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Sam Dreyfus has known his friend Josh Jason since they were kids.
Both grew up in Virginia Beach, their families knew each other, and Dreyfus watched his friend go from a film student in Boston to a producer in Los Angeles.
Recently, Dreyfus invested money to help Jason produce his first feature film, “The Wheel.” He wasn’t the only one.
The indie film was selected for the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival last month and it was bankrolled solely by Hampton Roads investors.
The movie was directed by Steve Pink, who wrote and directed films such as “High Fidelity” and “Grosse Point Blank,” both starring John Cusack, and “Hot Tub Time Machine” and its 2015 sequel. Pink also directed the 2014 rom-com “About Last Night” starring Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy and Regina Hall.
The festival received more than 6,800 international and Canadian submissions, and about 200 made the cut. There were 25 films in the Contemporary World Cinema category along with Jason’s.
Investing in the movie was a no-brainer for Dreyfus, vice president of strategic initiatives at ECPI University.
“I thought this was a good opportunity to kind of help the area gain exposure,” he said. “There’s a lot of good people here and talent here, and it’s always interesting to bring in new perspectives.”
The film has a 95% Rotten Tomatoes rating so far, including one from Hollywood Reporter critic Angie Han, who said the film “may not, well, reinvent the wheel. But in its expansive empathy, it delivers something that nevertheless feels new and surprising.”
Dreyfus and Jason attended the festival and gauged the audience as it watched the film’s leads, Albee and Walker, struggle to mend their eight-year marriage on a trip to the mountains.
“When the movie’s over and you see people in the movie theater crying and eliciting a strong emotional response like that, it’s great to be part of,” Dreyfus said. “For a small indie film, I think the execution on this was phenomenal given that it was during COVID.”
Jason said they were actually saving for a different project — a horror or thriller. The pandemic put a halt on that and he pivoted to something more intimate that required a smaller crew and only a few actors. Jason struggled to find a setting for the young lovers; the couple goes to an Airbnb to hash things out.
The film crew had to test and quarantine together. Hotels would’ve been too pricey, so the team looked for a summer camp that would have enough cottages. Jason and a producer partner looked at about 30.
The pandemic shut down summer camps that normally would have been full of laughter, macaroni jewelry and games of hide-and-seek. Jason lucked out with one in the San Bernardino Mountains, about two hours east of Los Angeles. The camp was big enough and employed the camp staff during filming.
The 28 team members slept, ate and worked there for a month, becoming a unique family, Jason said. Because of COVID protocols, actors had to mic themselves, and hair and makeup artists taught the cast how to do their own touch-ups.
Jason’s journey to “The Wheel” and TIFF began long ago when he decided to take a chance.
The now 28-year-old did some acting as a kid for commercials and Discovery Channel shows that were filmed locally. When he was 12, he made short films and eventually started a film club at Norfolk Academy.
“Once I picked up a camera, I never put it down,” Jason said during a phone call from Toronto.
He went to college and made online videos and commercials for a local mattress company. But it wasn’t his dream.
“I wanted to make movies,” he said. One day in 2018, he packed his car and moved to California and worked jobs he found on Facebook and Craigslist.
Trent Atkinson, who wrote the script for “The Wheel,” sent it to Jason in 2019. When the pandemic hit its peak, Jason remembered the script.
He had previously worked with Pink at a production company and thought about pitching it to him because he was well regarded in Hollywood. Atkinson wasn’t sure that Pink would sign on, but Pink called Jason a week after receiving it and described the script as “amazing,” Jason said.
“Once you get someone like that involved, the conversations start going from asking people to come along and be a part of the project to people asking us,” Jason said.
In his eyes, Pink is not only a fantastic director and writer; he is also one of the “nicest human beings.”
Pink came on board in May 2020 and filming took place from late July to August.
Jason said making it to the festival has been cool and surreal, especially since he moved to L.A. with no connections in the business.
Reviews have been pretty positive, he said, and the film is also up for grabs for buyers, which is why Jason doesn’t want to disclose how much it cost to make the film. He hopes to hear good news soon that a major studio wants it.
Jason said he has always wanted to make films funded by locals and would like to see more films produced here, whether that’s in downtown Norfolk, at the beach or the farmlands of Chesapeake.
Although “The Wheel” wasn’t filmed locally, he’s grateful for the support he received from Virginia investors, including Dreyfus.
“He was the first person that put the money in and he kind of spearheaded this fundraising campaign that ultimately led to us actually being able to make the movie,” Jason said. “Every every single penny was Hampton Roads’ money.”
Saleen Martin, 757-446-2027, email@example.com