Most first time writer/directors usually take on a short film or several short films before attempting something larger, much less a full-length feature that includes an Oscar-nominated actor. Such was not the case with writer/director/producer and actress Victoria Negri. This quadruple threat has not only accomplished what people double her age (and opposite her sex) haven’t even attempted, but done so with great success on both professional and personal levels. Her film “Gold Star,” which is the story of the relationship she shared with her elderly father, was an official selection at both the Buffalo International Film Festival (for which it won the Audience Award) and the more recent FilmFest52. It is also scheduled for an upcoming screening this February at the Oxford Film Festival. What Negri didn’t know at the time of filming is that it would also be the final film of her co-star, Robert Vaughn.
Negri got her start like many young artistic dreamers, attending New York University where she studied acting, creative writing and began appearing in many short films. However, upon graduation she became bored just reading scripts. “I was frustrated and wanted to try aspects of storytelling other than acting,” Negri told me in a recent conversation. Ironically, she then participated as an actor for director classes at Columbia University. “I learned a lot from watching and listening to how the student-directors would talk to the actors.” That, along with some assistant-directing experience coupled with her being on many film sets, would provide the formal training she needed.
Fate intervened. In the Fall of 2011, the director’s father, Carmine Negri, a WWII veteran, suffered a debilitating stroke that required constant medical attention. The uniqueness of this for Negri was that her father was sixty-three years older than her which meant, while only in her mid-twenties, she would become the primary caretaker. This would put a hold on her career. It would also give her the room to create something positive from the experience.
She had always wanted to write a screenplay about the gap in age between her and her father. “At one point, I considered a road trip movie about bringing my father cross country for a reunion, but his stroke changed all that.” Whatever the case, writing about this experience, whether it be poetry or a screenplay, was cathartic for Negri. “Nobody my age ever went through this and writing about it made me feel less alone.”
After the screenplay was completed Negri sought out a director, but quickly realized noone could have her vision and passion toward the material. “I wasn’t on an ego trip, I just felt I could do it better.” What made the task unnerving was Negri’s being in almost every scene. When asked if she would yell “Cut!” then run behind the monitor and watch her performance she replied with a laugh “When there was time,” adding that, “I trusted my director of photography Saro Varjabedian.” Before filming, the two would storyboard and scout locations.
As far as the casting went, Negri would play herself while friends and family were enlisted as extras. Who would play her father? With the help of a casting director her script made it in the hands of actor Robert Vaughn. He said “yes” and Negri went, “Wow!” While on set, she claims Robert (as he preferred to be called) loved telling stories about his film career, including his experiences making the “The Magnificent Seven” with co-stars Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner. Coincidentally, the sixties’ classic was a favorite of Negri’s father who loved westerns and often wore a cowboy hat. “He would’ve been thrilled that Robert played him.”
Before the film, Vaughn gave Negri his autobiography and after reading about his career she couldn’t help but feel a bit intimidated. “I remember a scene where I was playing the piano and Robert mentioned how Judy Garland used to play on his.” What would get Negri through the shoot was remembering he was there because he wanted to be. “He believed in the film and trusted me, and that gave me confidence.”
Visit the film’s site here: http://www.goldstar-film.com/#new-page
As with all films “Gold Star” takes some dramatic license but at its core, it deals with Negri’s own life. Her character Vicki, a former performing arts school student now working at a gym, spends her days commuting from New York City to Connecticut to care for her ailing father. Feeling isolated by the pressures of her situation, she eventually gains inner strength, makes peace with her family and finds romance in an unexpected place. “The caretaking scenes are accurate,” Negri said. Both in real-life and in the film she had to physically lift her father from bed to wheelchair, wheelchair to couch and so on. Having lived the material Negri’s performance comes off as weighty and persuasive. As a stroke victim Vaughn has very little dialogue, making it even more impressive that he’s able to convey the emotions that he does.
Ironically, or not, Negri’s toughest audience would turn out to be her family. Between her mother and half-siblings from her father’s first marriage, she was naturally concerned as to what their reactions would be to the story, the portrayals. “There’s a part of me that believes noone thought I could pull it off,” Negri jokes, adding that, “there was lots of crying but these were tears of joy, not sadness.” She remembers at the Q&A following the screening that, the last person to raise their hand, was her half-brother who gave his approval with a simple, “Hey Sis!”
Negri’s personal connection to the film is worth more than any box-office fallout. “I hope it opens up conversations about how life it too short and sometimes there are no neat endings.”
Robert Vaughn passed away on November 11th, 2016. “His first film was “The Ten Commandments” and his last film was mine,” a stunned Negri told me.
Needless to say, to be directorially bookended with Cecil B. DeMille should make both her, and her father, extremely proud.
“Gold Star” will be screened at the Oxford Film Festival on Friday, Feb 17th 2017.
Tickets can be purchased here: http://oxfordfilmfest.com/schedule-2015/