten standing ovations and people thank them when they leave the theater. “You can call it a Jewish movie,” he says, “but it really isn’t. It really affects everybody.”


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