Teen bullying is more and more in the spotlight these days. While it’s something that’s been around forever and decried by many, largely it’s been ignored as a major issue. It’s “just part of growing up” many have said, not realizing the dramatic (and too often tragic) results it’s had on some young peoples lives. Today, thank God, the issue is better understood and is being given more attention by parents, educators and young people alike. But many still do not understand its impact.
Anthony Giunta is a filmmaker who understands the issue and has decided to make a movie in the coming of age genre with teen bullying as its underlying theme. Through it, he hopes that many more will understand its ramifications. The film will be called The Prize Guys and will be shot in Philadelphia next summer (2012).
The skykid.com is thrilled to have the unique opportunity of spotlighting this coming of age film now while it’s still in the planning stages, then reporting on its progress during the actual filming and editing of the picture, and finally reviewing the final product upon its release in 2013.
We’ll begin by talking with filmmaker Anthony Giunta (who both wrote the script and will direct the film) and with the young lead he’s chosen for the film, Tommy Batchelor — about how the film came about and where things stand with it at this moment in time — from both their perspectives. We are thrilled that they have agreed to do this exclusive interview with theskykid.com.
Note: Within the interview, questions from theskykid.com will be represented by the letters “SK” and the answers will be indicated by “AG” for Anthony Giunta and “TB” for Tommy Batchelor. To view captions on pictures within this article, just run your cursor over the picture.
SK: Hello Anthony and Tommy and welcome to theskykid.com. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview.
AG: Thanks so much for asking us!
SK: Anthony, The Prize Guys (TPG) will be your first feature film. Could you tell us a little of your background and how you’ve decided to get into the film making business?
AG: It really all started for me when I was a teenager. Throughout high school and college, my life plan was to move to NYC after school and become a musical theater actor. Shortly after my move, however, I realized being an actor was not going to be a good fit for me. (In other words, I could act okay, sing a little better, and not dance at all.)
So I embarked onto what was to become a long career in travel management, which eventually evolved into senior-level Human Resources management. Then, a little over a decade ago, I fell into writing. Literally. I slipped on some ice, went flying through the air, and came down right on my leg, tearing the cartilage in my left knee. On crutches for three months, I had to exercise my left leg for four continuous hours each day in this huge machine for physical therapy. To pass the time, and having always loved theater since I was seven, I decided to write a scene for a play. Then one scene evolved into two, then three – and, before I knew it, I had written an entire play.
I fell in love with writing, and wrote a few plays in a few years’ time, which were produced in small off-off-Broadway venues. The only thing was, having never studied writing formally, my work had some very good moments to it – but it really wasn’t very consistent. About five years ago, though I’d been writing plays for a little over a decade, and I’ve always loved the theater, I began transitioning to writing short films and experimenting with filmmaking. I realized that for me film was an even more instinctive medium than theater. I made a few short films – and was very good at it – but, without the proper writing training, I was never entirely pleased with the stories I had written, and one-by-one I ended up dumping all my short film footage into the “Empty Trash” can on my Mac. By that time, however, I had accepted a very senior Human Resources job in an amazing, venerable NYC cultural institution – 92Y. I felt pretty career-fulfilled for a long time and my dreams of eventually changing my career to writing started to fade.
While I truly loved my job, the place where I worked and its people – something felt missing in my life.
In February 2008, I celebrated a milestone birthday. For a variety of reasons, that day I decided that if I was going to be serious about making a career shift, I needed to finally study the craft of writing. Seriously. So, over the next six months, I read practically every book on screenwriting available – hoping to find a teacher in one of the authors, with whom I could perhaps study privately.
Finally, I read a screenwriting book that made me realize “this author is the one.” I contacted the book’s writer, Dara Marks, met her in Milan that same November, where she was teaching an English-speaking screenwriting class to Italian university students, and proceeded to begin studying with her privately. It became apparent to me that if I applied her writing principles and worked very hard, I could eventually develop into a first-class writer. So I studied screenwriting diligently and eventually also included several of the other aspects of the filmmaking world in my learning efforts.
By October 2010, I knew I was ready to write a screenplay that I’d be truly proud of, and want to share with the world. Once I wrote the background stories for my characters, I began writing my new screenplay, The Prize Guys, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. And I will soon be devoting my full-time efforts to this and other film development projects as I transition out of my employment at 92Y.
SK: Anthony, who are the other members of your creative team on this project?
AG: At this early stage in the film’s development, I’m working with just one other creative team member, Thommie Retter. I had asked Thommie, who plays “Mr. Braithwaite” in Billy Elliot the Musical (BETM) on Broadway, to play one of the adult roles in a small table reading of my screenplay I was putting together. (Thommie and I had been introduced casually by a mutual friend six months prior.)
Thommie read the script – and loved it. He told his zillion friends about it. Before long, he and I met to discuss the project and it immediately became clear to me that I wanted to work with Thommie behind the scenes, as well as utilizing his terrific comedic acting abilities – and since then our professional relationship has evolved into a business partnership as Co-Executive Producers of this project, with plans for many more to come.
We have also secured the West Coast music production company Moho Productions to supervise the original motion picture soundtrack and score the film.
Thommie and I will put together the rest of the creative team as the production schedule warrants.
SK: Tommy, how is it you happened to get involved with The Prize Guys project?
Thommie Retter, who I knew well through our mutual involvement with Billy Elliot the Musical on Broadway, had read the script and thought I would be perfect for the part of Tommy Kelly. He and Anthony Giunta, the Writer/Director, discussed the idea of me playing the lead role and then sent me the script. It is an amazing script that transfixed me to every page. I decided that this would be a very good experience, so I came up to New York to do a reading with Anthony and Thommie.
SK: Tommy, you are 15 years old and most known, at this point in your entertainment career, for playing the title character in the very popular Billy Elliot the Musical, both on Broadway and in Chicago. Could you share with the readers of theskykid.com what your training in the performing arts consists of?
TB: In Florida where I live, I took acting, singing, and dance classes at both U.B.Kinsey/Palmview Elementary School of the Arts and at B.A.K. Middle School of the Arts. I also took extra dance classes at Palm Beach Ballet Center in Lake Park. As for my training with Billy, I had acting, singing, dancing, gymnastics, boxing, and dialect training. I also learned a lot about time management and how to take care of my body.
SK: But Tommy, your experience thus far has been in the “live” entertainment area. The Prize Guys will be your first feature film. How do you think your skills, honed in live theater/dance, will translate to performing in front of the camera?
TB: I do a lot of silly films at home so I am kind of used to being in front of a camera, but I know it will be different on an actual set. I can incorporate my live theater skills with everything that Anthony teaches me to perform well in the movie.
SK: Teen bullying is a very topical issue today. Anthony, how is it that you decided to do a movie focusing on this issue?
AG: Last autumn, I kept reading all these stories day after day about teenage suicides precipitated by peer bullying. By the third consecutive day, I felt compelled to take some action, which for me meant writing a screenplay that could evolve into a movie and hopefully change a lot of hearts.
I was a bullied kid all throughout grade school and high school, but there was no social media, texting, etc. back then… today it can literally be a 24/7 ordeal for some kids.
SK: Tommy, what are your thoughts on teen bullying? Have you ever experienced it in your own life?
TB: Teen bullying has become more and more prominent as technology advances. Teens used to be able to escape bullying by going home, to the library, or anywhere away from school. Now with mobile phones, Facebook, and Twitter, it is hard for bullied teens to find a place where they can escape. I have been lucky and haven’t really experienced any bullying, but I know that anyone who is slightly different from others, is susceptible to bullying.
SK: Anthony, without giving away too much detail, would you summarize the plot of the film?
AG: When a bullied high school junior from Home Ec gets a shot at having his own TV cooking show, the school’s biggest menace pretends to befriend him, in order to sabotage the teenage chef.
SK: The film will be shot in Philadelphia. Is there any special significance to that city being chosen as the site of the film?
AG: My own experience as a bullied kid always left me feeling constricted, afraid to say anything because it could just trigger an onslaught of more ridicule – which was ironic because my hometown is Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty and freedom.
Philly is its own character in this story – initially, in contrast to the world we see of bullied kids, who are anything but free, and eventually in harmony with the “new normal” that evolves during the story.
SK: What does the production schedule for the film look like?
AG: Thommie Retter and I are working on casting the baker’s dozen of important teen roles in the film during the summer of 2011, after which we’ll move on to casting the adult roles.
The actual pre-production begins this September, when we’ll put together the rest of our creative team and crew, and make final decisions on shooting locations, etc. The film shoot itself will take place between June and August of 2012; it’s important to Thommie and I to fit what we’re doing into the world of our young actors, many of whom will probably be graduating high school and starting college next year.
SK: Anthony, recently you held a table reading of the script of the film in New York, which both you and Tommy mentioned earlier. Besides Tommy, there were a variety of actors reading on that occasion. Could you talk a bit about who they are and how you came to invite them to do the reading?
AG: Thommie Retter was instrumental in connecting us with the parents of a lot of the past and present BETM kids. Thommie also reached out to the parents of several other incredibly talented kids to whom he teaches dance. In all cases, the kids read the script and wanted to be involved in the reading; they’re all hugely talented and made the reading night an unforgettably wonderful experience.
We were also treated to the amazing acting abilities of some very talented adult actors including Cordis Heard, Donnie Kehr and talk radio star Mike Gallagher from the Mike Gallagher Show, who made a great indelible impact in his supporting role as the school’s athletic coach.
SK: Tommy, what was the table reading experience like from your perspective as an actor?
TB: It was very exciting to read my part and act off of the other peoples emotions. It was a lot like live theater, which made it very enjoyable. The reading allowed me to see and feel what the movie was going to be like.
SK: Anthony, how many of the cast have been chosen to date and can you give us any other names besides Tommy Batchelor’s?
AG: We’re looking seriously at all the participants in the reading for the various roles in the movie, as well as many other teenaged actors that we’re reading now from all across the country – and, in the coming months, in a few other countries as well, including the UK and Australia; so far, two offers have gone out to actors: Tommy Batchelor and Keean Johnson. They’re both magnificent in their respective roles in the story.
A couple other offers will probably be extended very shortly…
SK: The Prize Guys is being described as a coming of age film. In general, how do you define the “coming of age” genre?
AG: A young person (or people) goes through a series of events that forever alters their view of the world.
SK: Do you have any favorite coming of age movies that you’d recommend to our readers?
AG: One of my all-time favorites is Rob Reiner’s Flipped; it’s an incredible movie, and one that touches young men and women alike.
Other favorites, from a variety of decades, include The History Boys, Billy Elliot, Good Will Hunting, The Dead Poets Society, Big, Yentl, Stand By Me, The Way We Were (Katie and Hubbell are both young in the early part of the story), Summer of ’42, Gigi (for both the characters of Gigi and Gaston, the latter of which, though not an adolescent by age, learns to say goodbye to his seemingly eternal adolesence by the film’s end), and one of my all-time favorite classics: Roman Holiday.
SK: Tommy, if I were to ask you “Who is Tommy Batchelor?”, how would you describe yourself?
TB: I am just like any other boy that is a pyromaniac, invents random things, and likes performing. I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie and I am always trying to entertain my friends.
SK: Anthony, as you’ve prepared yourself to do this, your first feature film, have you looked at other directors’ work you admire and, if so, will you try to incorporate what you’ve learned from them into your own directing style for The Prize Guys?
AG: I don’t know that I’ll consciously try and incorporate anyone else’s style into directing the film, however, when you’ve been infuenced by the work of so much genius talent up on the screen over a lifetime, I think it’s almost impossible not to, at least subconciously, tap into the styles of your mentors.
I believe that’s a good thing, especially when your directing mentors are an eclectic group like Rob Reiner, William Wyler, Vincente Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Stephen Daldry, Hitchcock, Sydney Pollack, Penny Marshall, Nick Hytner, Peter Weir, Robert Mulligan and Gus van Sant.
SK: A question for you both: Are there any particular actors you’ve seen on screen that you’ve said to yourself, “Gee, I’d like to work with him or her?”
AG: Wow, there are so many! Obviously, most of my recent thoughts in this regard are related to the casting of this film. Hitting a home run in the casting arena of this movie would include any of the following adult actors in four prominent TPG roles, listed alphabetically: Angela Bassett, Jamie Bell, Diahann Carroll, Tyne Daly, Viola Davis, Robert De Niro, Olympia Dukakis, Richard Gere, Colin Farrell, Shirley Knight, Adriane Lenox, James Marsden, Bette Midler, Oprah Winfrey… among others.
Looking at actors for the teenaged roles, my choices would be many of the young people I’ve seen in various performances of Billy Elliot the Musical on three continents – plus other gifted young actors like Madeline Carroll, Jason Dolley, Kenton Duty, Callan McAuliffe, Saoirse Ronan, Ashley Taylor and Emma Watson.
TB: I’d love to work with Robert Downey JR. and/or Johnny Depp. They are my favorite actors.
SK: How can people, who think the issue of teen bullying is important, support this film as it attempts to get the message out about teen bullying?
AG: There are a few ways. Right now, we still need to firm up the financing for the film. The project is up on the Kickstarter.com project fundraising platform. We’ve still got a long way to go there, with less than a month to make our goal. With Kickstarter, if you don’t raise the entire amount, you don’t get any of it – which makes sense, because you can’t make half a movie. I’ve made a video about the film for the kickstarter site:
Credit: Video by ThePrizeGuysFilm
There are a ton of film-related rewards associated with becoming a backer of TPG on the Kickstarter website; if you or anyone you know wants to help on that fundraising channel, that would be awesome! The kickstarter website can be found here.
However, the absolute best way for young people out there to support the film project will occur once the movie is released in 2013, and that is – come see it!
SK: A final question for both of you. Is there anything else about yourself or the project we haven’t asked that you’d like to tell readers of theskykid.com?
AG: As this project is evolving into the first step in a career change for me and the establishment of a film production company for me and Thommie Retter, it’s important that we establish and maintain the mission of the primary goal we’re attempting to reach with every film we’ll produce: to create stories that engage, amuse and entertain, while sending uplifting, positive messages to young people and the people entrusted to guide young people through life – which pretty much covers all of us.
As I wrap up my time at 92Y between now and the end of August, I remember a concept I learned when I first joined the iconic everyone-welcome Jewish organization almost a decade ago – it’s called Tikkun Olam, which is a Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world.”
In Judaism, Tikkun Olam states that it’s our job to repair what needs repairing in the world, and then, when we’ve seen one mission through to completion, we need to go off and start the repair work on another. It also states that the work is never done. As an Italian Catholic boy, I could relate immediately to this universally appealing precept.
Will TPG repair the world? I don’t know about that, but it’s sure going to try and fix a few big dents.
And with another half-dozen new film ideas already in the early stages of development after The Prize Guys, I’d say we’re off to a promising start…
TB: The Prize Guys has quite a few very important messages. My favorite one is that you have to trust in yourself in order to trust in others.
Thanks to both of you for taking some time to talk to us about this very exciting project. We extend to you our best wishes for much success with the project as work on the film continues and we look forward to watching the film’s progress.
EVERYONE can follow the film’s progress on