Scene One, in which our main character is on the phone frantically trying to make travel arrangements to get to New York City from Salinas.
In January, retired Soledad Police Sgt. Thomas Marchese was in his South Salinas home, talking to an airline reservation agent on the phone. He was trying to arrange travel for himself and for one of his co-producers on an upcoming suspense film titled From Black that Marchese had written, with the goal of getting to New York the next day and persuading actress Jennifer Esposito to sign on as the lead. Signing her would be a big deal, but Marchese had become accustomed to swinging big deals.
Since medically retiring from the department in 2016 after being stabbed while responding to a call, Marchese had turned his attention to filmmaking. His documentary Fallen, about police officers killed in the line of duty, won awards and was picked up by Netflix. And he had just won a competition sponsored by MovieMaker Magazine that came with cash to help make his latest film, and would see the magazine sign on as a co-producer.
A day later, Marchese and his producing partner were in New York. They met Esposito and over lunch at Nonna Beppa in TriBeCa, the deal was struck.
What also struck: the Covid-19 pandemic. Filming was supposed to have begun on April 6.
But pandemic or no, a filmmaker is a filmmaker. And if he couldn’t get Jennifer Esposito in front of a camera right now, well, he had a readymade cast with no place else to go.
Scene Two: In which the director makes a doorknob the scariest thing on earth.
Photography on the two-and-a-half-minute short he would title Contaminated began a day after Marchese decided to stop sitting around and worrying about the pandemic.
“I know I wanted to do something. I thought, with all the negativity and how scary it is, I should do something creative,” Marchese says. “So I broke out my camera gear and since my little guy is interested in filmmaking and my daughter has done some acting, I looked at it as home film school.”
In the opening scene, “little guy” Logan Marchese, 12, is on the living room couch and playing video games, as a radio message plays in the background. It’s a message about how coronavirus can be transmitted by surface contact. And it occurs to Logan that he’s touching surfaces others have touched.
He commences hand washing. But as he turns off the faucet, he realizes it’s another surface. He commences washing the fixture, and then the doorknob, and then big sister Ayden Marchese comes into the bathroom, touches the doorknob, and undoes all of Logan’s work. It’s then he realizes he’s surrounded by knobs and handles, each one more menacing than the last. (The music, composed on the fly by collaborator Luigi Janssen, helps build the suspense.)
He hops into the bathtub, surrounded by all manner of cleaning products, for a good soak. When he returns to his video game, there’s Ayden, touching his controller. (As for the ending, watch it yourself; it’s a happy one.)
It took about 10 hours of work to shoot and edit the short. The family project helped release some nervous energy. Beyond that, it also helped connect family and friends who can’t be together right now.
“It was all over Facebook and I just put it on YouTube, although I don’t have a big presence there,” Marchese says. “I essentially just did it for friends and family and grandma to check out, just something to make people smile.”