Filmmaker Peter Mancuso grew up in Coventry and appreciates the great geographical diversity of this small state to which he fashioned his own ode in the short film, Suburban Fantasy. It was his thesis film upon graduation from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is getting its world premier on the video-hosting site Vimeo on Friday (9/22/23 – here’s the link).
Mancuso remembers being drawn to stories as a youth and his dream of becoming a storyteller himself crystallized after seeing Revenge of the Jedi as an 8 year old. He attended summer theater camps and after-school programs. “[It] was a great outlet for me and [other] unmedicated kids with ADHD in our era,” Mancuso says, who graduated from Bishop Hendrickson and now lives in New York.
He notes that while theater is a lot more accessible to a participant – it’s relatively easy to put on a play – it’s not as widely accessible as film. So he opted for the prestigious NYU film school, though not without pangs. Those feelings are the inspiration for the 28-minute coming-of-age film which follows a photographer, Rocco (played by Andrew Boone) on his last day before going off to college.
The film is shot all around Rhode Island from East Matunuck State Beach to Goddard Park to Hilltop Creamery and the Church of the Holy Ghost on Federal Hill in Providence. It was a pretty involved location shoot that took his classmate collaborators from New York almost a week, and was further complicated by the fact that Mancuso’s film is largely a musical.
“In a regular film, you could be tinkering with the script all the way up to the first day of shooting, whereas with this, as far as the musical sequences went, we needed to get that recorded, or at least a base version of it so that we could then film to film the track,” Mancuso explains. “That way we can actually sync up the stuff.”
He chose a musical mainly out of curiosity and for the challenge it presented.
“It’s a really interesting artistic endeavor, because you mix these two mediums that don’t always quite go together,” he said. “I was trying something I didn’t quite understand yet. I wanted it to be like an experimental or learning process for me. What makes a good movie musical? How do you use the form to its greatest advantage, and you’re not just filming a stage musical? How do you be inventive with the cameras?”
Mancuso thanks his stars that he was born when he was, because with the Covid pandemic if he’d “been born a year later I think I would have jumped off the Newport bridge.” Instead he spent most of the lockdown working on the film’s musical aspect. Editing wasn’t the chore it could be for some films since he had to shoot it so precisely to match it to the musical score. (Suburban Fantasy’s official soundtrack is available on Spotify, Apple and Amazon Music.)
“I worked with a fantastic musician and orchestrator to take my music to the next level,” Mancuso says. “A big thing about this film is I didn’t want to just lean on typical musical theater styles. The music that really felt most applicable to this was punk teen music, right? Bands like Modern Baseball or the Front Bottoms. These kinds of bands that capture that adolescent mentality or sentimentality, right and that’s something my orchestrator had a lot of experience with.”
The story itself vibes like something from Franz Capra, about the pull of a small town and its idiosyncratic characters that make it special.
“I love Frank Capra. I love his movies. And I think that’s something that I’ve always admired, how personal they feel despite the large scope and scale,” Mancuso says, “and how uniquely lived-in and authentic the human characters feel.”
Mancuso calls the six days they spent filming in Rhode Island the best week of his life, and the resulting film is at least twice as long as your usual thesis film at 28 minutes. But it came together in an almost magical way that he will never forget.
Because it’s a musical, the actors need to be able to sing and dance as well as act. The female lead, Rocco’s girlfriend Sofia is played by Kylie Chipola, was the first person to audition and she nailed it so well, “when she read it, I forgot that I wrote it.” The initial male lead had to pull out, putting Mancuso on the spot. He pulled a rabbit out of his hat when a student from Texas only in New York on a semester-long exchange program through Syracuse University auditioned.
“He had such a charm and warmness,” says Mancuso. “I had Kylie come for that audition process, and the two of them, right off, there was instant, instant chemistry. I knew watching, before we even finished the audition. He was the one. I was really lucky to find the two of them.”
Mancuso notes that his fellow students from all over the world didn’t quite understand the crux of the main character’s crisis. Rocco’s considering a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend but begins to have doubts. They wondered what the big deal was, it’s a three-hour commute. They couldn’t quite appreciate Rhode Island’s somewhat parochial bias.
“I’m from Rhode Island. I don’t like to travel too long of distances. If I have a friend who lives 30 or more minutes away, I have to really evaluate that friendship,” Mancuso cracks, half-seriously. “That kind of is reflected in the film, you know, this idea of you’re not just going more than 30 minutes, like, are you going to leave all of this entirely and go? Ultimately, it’s not far, [but] I think this really illustrates the Rhode Island feel of the film.”