Saturday, December 9, 2023

Rekindling passion: Award-winning ‘Remember Yesterday’ is a love story for Wilmington

Jana Allen and Adrian Monte star as Jenny and John in JR Rodriguez’s “Remember Yesterday,” debuting Thursday at Stone Theaters at the Point. (Photo by Ken Oots Photography)

WILMINGTON — A film eight years in the making is getting its local debut Thursday. “Remember Yesterday” is “Wilmington’s love story,” according to writer and director J.R. Rodriguez.

Rodriguez began cultivating the passion project almost a decade ago. It was 2014 and he was at Sanford’s Temple Theater performing in “CATS.”

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“I was the old guy in the show — 20 years older than most,” he recalled. 

Only performing in a couple of songs, he had a chance to sit back and listen to others chatter about their lives and especially relationships, he detailed. 

“I would hear these stories: ‘My boyfriend is this, my girlfriend is that’ — some are happy, some are sad. So I wanted to see if I could write a story about these relationships and apply it to somebody my age.” 

The first draft was completed in a week — all 168 pages. It had to be edited and whittled down to 77 pages over the next few years. What evolved was the script for “Remember Yesterday,” a story about not giving up, following one’s dreams and believing in second chances.

“This is two different love stories,” Rodriguez clarified —  romantic love and love for Wilmington.

Jakob Gruntfest and Jessi Hoadley as Young John and Young Jenny in ‘Remember Yesterday.’ (Photo by Ken Oots Photography)

‘It’s a Wilmington story’

“Remember Yesterday” is Rodriguez’s first feature film debut, produced under his own Tobbot Productions. It won’t be his last.

A stage and screen actor, Rodriguez said writing became another creative outlet 10 years ago as he began to construct “Abraham’s Conflict” — a modern-day retelling of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The draft is still being reworked.

But the real reason the actor said he took to the pen was because phone calls for roles were lessening. Rodriguez is known on Wilmington’s theater scene for appearing as Daddy Warbucks in “Annie” 12 times in two decades and in over 100 stage productions. 

He has appeared on screen throughout the years in “One Tree Hill,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “Tammy.” Recent credits include “Hightown,” “Creepshow,” and “The Summer I Turned Pretty.”

“I started seeing that I was aging out of roles,” Rodriguez said.

A conversation with friend and fellow actor Jerry Winsett (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Radio Days,” “One Crazy Summer”) — who also appears in “Remember Yesterday” — had Rodriguez reconsider his approach to a profession he grew to adore.

“I told Jerry, ‘I always want to work — no matter what,’” Rodriguez said. “And auditions were not coming my way. So Jerry said, ‘Do your own thing. You’ll feel better.’ And I have ever since. I may die poor, but at least I loved every minute.”  

Securing funding to make “Remember Yesterday” was the most taxing part of the process, Rodriguez said: “I’m an actor. I’m terrible with numbers.”

He pulled off a crowdfunding campaign, which brought in $12,000 from the community. The other $34,000 was secured by investors and Rodriguez’s own money, most of which came from his inheritance when his mother passed away a few years ago.

He secured local film veteran Jonathan Landau of Brand Spanking New Productions to produce the romantic comedy. Landau said he was drawn to Rodriguez’s screenplay immediately. 

“It’s a Wilmington story,” Landau said, “not some exploitative genre film.”

Landau concurred fundraising was a constant, easily the most stressful part of any filmmaking experience. 

“We shot the film two or three days at a time, over the course of two years,” he said.  “J.R. would raise some money, then we’d shoot some days, then he’d raise some more.”

The project took five years in total to make; the first two filming, the following three combing through scenes on the editing floor. Its timeline presented interesting hurdles for the filmmakers to cross — particularly with flashback scenes.

The story oscillates between the present and past. This meant securing younger actors to take on the youthful roles of the lead characters. 

“I was horrified that the kids would start growing,” Rodriguez said, so he programmed all their scenes early in the shoot. Jakob Gruntfest is Young John, while Jessi Hoadley plays Young Jenny.

“Both of them look completely different now,” Rodriguez said.

Actors were culled by connections and suggestions, such as Landau who introduced Rodriguez to Jenique Bennett (“Sunny” in the film). Stalwarts on the theater scene, Mirla Criste, Denise Bass, Fracaswell Hyman and Adrian Monte, also appear.

Talent came through Wilmington’s Actors Arsenal, too, a place where performance artists go in preparation for auditions and to receive coaching. It’s owned by Ron Fallica and Allie McCulloch, who have a combined 35 years in the industry.

Rodriguez said he went in for an audition while in pre-production of “Remember Yesterday” and was struck not only by Fallica’s talent but also his upbeat demeanor.

“I finally asked him one day: ‘Could you be a bad guy?’” Rodriguez said. “He’s like: ‘I’m an actor — I can do anything.’”

Fallica takes on Davie Devlin, an alcoholic cheating ex-husband to Jenny, the protagonist. The plot follows Jenny, who grew up in a small theater-friendly town (i.e. Wilmington) and was essentially a superstar among the townsfolk. She frequently appeared on local stages to entertain crowds. 

During her youth she dated John Raymond (Monte), a character Rodriguez explains “preferred to be in the background,” yet also was equipped with his own caliber of creativity. Eventually, jealousy drove a wedge between the two, each of whom ended up going their separate ways in life. John moved to L.A. to become a filmmaker and Jenny abandoned her performance career to own a diner.

“Now, John’s back,” Rodriguez explained of the plot. “He brought a film project home, and one day he just shows up at Jenny’s diner — she is scared to death to see him.”

The story moves through reignited love, not only between Jenny and John but with Jenny’s passion for theater. She finds a surge of inspiration and reclaimed self-worth after having been absent from the stage for 20 years. 

“She ends up giving it another shot to see if she could still do it — and, in the most positive of ways, breaks everybody’s heart by singing at a fundraiser for the local theater company,” Rodriguez described.

It spawns a new direction and a newfound confidence. Eventually, Jenny finds herself torn, faced with the decision to choose love or follow through on her dreams, both of which she already gave up once before. 

“Jenny has to go back in time and see where she made her mistakes, and fast forward to see things that really meant the world to her,” Rodriguez said.

The writer said while fleshing out the Jenny character, he never had anyone particular in mind for her role. Then he found Jana Allen through audition files.

“I wanted to make sure we had positive people on the project because I’m such a negative person,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “And Jana just bounced with positivity.”

She insisted upon auditioning for the role, though Rodriguez offered it to her on the spot after meeting casually at Port City Java.

“I love that ‘Remember Yesterday’ explores that hope of rekindling something special,” Allen described. “I don’t know many things more motivating than love and our dreams.”

Allen said one of the memorable days of filming came during a bar scene with Fallica and Rick Forrester, who performs as Jenny’s brother, Darrell. The location was Lula’s downtown, a 35-year-old hideaway bar that has become a de facto home to many of the area’s actors, directors and other creatives.

“Old friends Shawn Lewallen, Adrian Monte, and JR were around giving it all a homey feel,” Forrester said, “which is what usually happens at Lula’s.”

“I got to play a very drunk and sad Jenny, and that made for some good laughs,” Allen said. 

Many locations on the film will be recognizable to most Wilmingtonians. Rodriguez used area theater company stages, including the rehearsal hall of Opera House Theatre Company on Carolina Beach Road, Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Center — home to Thalian Association Theatre Company — and Big Dawg Productions’ former Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street.

“We shot there on the night of Jenny’s comeback performance,” Rodriguez said.

Luna Caffe, Castle Street Kitchen (formerly Rolled and Baked), as well as the homes of personal friends helped bring the worlds of Jenny and John to life.

“It was heartwarming that a lot of these folks bent over backwards for us to make sure we got this movie made,” Rodriguez said. “So ‘Remember Yesterday’ is not just a love affair between Jenny and John. It’s a love affair with Wilmington.”  

JR Rodriguez directs Jana Allen in ‘Remember Yesterday.’ (Photo by Ken Oots Photography)

Second chances

Earlier in the summer, Rodriguez traveled to Italy to represent “Remember Yesterday” as part of the Florence Romance International Film Festival. Yet, he managed to miss its screening, not intentionally of course.

The schedule changed at the last minute and the film was pushed up. Rodriguez was seated on a plane when he received news from his Wilmington friend Anne Quattrini, who happened to be in Italy at the time and traveled to Florence to see it.

“She said she just started crying when it came on,” Rodriguez recalled, “because of Wilmington. I just want to represent the area well; I love my hometown.”

“Remember Yesterday” won Best Feature Length Film in Florence. Thursday’s screening will be the first time the finished product will capture locals’ eyes. It’s the part Landau has most been looking forward to — “getting to the finish line and seeing all the hard work and heartache pay off,” he said.

“It is an uplifting message and the acting is great,” Landau added.

Allen’s character is relatable at the very least. Her biggest draw, according to the actress, remains a strength and weakness: Jenny is bullheaded.

“She is too stubborn for her own good, but some of the people I have known and loved the most are just that,” Allen described. “She’s got a lot of heart, and I don’t know many fighters out there who don’t have a lot of heart and stubbornness running through their blood.”

Rodriguez said he is drawn to strong female characters, a central force in a lot of his writing, which can be seen in a few projects he is juggling at the moment. One in the pipeline is another feature, “Prophets.” 

A collaboration with Honey Head Films, it is a drama and a more serious tale about human trafficking. It follows law enforcement officers who learn about a subterrene group of vigilantes as they investigate the disappearance of a couple of teenage girls.

It has already gained accolades from Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival, EdiPlay International Film Festival and Medusa Film Festival. It snagged Best Screenplay and Best Director awards, with Honey Head founder Erika Edwards guiding its proof of concept, essentially a short version of the film.

The budget for “Prophets” will far exceed that of “Remember Yesterday,” Rodriguez explained. 

“Raising $12,000 is great but for a $250,000 film, it won’t scratch the surface,” he explained of crowdfunding. He is currently on the hunt for investors and a possible distribution deal.

He’s hoping “Remember Yesterday” will be picked up by a streaming service as well.

Going into the twilight of his career and along a new path runs parallel to the crux of “Remember Yesterday.”

“If I can be completely candid, a lot of ‘Remember Yesterday’ has a lot to do with me,” he said.

With a pause and a sigh, he added: “You know, poor pitiful me. But the second chances that Jenny gets are the second chances that I’m not getting. … When I was younger and drinking, I wasn’t really an acceptable guy. Truth is, I probably wouldn’t give myself a second chance.” 

In middle age, Rodriguez is taking stock and reassessing choices in life. That’s human nature for anyone. But for a creative, it’s the fire that ignites the output — working through emotions, reliving past wrongdoings, reflecting and recalibrating to live and do better. The newfound inspiration has allowed Rodriguez to reinvent his career.

“Often life brings things back around for clarity or renewal,” Allen explained, “and I love that ‘Remember Yesterday’ explores that hope of rekindling something special.” 

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Forrester added. It’s the most compelling takeaway: “We could all be better people with a second chance.”

“Remember Yesterday” will premiere at The Pointe on Thursday, Aug. 11. A question-and-answer session will follow each screening at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tickets are $12; see the trailer here

Jana Allen captured during filming of ‘Remember Yesterday.’ (Photo by Ken Oots Photography)

“Remember Yesterday”

Director/Writer – J.R. Rodriguez
Director of Photography – Shawn Lewallen and John Knudson
First Assistant Director – Jon Landau
Sound Design/Engineer – Joshua Stowe, Josiah Graf and Matt Senter
Gaffer – Kyle Linderman
Costume Design – Susan Kranyik
Photography – Ken Oots

Main Cast:
Jenny Devlin-Hill – Jana Allen
John Raymond – Adrian Monte 
Stephen “Bear” Burley – Fracaswell Hyman
Katherine Ines – Mirla Criste
Shelly Covington – Denise Bass
Young Jenny – Jessi Hoadley
Young John – Jakob Gruntfest
Davie Devlin – Ron Fallica
Darrell Hill – Rick Forrester

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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