THE BIG CALZONE (2014)

Frustrated with his work and home life, a middle-aged man signs up for a mixed martial arts (MMA) fight that he is in no way prepared for

This film was made in less than 72 hours for the National Film Challenge 2013

George Jac and Chris Cantore stand toe-to-toe before their matchup. (Photo: Roodi Zuhair)

At this point in our film efforts we had told stories about an apocalyptic Hawaii that had no traces of ocean, a story about a father and his son and an event from their past that haunts them, and a short about a hitman who faces his employer to ask for retirement.

We made a ton of mistakes but more importantly—we had successfully completed three short films. Little did we know our fourth effort was going to be a fan favorite, and a favorite of ours as well.  

Our follow-up to The Janitor would happen only three months later, and this time we would have 72 hours to create and complete our short film. The team asked me to take a shot at directing which I was both flattered by and also terrified by. I had only directed one short film prior to this one, and in that one I chose a location next to a gun range. Though, I'm sure Christopher Nolan did the same thing back in his day.

I had a number of roles on the last film but directing meant that I would have all my failures and insecurities in the spotlight. It's like famed Pixar Director Andrew Stanton once said, "What's a film director's job? To give all the credit and take all the blame." Still, after The Janitor I knew I wanted to take a shot.

After sharing The Janitor online, the interest in being our next short film challenge grew like crazy. Here's a shot of the actors we considered for rolls in The Big Calzone. (Photo: Dan Zelikman)

With the clock ticking we received our requirements for the 2013 National Film Challenge. Even though we had three days, there was the additional pressure of competing against more than 150 teams from all over the world. Our genre was martial arts. Unfortunately none of us knew karate but we did have a boxer on the team in James Gregg.

Chris Cantore had joined us for the writing part of the process this time and I quickly realized he was built for comedy. As one of San Diego's most recognized radio personalities, Chris had a very unique voice that didn't really get to shine in The Janitor, a role probably too serious for his light-hearted nature. He was the one who brought up the idea of doing a martial arts comedy. 

What if we laughed at an out of shape guy who tried to get into boxing? Like Rocky, but a comedy. What would that look like? It would look like me!
— Chris Cantore

Taylor Hay pitches The Big Calzone 2 with herself as the lead. (Photo: Debbie Britt-Hay)

Chris kept talking about different scenarios that involved him training with James and making a fool of himself in the process. I was typing like a madman as Chris, David, and I kept coming up with different storylines for the main character's story arc. Eventually, our direction was set—we were going to take our martial arts genre and turn it into a mixed martial arts comedy about Chris.

Our two leads with Chris as The Big Calzone and James as his trainer were set, but we were going to need a ton of supporting actors for additional scenes and eventually, the climatic fight scene. We were beyond lucky in attracting a few actors with experience like Taylor Hay and Debbie Britt-Hay along with a whole crew of extras. James locked down a gym for us to use, and it seemed like everything was falling into place nicely. 

Director of Photography David Brooks lines up one of the opening shots in the film. (Photo: Dan Zelikman)

Starting with scenes in an office building to show how rough The Calzone's professional life was, we showcased a bunch of wacky characters in a strange and hilarious work environment. We wanted the audience to know this was a comedy right off the bat, and also to create a reason for Calzone to be drawn to something like a mixed martial arts fight. 

Most of the feedback we received for the film was that people really wanted to see more of the office characters. Some people referenced the classic show The Office, and said that they could easily watch a full film about our wonky office bunch. It was great to see so much support for the team. 

It was important for us that the audience experienced The Calzone's personal life and see that it wasn't much better than his work life, and so we filmed him having dinner with his wife and daughter while they bombarded him with insults. We hoped that the audience would empathize with our lead and support his desire to spend his free time fighting.

Director Dan Zelikman choreographs a scene with Director of Photography David Brooks and The Big Calzone himself, Chris Cantore. (Photo: James Gregg)

Next—we were off to the gym. We had already been filming for about eight to ten hours so I was nervous that the cast and crew were going to be too tired to pull-off the energy we needed for the final fight scene. I was happy to find out that I was very wrong. My better half, Kim, had brought everyone a ton of treats to enjoy at the gym to make sure everyone had plenty of energy. Strange as it was eating pizza and cookies at a boxing gym, it did the trick. Everyone was reenergized and ready to go.

We had to film the Rocky-like training sequence as well, so we had James Gregg lead the training and the fight choreography. As a boxer himself, we wanted to utilize some realism to balance the playful look and feel of the film.

The last step was filling the background with extras, so our team went out to the streets to recruit some more. I couldn't believe it, but they came back with about a dozen people ready to play pretend. I was pumped.

David Brooks and Kim Zelikman go over the sound level before the big fight scene.

As a Rocky fanatic myself, it was too much fun filming the boxing scenes. It may have been ambitious to choreograph, rehearse, and film these scenes all in one night—but we didn't have a choice, we were on the clock. 

With the exception of going over our original allotted time at the gym (we wrapped at three in the morning), and a few miscued punches landing on our actors faces, the fight scene was captured perfectly. With about twenty hours left before deadline, David, James and I went back to the studio to edit our scenes together and sound mix the final score. 

This film was an absolute blast to work on. It made me understand that we were learning from our mistakes and that each project was going to have its own challenges.

The trick to filmmaking it seemed, was to have a clear vision for the story, a passionate and hard-working cast and crew, and the determination to overcome any obstacle that comes in the way. It's completely cheesy to make the comparison but The Big Calzone was my very own Rocky montage, and the inspiration I needed to keep pursuing film.