Johnny Depp is drenched in blood when he walks up to the nurse’s station and jokes to me and several others, “I think I split my nipple!” The fog machine is on overdrive, so we can all barely see one another through the mist, and then the first AD calls for a reset back to one — David Lynch is about to enter for his scene.
We’re in an old ghost wing of a hospital across the street from Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, on the set of a short zombie film called The Black Ghiandola. The 60-person volunteer crew, including renowned special effects and makeup artists, is there, along with Depp, Lynch, Laura Dern, Catherine Hardwicke, Chad L. Coleman and Richard Chamberlain. But the star of the film — and its writer — is a 16-year-old named Anthony Conti.
“The story for the script has always been in my head a little, but I think a lot of it really came to me while I was undergoing treatment, or just in the hospital,” Conti explains to me.
The young filmmaker was diagnosed earlier in the year with a stage-four cancer that attacked his adrenal glands. It came on suddenly, cutting short his time at a summer film camp and forever changing the course of his life. He’s often tired and now uses a wheelchair, the chemo rounds stealing his energy. But he’d always wanted to make a horror film in the vein of Sam Raimi, something that could have some humor but also be scary and emotional — the original Evil Dead is his favorite.
After the diagnosis, Conti bought The Magic Bracelet, a short film by 15-year-old Rini Goldberg, who was then battling mitochondrial disease. She’s since died. Conti watched the short over and over, until his grandmother finally contacted Tamika Lamison of Make a Film Foundation, a nonprofit that gives kids with terminal and life-threatening illnesses a Hollywood bootcamp experience to fulfill their filmmaking dreams. The nonprofit also produced Goldberg’s short. When Conti’s grandmother appealed to Lamison, she knew the zombie script he wrote was the one they wanted to do next.
“On the surface the story is just a horror film,” Conti says. “But it’s actually a metaphor for my own illness. The title of the movie, it means ‘gland’ in Italian, and my cancer started in the adrenal gland. So the story is about Jacob, who already has the infection and he knows he’s sick, but he’s still determined to fight the illness.”
Conti teamed up with Scott Kosar (The Machinist, Bates Motel, The Crazies) to polish the script in a mad dash to production. Then Lamison flew Conti and his father to Los Angeles from their home outside Boston on short notice when he wasn’t in treatment. They were able to assemble the massive volunteer crew within days, even all the guest stars and directors. Many more cast members jumped on the project for the other days of shooting, and Sam Raimi himself directed Conti for a portion of the film.
While Laura Dern’s getting her makeup done, she’s beaming. “I mean, why wouldn’t I want to be a part of this?” she says. Richard Chamberlain calls Conti “delightful” to work with, and everyone is fanboying and fangirling over Conti, wondering when they’ll get to talk to him or meet him. But he’s in every single scene, and his energy is limited.
Chad L. Coleman tells me he’s been Skyping with the young filmmaker, who is a big fan of Coleman’s character, Tyreese, on The Walking Dead. Coleman calls the talks his “instant perspective.”
“Some kid wrote a stupid comment on something I posted about him, saying something like Anthony had an ‘egghead,’” Coleman says. “And people, you know, started telling him he can’t say that, because Anthony has cancer. But Anthony just laughed and said, ‘My head does kind of look like an egg!’” Coleman says Conti refuses to let people try to coddle him. He’s still the same trash-talking kid, who can dish it out as well as he can take it, and Coleman says it was like a lightbulb went on for him in that exchange.
The thing is, kids like Conti with serious or terminal diseases rarely get to tell their own stories. Instead, fluffy feel-good articles proclaim their bravery, while inadvertently “othering” them for their disease. What Tamika Lamison does with Make a Film Foundation is the opposite of that: She gives people the tools and skills to tell their own stories in narrative form, then gives their films screenings, so a wider audience can admire them for their talent, not just their bravery in fighting a disease. The kids also get to experience the kind of “film family” dynamic that evolves on set.
“It felt like I had 50 fathers and 60 mothers,” Conti laughs, “and, you know, it was actually pretty cool.” He’s most disappointed he didn’t get to take off his dad’s head with a chainsaw — that cameo was written out of the script.
Conti already makes short films in his free time, but this is by far the biggest production he’s ever done, and, of course, he plays the hero. (In the script, he makes sure to describe his character as “handsome.”) When I talk to Conti, he comes off as smart, naturally confident, but willing and eager to learn.
“In one of the scenes in the film, my character is crying,” Conti says. “We had to do that scene multiple times, because I wasn’t really showing enough emotions. Then one of the crew members walked up to me and mentioned my cancer. And thinking about something personal … you really have to use your deepest emotions to be able to express the lines of your character.”
Conti is serious about filmmaking — even though he got a kick out of Depp fooling around on set, popping wheelies in his wheelchair. Every actor or member of the crew I speak to insists this experience was the medicine for their soul that they needed, a reason to remember why they loved filmmaking, because hard work pays off.
“One of the things I thought was most difficult to do was also what I enjoyed most,” Conti says. He gets dizzy and is often too weak to walk, so a stunt double filled in for him, while the directors manipulated certain scenes to make it look like he was walking. Except for the final scene.
“I really wanted to do it, to be able to prove to myself that I could still physically move. For that last scene, I did finally walk, which was a strong moment for me,” he says. “I proved to myself there that I could do it. I had to put it all in, and that was my strongest performances. The world has not seen the last of Anthony Conti’s films.”
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