After 10 years, two blizzards and a lot of work, Pete Balistrieri’s locally produced film, "On The Verge," is finally hitting the big screen. Considering its warm reception, it seems to have been worth the wait.
The movie, which Balistrieri wrote, directed, starred in and co-produced, follows Joe as he attempts to fall in love and keeps on failing miserably. With the help of his friends, he uses a new set of rules for himself in the hopes of finding a relationship that works. That short plot synopsis may sound reminiscent of other romantic comedies you may have seen in the past, but Balistrieri believes "On The Verge" is more complicated than the typical rom-com.
"It’s a film about relationships," Balistrieri explained. "I don’t think my method sort of fits what that cliché of a genre is. Theoretically, it is a romantic comedy, but I just don’t feel that when people watch this, they’re going to think it’s a chick flick. It’s about writing in a way that’s honest."
Though the movie is attempting to get at real emotions and relationships, Balistrieri said that "On The Verge" is not autobiographical.
"Obviously, people draw from their own personal view of things," Balistrieri said. "I recognize that a part of me is in everything that’s in the movie, as far as the script is concerned. I always feel that’s somehow kind of a compliment when people see the movie and say that this must have happened to me when it hasn’t. It tells me that I must be doing something right."
Balistrieri must be, as "On The Verge" was selected for the Beloit International Film Festival, which runs this Thursday through the weekend, out of more than 450 submissions and is up for several awards. While Beloit may not seem like a likely home for a growing film scene, the festival has earned nationwide acclaim since its debut in 2006, including a shout-out from The New York Times, which called the event an alternative to the Sundance Film Festival.
This year, the festival’s chair is the famous local-born director David Zucker, who made some of the most beloved comedies of all time, including "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun."
Even a well-run program like the Beloit International Film Festival can make some mistakes, as Balistrieri found out when his acceptance letter into the festival came in the form of a rejection.
"It turns out a bunch of checkmarks to reject the submissions were auto-filled somehow, and they just sent out an email," Balistrieri said. "I tried to clarify with them, asking ‘Did you really see the movie? Because I just sent it in.’ They said that it was a mistake, that they loved it, this person loved it, this person loved it, the entire committee loved it and that fans would love it."
The filmmaker doesn’t hold a grudge, as he noted the festival was very apologetic and "has been first-rate all the way." Plus, the film’s acceptance and nominations serve as nice reinforcement for the hard work it takes to make a film, as well as the hard work of simply getting into a festival.
"When you start making a movie, you think that it’s really tough," Balistrieri said. "Try getting into a film festival. Then you’re like, ‘I could make movies all day.’ There’s just no rhyme or reason to them. You get a lot of rejection, so it’s nice to get someone to say that they liked your movie, let alone nominate you for one of its awards. But you have to really be behind your story before you’re going to dedicate years of your life to making it happen."
In the case of "On The Verge," the commitment took over a decade. Balistrieri started writing the script about 10 years ago, but then stopped when financing fell through. He eventually moved out to Los Angeles with his girlfriend – now his wife – and worked on some acting and advertising projects before coming back to Milwaukee to start a family and rekindle his dream of making film.
"I was very aware of the fact that making a movie production-wise just can’t be done guerilla-style in L.A. with all the permits," Balistrieri said. "Here, you can do whatever you want."
Back in Milwaukee, he also met a capable producer in the form of Jimmy Sammarco – who also serves as the director of photography and editor for "On The Verge." Together, the two turned Balistrieri’s script into a reality.
"We were meeting to see what we could do together," Balistrieri said. "He knew of some scripts through some people. We’d talk a lot about them and there’d always be little things so finally I said that I had something that I really wanted to finish – this script – that I just needed to concentrate on. He read it and said, ‘this is great. Let’s do it.’"
Balistrieri finished the script in about three months and proceeded to shoot "On The Verge" in various Milwaukee locales throughout February and a few weekends in March of 2011. As Milwaukeeans know all too well, however, the late winter weather was unpredictable, including a two-day blizzard that caused havoc for the film crew.
"There was a blizzard, then another blizzard, then it dropped down to freezing temperatures … and then it was 50 degrees," Balistrieri said. "We had exteriors scheduled throughout the month, but we had this much snow, and then we had no snow."
While the wily Wisconsin weather kept Balistrieri and the rest of the crew on their toes, one delay was easy for Balistrieri to predict and schedule around.
"When I set the schedule up ahead of time – so a month or so before – I left that Super Bowl Sunday open with no shooting," Balistrieri recalled. "I figured if the Packers got in, no one is going to want to shoot. And then they made it and won!"
Despite all of the delays, chaotic weather and subsequent reshoots (for instance, the first part of a sidewalk scene had to be reshot after it began to rain, leaving the sidewalk soaked), Balistrieri never had any doubts about shooting "On The Verge" in Milwaukee. In fact, that was one of his goals.
"I’m sure you’ve watched a movie and you weren’t sure where it was set, but just from how it was portrayed in the film, you thought that you really liked that place," Balistrieri said. "I wanted people to watch this movie and think that they’d like to be where the characters are. When we screened the movie for cast and crew, I heard a couple of people say that they hadn’t seen Milwaukee in this way."
Considering that most Hollywood films set in Milwaukee barely feature the city at all ("Bridesmaids"), replace it with Canada and backlots (the "Dawn of the Dead" remake) or call it Chicago ("Transformers 3"), the fact that "On The Verge" gives Milwaukee the spotlight merits an award all its own.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.