Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

A deranged killer (Mike Restaino) stalks a grieving Spanish-speaking widow (Lisa Nottingham née Leonti) in El Cadaver (1991)

Finalizing the screenplay for Better Than Crazy was a struggle, but configuring its concept – a breeze.

Part of the reason four of the six main characters in the story appeared so lived-in and identifiable to me was that I knew I was casting friends of mine to play them. In the same way Better Than Crazy was inspired by but not based on my own cousins, I wasn’t constructing plot points and details around my pals’ personality traits, but knowing, say, that Nick’s sense of humor would inform the character of Dave made the process of filling in backstories and biographies that much more immediate for me as a writer.  

Amy had done some makeup work for me when we shot my USC thesis film ShowChickens in 2000, and ever since we were in high school, I’d had an interest to bring her talents to the screen, so it was a no-brainer that she’d play Caroline in BTC, a young, unsure college graduate trying to integrate herself into a grown-up world. I’d visit her in Sacramento every now and then when I was living in San Francisco, and as coincidence will have it, in the packed audience of a Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven concert somewhere downtown one summer evening, we ran into Nick Leonti. I’d had music and Spanish classes with his sister Lisa (along with Patti Phillips, she and I made a camcorder movie called El Cadaver for Mr. Sardo’s Spanish I class in high school that missed the Best Short Film Oscar by this much), and while there were a few years between us, my social circles at Ponderosa High overlapped with Nick’s here and there.

Aaron Daley, Nick Leonti, Deborah O’Brien and Shawn Romias in Better Than Crazy

In any case, as oblique and arty as it might sound, seeing Nick again after a few years was a lightning-strike moment for me: he was Dave, no doubt about it. I’m sure I came across as being battier than usual as this epiphany occurred (with an excellent David Lowery soundtrack!), but over the course of a few weeks, I was able to convince him to join our insane movie before he had a chance to wise up.

And Aaron Daley and I were also high school pals who had been having a blast reconnecting, both of us living in San Francisco at the time. Most Wednesday nights we’d meet at his ramshackle apartment in Nob Hill to drink tequila and play music. My rock and roll alter ego, Smokey Coloma, had started sitting in with Daley’s band Old Hangtown at gigs in and around the city, and in addition to cultivating some original material during these mid-week rehearsals, we killed covers of old Merle Haggard and Tom Waits tracks (though Smokey’s insistence at one show that we play “Sister” by Prince met with more than a little audience resistance). This is all to say that the two of us had known each other for a long time, and Aaron had played a role in ShowChickens – I had all the confidence in the world that he’d bring his signature honkytonk to Jack, the single biggest part in Better Than Crazy.

Katherine Fullenlove and Nick Leonti in Better Than Crazy

At a very specific point, though, BTC went experimental. The fourth buddy I’d written a character for was Rob Knight, another Ponderosa High alum who had known Aaron and Nick forever. I wanted him to play Robert, the fine, upstanding member of the family who becomes particularly appalled and energized by the boozy exploits of his cousins over the course of the three sections of the film. Rob also played with Old Hangtown – still does, last I checked – and I’d hinted during rehearsals that there was real estate with his name on it in BTC.

But while I can’t remember the specifics of the situation, I recall meeting with him at a Starbucks in Diamond Springs and learning that the shoot dates we had scheduled were not going to jive with him; he was moving out of town and wouldn’t be able to participate. This was a big blow to the film, and after I lamented this for a while (boy, he would have brought something special to BTC), I found myself considering our new BTC scenario, and it thrilled me.

We had six main characters in the picture, and three of them were going to be played by folks I knew who’d easily bring their own humor and charisma to them. The other three would have to be formally cast, which meant that honest-to-goodness, trained actors would be joining our ragtag gang. Having spent four years studying arthouse and avant garde film at UC Berkeley, Better Than Crazy suddenly had a unique aesthetic dynamic:

Three professionals and three non-professionals would be sharing screen time. How arty is that?

What would this mean, exactly? Better Than Crazy is, more than anything, a movie about talking, about characters connecting with family members they haven’t seen in years. And ostensibly, the opening scenes shot in the film would involve two trios of performers who had never even met. What would the actors think of my buddies ad-libbing and playing around? How would the Ponderosa crew take to having outsiders infiltrate their turf, so to speak?

Deborah O’Brien in Better Than Crazy

I remember blabbering on about this when my sister-in-law (under her casting director alias, Tansy LaVundah) came with me to the casting call we set up at the El Dorado County Film Commission. Kathleen Dodge, the head of the department, was exceptionally generous with us and let us bogart her conference room to see actors. I know there was (and is) incredible talent in the Bay Area (only two hours away), but with Better Than Crazy‘s core three having a distinctly Placerville vibe to them, I wanted that to be shared with the other actors we hired. The local paper, The Mountain Democrat, put a story out in one of their weekly editions that BTC was looking for actors, and we were off and running.

That day we found our keepers, Deborah O’Brien and Shawn Romias, and in a roundabout way, we tagged Katherine Fullenlove to play Mary Ann (Dave’s girlfriend, the only ‘outsider’ to the cousins in BTC), but that’s a story best saved for next time…

[Afterthought: We probably saw ten or twenty actors during this casting call, but there was still a lot of down time. A game Tansy and I still like to play is to stare at someone intensely for five seconds, then close your eyes and draw that person, not opening your eyes again until the portrait is done. Tansy drew this picture of me during Better Than Crazy‘s casting call – years later, it’s still one of my favorites. It’s pretty much photo-realistic.]


A portrait of Mike Restaino by Tansy LaVundah

– Mike Restaino, writer/director of Better Than Crazy

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