Less than a month ago Andy Shapiro over at Legendary put Jessie and me in contact with Tamika Lamison, founder and head of the Make a Film Foundation. As soon as I watched a TV news story about the organization, I was in. On Saturday night I moderated a panel following a screening of their newest film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, hosted by actor Bruce Davison. It was an inspiring evening and I felt humbled to be a part of it. Once you learn about MAFF I think you’ll respond the same way.
In the spirit of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, this group helps kids with life-threatening diseases realize their dream of creating a movie. Their motto? “LIFE…Camera…Action!” Most youngsters want to tell their stories in short documentaries, and the organization has produced 100 of these to date. Others want to use drama and fantasy to express their feelings. MAFF’s latest endeavor brought together three A-list directors (Sam Raimi, Catherine Hardwicke, and Ted Melfi), an exceptional cast (including Johnny Depp, Laura Dern, David Lynch, and Richard Chamberlain) and a host of film industry professionals, from screenwriters and cinematographers to makeup artists and production assistants. Paramount Pictures, Technicolor, and other companies donated their services to create a professional 11-minute short. Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contributed a score. A popular television show generously provided fake blood. No one said “no.”
The impetus for this collaboration was an irresistible 16-year-old boy from Walpole, Massachusetts named Anthony Conti, who suffered from a rare cancer that attacked his adrenal glands. He was an aspiring filmmaker and a born storyteller–you can check out his colorful YouTube channel HERE. When he was diagnosed last July he submitted a proposal to Make a Film Foundation. Anthony’s sincerity and obvious passion for moviemaking sealed the deal. MAFF founder Tamika Lamison flew to Boston to meet Anthony and his family and invite them to Hollywood.
Tamika explained to the Academy audience that it usually takes months to pull a production team together. In Anthony’s case she knew she had to work faster–two weeks to be exact. Producer and casting director Adele Rene got busy actor J.K. Simmons on the phone. He had already appeared in an MAFF short and was happy to return, but only had one day free: that Friday. There was no alternative but to schedule a shoot with the Oscar-winning actor. Filmmaker Wash Westmoreland was recruited to help director Catherine Hardwicke craft a monologue Simmons could deliver to camera, without knowing what the rest of the script would look like! All they knew was that Anthony’s story involved zombies attacking adrenal glands.
In a similar vein, word came from Johnny Depp one evening that he would be on the set and ready to participate the following day at noon. Hardwicke furiously typed a speech for him to deliver. Anthony was weak but thrilled to be seeing his dream come true. His scene with Depp is a highlight, topped only by a lengthy out-take featuring the two of them that runs during the closing credits. (No matter how bad he felt on a given day, Anthony was no pushover. Several people on the panel told amusing stories about Anthony holding his ground to make the film just as he envisioned it. He also got two of his favorite actors on board: Chad Coleman from The Walking Dead and Jade Pettyjohn from the TV series School of Rock.)
The world premiere of Anthony’s film The Black Ghiandola was held in his hospital room–he was diagnosed in July 2016 and passed in January 2017. MAFF found a way to make his dreams come true in that small window of time.
Everyone who knew and worked with him was impressed with how “alive” he was, and agreed that this highly personal film, along with his YouTube videos, will keep him alive for years to come. Words can’t really capture this feeling; you have to see Anthony Conti for yourself.
MAFF founder Tamika Lamison says, “We believe the art of filmmaking is not only healing and therapeutic but also offers hope and builds self-esteem.” After seeing the results for myself, I couldn’t agree more.