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East Side Sushi Opens Across California
by Doniphan Blair
(Lft-rt) David Roach, director of the Oakland International Film Festival, Anthony Lucero, director of 'East Side Sushi' and Libby Schaff, the city's new mayor. photo: courtesy A. Lucero
"EAST SIDE SUSHI", THE LITTLE FILM
that could out of Oakland — both it and its writer/director were "created" here — is opening theatrically on September 18th in 13 theaters across in California, including the Grand Lake in Oakland and the Sundance in Hollywood.
The movie follows a Mexican immigrant, Juana, played by Diana Elizabeth Torres, a conservatory-trained actress from Mexico City, who takes over her father’s fruit cart in East Oakland but sets her sites much, MUCH higher: becoming a sushi chef, despite the gender and ethnic “strikes” against her.
Ironically, Juana could be a stand-in for Director Anthony Lucero, who is also good with a knife—indeed, he edited the film as well. On the other hand, when it comes to sharp elbows, Lucero is so polite, mild-mannered and well-adjusted, you wonder if he is cut out to compete in a profession full of massive, sometimes even monstrous, egos.
East Side Sushi
” is an excellent film, which slowly builds its powerful story, crafted from Lucero’s painstaking research, pulling its themes and characters tighter and tighter until the pop is simultaneously strong, emotional and aesthetic.
Hence, it was not that surprising when “East Side” started winning awards, beginning with an audience award right at its debut at the 2014 CineQuest in San Jose. But over almost a year of festivaling, it didn’t attract a distributor.
“It was a weird up and down on the festival circuit,” noted Lucero, who, despite his even temper, began to express annoyance, anger even, when CineSource contacted him in the fall of last year.
Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) starts to make her bones with sushi master (Yutaka Takeuchi) in 'East Side Sushi'. photo: courtesy A. Lucero
“It was more sad then anything,” he clarified, in our recent phone call, from Los Angeles, where he has temporarily relocated to make the most of “East Side”’s distro, which is being handled by the Hola Mexico Film Festival there, and to start developing his next project.
“There are just so many people in LA in the business side of it,” he gushed.
“You feel you did the hard work and people liked the film but you can’t get any major distribution. It languished during the summer and part of the fall of 2014," he explained. "It wasn’t until it played Naples, Florida, and Napa Valley, both in November —and it was a back-to-back win at both of them—that it started to get a lot of invitations to film festivals.”
“This is how the business works. You just have to figure out to navigate around that. It’s like, ‘OK, distributors want names attached [ie stars] but how can I get around that?’ It is a learning process.”
“Perseverance is the frickin’ key to the whole flipping process,” Lucero said laughing, and almost swearing, “from writing and pre-production to production, and then the hardest part for me, marketing the film.”
After the Napa Valley Film Festival, the Hollywood Reporter published a good review, which triggered the holy, coveted grail of “buzz.” Check out the “
East Side Sushi
” site to see the large number of awards, mostly audience, it has won.
“Napa Valley is phenomenal festival,” Lucero enthused, looking back on when his star started to rise. “A lot of parties, a lot of money pumped in, a lot of ads, which is what you want—and, god, they were everywhere. All over town, banners on the web. It definitely had a presence.”
“You like a film festival that pumps a lot of money into their advertising. And a lot of wine, which is great. There was wine from the morning, when you wake up, ‘til you go to sleep.”
“I was one of ten narrative filmmakers selected; it was almost like a Sundance lab. They put me at the
. It was so nice.”
Lucero confers with DP Marty Rosenberg on set, with Producer Julie Rubio (standing) and Script Supervisor Vicki Wong (seated). photo: courtesy A. Lucero
Then it got its second wind. In 2015, it started winning more and more festivals.
Much of “East Side”’s team, including Cinematographer Marty Rosenberg and Producer Julie Rubio, are well-known, local fixtures. CineSource, for its part, started following the film's development in 2012 and covered its opening in 2014, see
Born and raised in Oakland's Fruitvale district, Lucero earned his BA in cinema at San Francisco State and then worked as a commercial editor. By the time he was writing “East Side Sushi” he was editing effects at ILM.
While working on major motion pictures ("Star Wars: Episode II & II", "Pirates of the Caribbean", and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"), Lucero kept making his own personal films, a true synthesizer of indie and commercial values.
Those projects included both comic and serious shorts, "I Need My Mocha" (2005) and "Angels and Wheelchairs" (2007) and documentaries, where he also did the camerawork.
The Hola Mexico Film Festival is, as the name suggests, a festival which takes place in LA in the spring. In point of fact, “East Side” was the only American film this year, with all the others from Mexico. When it ended up walking away the audience award, its traditional prize, after industry professionals placed their laurels elsewhere, festival director Samuel Douek couldn’t help but notice.
“It seemed like a win-win,” explained Lucero. “It is a small film, not necessarily one a big studio would want to distribute. So going with a smaller distro outlet was probably better.”
Plus “Mexico is big player in Hollywood now. I love some of the Mexican directors coming out of Hollywood. They are just different and breathing new life into cinema.”
“Samuel did a great job a of curating the appropriate theaters. If it does well in the lead theater, we are planning to hold it over. The next weekend we are already in Texas and Arizona. It could keep moving East, bucking the trend since everyone says, ‘You should start in New York’.”
Anthony Lucero in front of Oakland's Coach Sushi where the film's restaurant scenes were shot during its days off. photo: D. Blair
This makes sense even though “East Side” got a good review from a NY critic. “We haven’t aggressively tried to play New York. We did a few festivals there, Tribeca, but it is so expensive to rent a theater for a showcase. So we decided to see how well it does here and figure out NY after.”
“We are also playing in Switzerland this month and Italy last month and Helsinki next month—we just started to go out to Europe.”
Ironically, Mexico itself, whose national story is embodied in the determined Juana, who cuts, chops and competes her way to prove herself, “is a tough nut to crack. We tried three film festivals and didn’t get into any.”
“My distributor will be perfect for Mexico. Some people have told me about Brazil and Argentina but we are going to have the professionals deal with that. We were rejected by Japan—another big rejection,” he joked, now that he felt secure enough to poke such fun.
“Someone said they might not be ready for a film like this, it is a little taboo [female sushi chef!]. That is what I was told by a Japanese person but we will crack that nut,” he predicted.
“It is perseverance, just kept going and pushing. I knew there was an audience. Every time we played I saw the reaction of the crowd. It almost killed me. It has been a tough ride but it has been a good.”
He also has a documentary half finished, about tribute bands that dress up like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, which he hopes to finish it next year. In the meantime, Lucero is hard at work on two screenplays.
After some initial hesitation, Lucero opened up about his film's arduous journey to distro. photo: D. Blair
“I ping pong between the one I have finished and another one I am writing. I never feel the stories are quite right. I let it sit and percolate and then go back. I am going to decide soon whether the story completely sucks or whether I can move forward into production.”
“I don’t talk about my narratives when I am writing," he noted, "because I don’t like the influence, people saying, ‘Oh that is like that film.’ I hate that stuff.”
"If I get funding for the next project, if it is independent of a city identity, I would sure love to go to Oakland. I love everything about shooting in Oakland. Whenever I write, I think, ‘Can I shoot this in Oakland?’”
“That is the thing with production today, you can shoot literally anywhere in the world. The cameras are so small and doesn’t take much gea. And there are tax incentives. Hopefully, Oakland will give me a tax incentive for my next film. I will talk to Mayor Libby Schaaf about that.”
And Ms. Schaff, if you are listening, please green light Lucero. It couldn't happen to a nicer, more talented and completely Oakland filmmaker.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Sep 17, 2015 - 02:12 AM