by René S. Garcia, Jr.
“Either you want to make movies or you don’t; it’s painful. Writing is painful. Directing is painful because if you care about what you’re doing you want it to be the best it can be. And every day that you sit down to write or every day you’re on set there’s always an obstacle.” Anthony C. Ferrante isn’t complaining; this is the filmmaking experience as he knows it. Having worked on several low-budget features in capacities including special effects, editing, directing, screenwriting and more, he knows what it’s like to stretch a dollar, shoot under a tight production schedule and work with concepts that are sometimes absurd. Ferrante recently helmed Syfy’s Sharknado. In the movie, Angelinos must find a way to survive as tornados full of sharks ravage the city. Sitting in a noisy local diner in Burbank, CA, in between mouthfuls of fries and gravy, Ferrante gives Creative Screenwriting a history of his career, how he got it and lessons he’s learned along the way.
Anthony C. Ferrante has wanted to make movies since he was eleven-years-old, living in the small Northern California town of Antioch. “It was one of those… ideas that just pop in your head. I loved movies, but I didn’t understand why.” So with his desire still inchoate, Ferrante decided instead to write movie reviews. He watched film review programs like At the Movies and expanded his film knowledge as much as he could. “I started watching a lot of stuff,” he stresses, “a lot of stuff I probably shouldn’t have been watching at that age as well, but my mom was kind of liberal about that.”
One of the most influential movies for Ferrante was the original Halloween. “John Carpenter was awesome,” he says, explaining how being freaked out was an amazing experience. But he also highlights Barry Levinson’s Diner as his favorite movie. “I try to watch it every year just to remind myself what a great film is, because it’s about conversations; it’s about characters. And there’s a story going on in it, but it’s more than that.”
It was during his teenage years that his work was recognized by publicists in the Bay Area. Soon he was asked to conduct one-on-one interviews with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. “I used [entertainment journalism] as an opportunity to talk to all of my idols. I got really great interviews with these people. And I learned from them.”
Meanwhile, he took film classes at night, learning the elements of filmmaking, shooting on video, super 8 and whatever else was available. He impressed himself at being able to edit two separate locations into a convincing single location. “Oh, film… magic!” Ferrante exclaims in mock surprise. But after attending San Francisco State University, it would be his entertainment journalism that got him down to Los Angeles. “That was actually more helpful than going to school, because I’m actually seeing things happen on a set. For someone who wanted to do this and actually be on these sets was phenomenal. It was a great, great learning tool.”
Networking also paid off for Ferrante when screenwriter Brent Friedman asked him if he’d be interested in working on a film as a PA (Production Assistant). Ferrante was happy to. “I think I showed them a short film of mine that had a lot of make-up effects in it,” he recalls, so he was asked if he also wanted to supervise make-up effects, which he did. Ferrante parlayed that experience into more involved positions, like full-time supervisor and second unit director. According to Ferrante, PAs move up pretty quickly because low-budget movies usually have holes to fill. “If you’re not pissing people off, then chances are they’ll hire you to do other things.”
When he wasn’t working on other people’s movies, Ferrante spent his free time writing his own, which had its own unique problems. “I think I was one of the unfortunate people that had written something for Full Moon at some point and not gotten paid,” he says. Full Moon Pictures is Charles Band’s production company known for the Puppet Master series. “So my first script I wrote for them, and I think I got partial payment from them. I think I’m still owed money… for that script.” Nevertheless, Ferrante looks back on the experience positively. “It was a great experience, because I think I had three weeks to write a script. It was exciting because it was the first thing someone was paying me for.”
But Ferrante’s ultimate goal was to direct. “I figured the only way I was going to be able to direct my first movie—official movie, not my shorts—was to write something that was self-contained and a single location.” He wrote a script titled Boo, which was written for the same location that Progeny, a film Ferrante worked on, had used: Linda Vista Hospital. It was this location that eventually convinced producer David E. Allen to move forward with Boo. “The first thing a producer [asks] is ’Can you do it for this money?’ You go, ‘Sure! Yeah, it’s a two-million dollar movie, but we’ll do it for half a million.’ Never say no.”
His experience on Boo, learning when to lobby to save content or when to “kill a darling” gave Ferrante invaluable lessons on working with producers. “It’s my first movie so I had to toe the line…. The thing is, at the end of the day, [producers] want to work with you; they don’t want someone fighting and screaming or being difficult, because then they’re just going to get rid of you. You have to find a way to navigate how to handle the job, because it’s not your movie. Your name may be on it, but it’s everybody’s movie; producers included, because they’re footing the bill.”
Boo was released on Sci-Fi Channel and did well enough to land Ferrante more gigs with the channel as a director and writer. His work has included Headless Horseman, Scream of the Banshee and Leprechaun’s Revenge. Eventually, Ferrante would be invited to direct Sharknado. “Basically, I wanted to set out to make the craziest shark in a tornado movie ever made.” His goal was to make a $100 million dollar movie with a $1 million dollar budget. “It’s a movie that doesn’t know it can’t do that…. We didn’t stop, saying ‘Okay, let’s cut this out, because we can’t do it.’ Let’s just do it….” Ferrante explains. “We had 18 days to do this movie where practically every day was a location change. We’re trying to shoot a storm in Los Angeles when there’s no rain…. We had rain towers, but when you’re trying to get a car driving in the rain it’s not easy to do.”
Accepting the concept was also a challenge. “I’m a big story guy,” Ferrante says, “and I had to throw a lot of that out the window with the logic stuff, because you’re making a movie about a sharknado. If you start plugging logic into it you’re just going to bang your head against a wall, because how can sharks live in a tornado? Can someone shoot sharks out of the sky? I mean, there are just so many crazy things.” But Ferrante felt that the absurdity could be overlooked, so long as audiences cared about the characters. “If I can at least get these actors to feel like they know each other, and we can take the script that Thunder [Levin] wrote, and get them to talk and feel like they’re friends, then we buy the rest of the movie of them going, ‘Oh my god, there’s a sharknado!’ Because you like these guys.”
After showing off the latest trailer for Sharknado on his MacBook, a diner at the next table jokes, “I hope you’re not taking credit for that.”
“You get hired to do a movie, you do your best job,” Ferrante responds diplomatically before returning to the interview. “If you hate the movie, great, hate the movie.” Ferrante literally is his own worst critic since he comes from a film critic background, so he understands when blemishes get picked apart, but he adds, “All I ask is, watch it…. Watch the whole movie and then tell me it’s the worst movie ever made, and I’ll accept that.”
Before leaving, Ferrante offers a few words of advice for anyone who wants to write movies and for bourgeoning filmmakers in general. “For screenwriters, I think, honestly, try to write stories; it doesn’t matter what the genre is. You can still make something interesting and compelling. I made a movie about sharks in a tornado. And that’s the thing—I’m not embarrassed by it!”
“The thing that’s really kind of cool right now is that anybody can make movies. When I was trying to make movies, I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t have resources available to me. I didn’t have DVDs with special features…. You have all the resources… it used to cost millions of dollars to have all this stuff. You can go buy a thousand dollar laptop and cut a movie together professionally. You can go buy a two- or three-thousand-dollar Canon camera, and you could shoot a movie and have it released in theaters. You can release your own stuff! And make money! So I think there’s something really cool about that because of all the forms of distribution… anybody can be a production company; anybody can be a filmmaker.” But Ferrante warns, “I just hope that as people go through this, they don’t lose sight of what good movies are, and what makes a good movie.”