Naturally assimilating into highly critical communities and finding acceptance among your peers is a desire many people wish to achieve throughout their lives. Not only is the main character, Tommy, in the family drama ‘Contest,’ which is now available on VOD and DVD, determined to finally become accepted by his classmates at his high school, but first-time writer-director Anthony Joseph-Giunta is also working to leave his mark among the filmmaking community. The scribe-helmer used real-life motivations to create a compelling, inspiring story about the dangers of bullying. The movie not only shows how bullying affects kids both physically and emotionally in the moment, but also leave a life-long effect on their perceptions of themselves.
Bullied high school student Tommy (Daniel Flaherty) is suddenly befriended by his chief tormentor, Matt (Kenton Duty), the school’s most popular student and star swimmer. Tommy is suspicious, but is forced to accept the awkward friendship in order to enter a televised cooking contest with a big cash prize that would help save his grandmother Angela’s (Mary Beth Peil) pizzeria. Plus, Tommy is using his newfound friendship with Matt to impress his crush, school blogger Sarah (Katherine McNamara). As the cooking contest heats up, Sarah starts to uncover a conspiracy, but nobody wants to hear about it. But Sarah’s suspicions ultimately make Tommy question if his budding friendship with Matt is real, or if it’s all been a huge joke.
Giunta generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Contest’ over the phone. Among other things, the first-time writer-director discussed how reading about how teens across America are resorting to suicide to cope with bullying, as well as his own experiences with bullying in school, convinced him to pen and helm the family drama; how writing the script and his intimate knowledge of the characters’ backstories helped convince him to also helm the movie; and how much it means to him that viewers are embracing the story, particularly tweens and teens who understand the importance of accepting their peers.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote the screenplay for the family drama, ‘Contest.’ Where did you come up with the inspiration for the story, and what was your overall writing process like?
Anthony Joseph Giunta (AJG): The idea came from two things. The week I initially came up with the idea for the story, I had read stories about three different kids across the country who had committed suicide because of teenage bullying. That really affected me. Where I spun from that was my own memories of being a bullied kid in grade school and high school.
What really shocked me is that it has gotten to such a point where kids are actually taking their own lives. Essentially, I thought, what’s different about now? What turned out to be different in what I had evaluated is that when I was in school, it was before the internet and texting and all that. Now, it’s more of a 24/7 thing, and with kids, it can be really pervasive. I think when you have that kind of pressure on you all the time, it can be very damaging.
So that’s what started me off. Once I started writing the script, I wrote the first draft in a month. I couldn’t stop because I was so compelled to finish this story and put it out there. It just took over my life, which was a good thing. I was really driven to tell the story I thought I needed to tell.
SY: Were you able to relate to Matt and/or Tommy’s struggles at all? Are there any experiences of bullying that you drew on as you were both writing and directing the film?
AJG: Yes. I could relate to Tommy in a number of ways. The story’s not biographical; I didn’t take any of my life and just tell that. But the way that Tommy cocoons himself as a result of being bullied was definitely something I could relate to.
With Matt, I think I could relate to him a lot, as well. You get into certain situations where you find yourself being friends with someone who isn’t necessarily the popular person. You’re thinking, wait, I didn’t even think I liked this person. Then you gradually discover that you’re becoming genuine friends with someone you didn’t think you particularly liked. So I could relate to both of them.
SY: Besides writing the screenplay, you also directed the film. Was it always your intention to both write and direct the movie, and do you feel that penning the script helped you in your directorial duties on the set?
AJG: Yes, I think that’s definitely the case-the writing did inform the directing. I would tell the cast sometimes, “I have to think about this. Let me ask the writer.” (laughs) But originally, it was not my intention to direct it. I saw myself as just wanting to write the script, and maybe sell it to a production company or studio.
Then about halfway through that, during the writing of the first draft during that really intense month, I fell in love with the whole story. I loved it to a degree that I absolutely knew I wanted to make it myself. But that was evolutionary about midway through writing it. It definitely helped a lot in directing for the first time. I knew the stories and the back stories, so I was fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to direct it, as well as write it.
SY: Like you mentioned, ‘Contest’ marks your feature film directorial and writing debuts. What was your overall experience of being a first time filmmaker on the drama, and are there any lessons you learned on the movie you’ll bring to your next projects?
AJG: Again, the experience was really terrific. I spoke to people while we were still in pre-production who said, “It’s a pretty short shooting schedule, so it’s going to be really tough and difficult.”
There was a lot of continuous work between pre-production, production and post-production. But it turned out to be very joyous. The reason for the joy came out of the people we surrounded ourselves with at every level, between the cast and crew, from pre-production all the way to post-production. I characterized it as having a group of guardian angels; we had the right people there at the right time. We did an intense amount of work, but it was a joyous experience. A lot of the cast and crew have kept their friendships a year past filming.
In terms of things that I learned for the next time, pretty much everything that happened during the course of this helped me learn to better anticipate things. I was probably about 98 percent prepared, but it was baptism by fire. I can anticipate more the next time, because I can go that extra couple percent. I know that this can happen and that can’t happen.
But since we had such a great team around us, I was pretty lucky in that there were no major surprises, in a bad way. Everything worked out, and there was only one incident that occurred that we couldn’t change. We lost electricity when a bird hit a power line one day. We had to find a new location and completely reblock the scenes we were going to film that day. That was one of those things you couldn’t do anything about, but overall, it was joyous.
SY: Kenton Duty and Danny Flaherty play the two main characters in the movie, Matt Prylek and Tommy Dolen. What was the casting process like for both Kenton and Danny?
AJG: It was terrific. The producers hired Michael Cassara, a casting director, in New York, and he was there with us throughout the entire casting process. He brought in some wonderful people. We also had some referrals; as we got to know actors, they would start to refer other actors. When we saw Kenton and Danny and everyone who eventually was in the film, we were really lucky that there were the right people at the right time for the right roles, and they all did amazing jobs.
SY: Were you able to have a rehearsal period with Kenton and Danny before you began shooting? Since Matt and Tommy start off in different social circles and become friends after Matt decides to stop bullying his peers, how did you build the relationship between the two actors?
AJG: The original plan was to do a lot of that, but we ended up doing very little. Once we got on the set, I got the Team Tommy group together about a day before they were going to be working together. We hung out and did some bonding things.
But there really wasn’t a whole lot of time to get a cast rehearsal into the short amount of shooting time that we had. So we would work together while the crew was setting up. We’d run everything and then shoot, and do adjustments as we needed to.
SY: ‘Contest’ premiered on Cartoon Network on October 6 in conjunction with National Bullying Prevention Month, in order to inspire an open discussion between kids, parents and educators about the issue of bullying. How did you become involved with Cartoon Network’s Stop Bullying: Speak Up initiative? Why do you feel it’s important to create films that emphasize anti-bullying?
AJG: Well, I think the goals Cartoon Network had for that month, and the goal that we had, really meshed together. Initially, I wanted this movie to be made to help kids and teens, and Cartoon Network wanted to do the same thing. It was the perfect marriage because we had this movie, and they had this initiative. When the producers started talking to different people, there was such a fire between them and us. It seemed like the perfect marriage, and it was.
SY: Since the film premiered on Cartoon Network, what kind of reaction have you received from audiences? Are families embracing the drama’s anti-bullying message?
AJG: It[s been amazing and overwhelming. We hear from parents and grandparents and a lot of different age groups. But primarily, we hear from that prime target audience-the tweens and the teens. Everybody loves it, and can really relate to it in some way, either through themselves or someone they may know.
We’ve even gotten a few messages from kids who have said, "The movie helped me realize I was being a bully with the things I was doing. Thanks to what I got out of your movie, I don’t do that anymore.” When you read stuff like that, that’s the best reward you can have for doing a project like this.
SY: What message do you hope that audiences will take away from the movie?
AJG: I think the message I’d like people to walk away with is to look past those initial impressions that we have of people. I hope they can focus on what’s different about this person, and find a way to connect with that person. We’re mostly the same underneath, but everyone wants to make a connection and be part of something. I think people can find those things among families, friends and peers. If you give people a second look, you can be very happily surprised at the connections you find.
SY: Do you have any upcoming projects, whether writing, directing or both, lined up that you can discuss? Are you interested in continuing in making family movies?
AJG: Yes, I’m very interested in staying in the family genre, with family comedies and dramas. There are a couple things I am working on, but nothing I can talk about yet. But there are exciting things that are happening now. I hope to continue with writing and directing screenplays and plays, actually, but this is the audience I hope to continue to work with.
Written by: Karen Benardello