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After The Flood

Local Filmmaker Turns to Katrina's Aftermath For His Debut Feature

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Joe Cashiola and friend
Jeff Harms and Thai Tyler (from left) in A Thing As Big As The Ocean.

By G. Brian Davis | Posted 1/28/2009

Baltimore-based writer/director Joe Cashiola doesn't blink when asked what the budget was for A Thing as Big as the Ocean, his first feature-length movie. "The max on five credit cards," he says. Imagine a credit card commercial ticking off a list of filmmaking expenses and ending with the inevitable cliché: Inspiration: priceless.

But even with such a modest budget, Cashiola hasn't even finished post-production editing and polishing yet. The project started over two years ago with Cashiola losing his job in Chicago, and realizing, amid the employment ads and interviews, that he suddenly had the time on his hands to write a feature-length movie. He and his brother Ross had already graduated from the Cashiola Home School of Film, finishing a 53-minute featurette called "Pitch and Tone," and decided that it was time for something bigger.

Something bigger, as it turned out, fell out of the sky, in the very literal form of Hurricane Katrina. "We wanted to use the camera as a tool to go experience something, to document something real, as it was happening," Cashiola says during an interview in his Baltimore home. But beyond the media frenzy, the Cashiolas recognized immediately that the television crews and initial burst of ramen and canned beans were a bleak party of sorts, with a nasty hangover looming immediately afterward. "There's so much emphasis on the event, it's so intense, but then there's this huge crash," Cashiola says. "The aftermath just falls off to the periphery."

From there, Cashiola enlisted his longtime friend Nathan Duncan to help with production and editing, and set about storyboarding and casting. "The script was our only selling point," Cashiola says. "It wasn't as if we could pay any of the cast or crew." Production took the form of a six-week road trip, hitting New Orleans, Houston, and Marfa, Tex., in January 2007.

"There were a couple moments in Houston where the four of us were packed in one hotel room, with balsa wood walls, etc.," he says. "We didn't have a lot of privacy." But even with a profile this low, they succeeded in nabbing a lot of authentic shots. "It was very guerilla style. We would approach people working on FEMA sites and ask for permission to shoot, and if not, we just sort of shot it on the sly. But most of the time we benefited from these assumed credentials, where we just walked up and told people we were a film crew, who had talked to 'Steve,' and people would just open up and be like 'Oh, Steve! Yeah, tell Steve I said hey, OK?'"

Luckily for the Cashiolas, their good fortune was just picking up steam. A friend suggested they apply for admission to an Independent Feature Project (IFP) film lab for post-production work, which they did, and were selected to be one of 10 filmmaker teams to enter. It was only after the lab started that they were told one of the films would be chosen for a $50,000 grant to finish it in post-production. They won the award last September.

And then there was their invitation to Independent Film Week in New York, which they also attended, and met programmers from several film festivals, all of whom requested submissions of A Thing as Big as the Ocean to review for festival selection. Not a bad start, for a film still halfway through editing. (A Thing as Big as the Ocean, is currently awaiting review from several film festivals--including the Maryland Film Festival--with an anticipated premier in late spring/early summer.)

Following two hurricane survivors fleeing New Orleans, A Thing as Big as the Ocean spends three days with Lemmy (Jeff Harms), a thirtysomething alcoholic trying to escape a destructive past, and Darlene (Thai Tyler), a twentysomething African-American discouraged but hopeful about a new life. After meeting on an evacuation bus, they spend three days on the road together before splitting ways to tackle separate futures and different challenges.

"I was really interested in trying to express something real, even in a fictional film, by using emotion," Cashiola says. "And I wanted this sense of reality to also deliver emotion.

"If anyone can still get credit cards anymore, that's certainly a good way to go," Cashiola grins with advice for aspiring filmmakers with little or no budget. "And I would definitely shoot digital, with a small crew." He and his fellow filmmakers went out on a limb, and the mantra for their efforts was "This is the year of the risk." Laughing, he admits, "It was even on my cell phone background."

Indeed, the whole sense of risk-fueled, underdog energy seemed a recurring theme, starting from the very unemployment that catalyzed the movie. "The whole film was, in a way, a risk," Cashiola says. "I'd like to see where the film festival submissions lead to. All I can ask is that people see my movie--I'm not looking for fame and fortune, but I do hope that I'll be able to make another film."

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