Matt Gray Goes Behind the Crazy

Mike Restaino and cast at Better Than Crazy’s first table read

I met Mike Restaino at a poker game in 2006.

In a room that echoed with your standard manly talk of sports, conquests and insults, I started to catch on (okay, I was eavesdropping) to the fact that he was about to embark upon his first feature film. At the time, my over-worked soul was hung over from the relentless world of sports videography that took up most, if not all, of my working hours, and the idea that this newcomer, this stranger (in my own sister’s house!) was taking on narrative fiction made me equal parts jealous and intrigued.

I mean, *I* was the video guy around here. Who did this dude think he was?

Later, an official introduction between hands over beers and chips revealed to me everything I needed to know about this outlier. Also, it would start a friendship that has now lasted nearly a decade.

Mike Restaino using his jazz hands to direct Katherine Fullenlove in BTC

The antithesis of post-film-school pretense, Mike was engaging, inquisitive and welcoming of my help when I offered. At the time, I knew nothing about actual narrative filmmaking, but I could absolutely capture the essence of the process with a video camera. So it was quickly settled: I would shoot a behind-the-scenes featurette for his film, Better Than Crazy.

Though my time on set was relatively limited, it was nonetheless some of the most entertaining and educational hours of my life. Restaino had assembled a group of really wonderful people, and from the first cast read-through to my last moments of on-set shooting, I often found it impossible to hold the camera still and not burst into roaring laughter. Yes, the script delivered plenty of comedy, but the cast’s riffing in any given scene was enough to put me in tears as I’d fought to steady my camcorder.

What I observed during my days on set would have a significant influence on my own development as a filmmaker. Inadvertently, Mike taught me how to be patient, flexible and personable as a director. Watching him shepherd a cast that was bursting with personality and enthusiasm was truly eye-opening – I had never considered how complicated it was to captain a ship with so many variables.

On set at Caroline’s wet bar – Better Than Crazy

The cast seemed to embrace their characters and have so much fun with them. I remember just waiting for Nick Leonti to speak – he could artfully deliver the most mundane statement in a way that would always incite laughter. Deborah O’Brien filled the room with such energy and appeal that she instantly became my go-to for quick commentary in between takes. Aaron Daley projected the character of Jack with a hearty credibility while fully participating in the festive atmosphere.

I could never know what might come out of Katherine Fullenlove at any given moment, but I was positive it would be funny and full of expression. Even the calm demeanor of Shawn Romias anchored and balanced the robust affair in such a way that ensured his presence was indispensable. And this collective of bigger-than-life personalities surrounded the talented Amy Bruni, sending volley after volley of jokes toward her character, the lovable Caroline, which Amy handled and returned fire like a champ.

I would come to learn that Mike and Amy had been friends for a long time. Her professionalism, warmth and alacrity on set would attest to that history. It was rare to find a moment where Bruni was not all smiles and laughter. Her off-camera wit matched her on-camera charm and I could tell that she was the perfect centerpiece for any scene.

Indeed, Mike Restaino had put together a charismatic and delightful team.

My only regret was missing the chance to meet Ed Fletcher, whose portrayal of a corn-dog-loving hotel clerk would go on to surprise me in my first viewing of Better Than Crazy. There is a simplistic hilariousness to Fletcher’s performance that I wish I could have observed in real time.

More directorial jazz hands from Mike Restaino discussing BTC in Behind the Crazy

My last day on set was during a shoot for the last sequence of the movie. I didn’t want to leave, but it was a weekend shoot and my obligations as a husband and father deemed it necessary. I knew I already had hours of fantastic footage to comb through, but there was something truly magnetic and endearing about these people that made the final walk to my car a little more difficult than I had expected.

Magic was happening, and I was driving away from it.

However, I would later find myself laughing out loud as I cut together what would become Behind the Crazy. The spirited nature of the cast shone through the video tape just as it had unfolded before me and I found myself reliving every second. I knew I would be immediately biased towards liking the final cut of the movie just based on what I knew had transpired off-camera.

Mike Restaino has collaborated with me several times over the last few years. I’ve been able to learn from his experiences and become a better filmmaker thanks to our candid friendship. Had either of us not attended that poker game, we would have missed out on the valuable fellowship that drives our professional lives today.

In life, they say, you can only play the cards you are dealt. I’m confident that when Mike and I work together, it’s as if each of us has an ace up our sleeve.

– Matt Gray, director of Behind the Crazy

[Matt’s film A Special Place just won Best Drama at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival – for more info, check here]

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