By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Local filmmaker John Chechitelli has wrapped shooting on his dark comedy “Worst. Christmas. Ever.”
Now comes the post-production phase in which he will craft the footage into a feature-length film.
Chechitelli hopes to have it ready by the end of the summer, and begin submitting it to film festivals by the year’s end.
“Worst. Christmas. Ever” is about a teen girl who discovers she is pregnant on the day before Christmas.
Chechitelli, who wrote and directed the film, says it is in the quirky character-driven style of films such as “Raising Arizona.”
Shooting took place in about a dozen locations in the Mahoning Valley between Dec. 3 and Feb. 9, mainly on weekends. In addition to several private houses, scenes were filmed at a billiards hall in Struthers, the Youngstown city jail, a church and a pharmacy in Niles, a convenience store in Austintown and a hot-dog shop in Youngstown.
The original intent was for the setting to be a mild Christmas season with no snow, but you can’t tell Mother Nature what to do. So the cast and crew had to roll with the harsher-than-normal Youngstown winter.
Shooting took place on days when the thermometer was in single digits. At times, it seemed like the film gods were imposing their will.
“It snowed every day,” said Chechitelli. “One day in December, the moment I called “cut” to end shooting, it stopped snowing.”
On the final day of shooting, the director broke an elbow bone at the end of the session. “I was running back to get a key to a car [that was used in the movie] and my legs went out on a patch of ice,” said Chechitelli.
“Worst. Christmas. Ever” was completed with a budget of just $10,000, the majority of which was raised through Seed and Spark, an online crowdfunding competition for regional filmmakers.
Chechitelli hopes his success in the competition boosts his chances for getting his film accepted into major film festivals, including Sundance and Toronto.
His previous film, the 2010 documentary “Youngstown: Still Standing,” was screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and Chechitelli hopes “Worst” will also gain a spot there.
The hope is to land a distribution deal after the festival circuit, said Chechitelli. Any Mahoning Valley screening of the film would likely have to wait until after that process has been exhausted.
The director has written several scripts, but “Worst. Christmas. Ever” will be his first feature film. His cast and crew deferred on pay so that the best film possible could be made.
A Youngstown native, Chechitelli worked for Fox Sports television in Los Angeles before returning to his hometown a couple years ago.
The actors for “Worst. Christmas. Ever” were largely selected by casting director Cindy Castro DiRusso, who is also a co-producer. A Washington, D.C., native, she worked in that regard in Hollywood before moving to Youngstown with her husband, who is an owner of DiRusso’s Sausage Inc.
DiRusso, who owns Smarter Move talent agency, has worked on “The Voice,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares.”
The actress who carries “Worst. Christmas. Ever” is Raychael Lane, 24, a LaBrae High School graduate and a Warren resident. She plays Sophia, the pregnant teen, and is in just about every scene.
Chechitelli was introduced to her in a stroke of luck, when he struck up a conversation about the film he wanted to make with an employee of a local hospital where he was making a delivery for his side job as a courier. It was Lane’s mother.
The director auditioned Lane, gave her the role, and has been ecstatic with her performance.
Lane is excited about the film. She said her character in “Worst. Christmas. Ever” is very relatable.
“It’s a play on a story that we hear all the time,” she said. “Accidents happen. I am 24, and I can’t imagine being a 15-year-old finding out I am pregnant.”
Lane wanted to be an actor as a child and went to Los Angeles with her mother to do film work. She moved back to the Warren area for good at age 13, and put acting on the backburner.
Reinvigorated by her work in “Worst,” she is ready to jump back into the field with a new perspective and fresh passion.
After working in the more rigid business-like structure of Hollywood, she found filming in Youngstown to be a welcome change.
“We worked a lot of long hours, but it was more relaxed,” she said. “I never knew Youngstown had so much talent. It was the coolest experience to see people so at-home in this setting. We were professional, but everyone already knew each other. There was no need for introductions every day. And there was an energy about it. Everybody wanted to help.”
Lane said she plans to seek more film and stage work in the region.
The cast of “Worst. Christmas. Ever” also includes Leonardo Mancini, son of boxing legend Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, as Sophia’s wannabe-thug boyfriend; Chase Crawford, La’Rayja Hill, KateLynn E. Newberry, Devito Parker Jr., Rick Montgomery Jr., Craig Brophy, Fran Pulford, Giovanni Chechitelli, Elijah Chechitelli, Rachel Anderson and Derek Steyer of 21 WFMJ-TV.