A father and son connect over cooking in Jason Wolos's new undertaking.

Wolos’s ‘Trattoria’ Serves Up Spicy Comedy

Michael Fox March 9, 2011

Jason Wolos is one of the good guys. That’s a broad, unsubstantiated statement, I know, but somehow I don’t think the comments box is going to fill up with contravening emails. In his stint at Film Arts Foundation from 1998 to 2005 as head honcho of the equipment room and then director of education, Wolos made a ton of friends. He also worked on countless shorts, docs and features over the years, further ingratiating himself with his peers. So I expect a lot of people will mouth Tim Lincecum’s favorite epithet when they hear that Wolos recently shot his debut feature.

Wolos laughed when I ask him to summarize the plot of Trattoria, which recently wrapped an 18-day shoot. “The pitch is so ingrained in my head I don’t know if I can break from it. It becomes almost like a replayable recording. Ultimately it’s a father-son story set in the San Francisco restaurant scene. Basically, they reconnect and bond through cooking.”

Written with and produced by Wolos’ longtime partner, Dawn Rich, Trattoria shapes up as a light drama with plenty of laughs and a dash of poignancy. Some years ago, the restaurateur’s full-bore dedication to his establishment cost him his marriage. Now his estranged son flies in from the East Coast to address their estrangement. Looking to spend quality time with his father, the lad has no choice but to hang out at the restaurant.

That’s an ideal set-up for budget-constrained independent filmmakers. “When we started writing this, Dawn and I, you write with the full palette of your imagination and multiple locations, and then the practicality of making an indie film makes you cut back on those locations,” Wolos allowed. But the price of paring—setting the movie almost entirely in the restaurant—wasn’t too steep, he said.  “It went hand in hand with our story. It wasn’t like we were compromising.”

At the same time, Wolos and Rich recognized the pitfalls of their scenario, namely that Trattoria might seem stage-bound. Instead of fancy camera tricks or editing, they adopted three other strategies.

“I concentrated on the acting,” Wolos declared. “If the acting’s there, the audience will be riveted by the faces of your actors. And if they’re invested in the characters, they’ll go wherever they go. They will watch them.”

In order to focus on his core cast of four Los Angeles actors, Wolos hired Frazer Bradshaw, a close friend from the Film Arts days and an award-winning director (Everything Strange and New) in his own right, as director of photography. Wolos would tell Bradshaw what he had in mind for a given scene or shot, then concentrate his attention on the actors.

To enhance the film’s visual allure, Wolos said, “We took time to treat the food as if it was a character. People are going to be hungry after they see this movie.” That’s a tall order on a limited budget, Wolos and Rich discovered after interviewing and researching food stylists who were way out of their price range. So they succeeded in persuading Douglas Dale, Wolos’ uncle and the owner of Wolfdale’s restaurant in Lake Tahoe, to be on set for most of the shoot.

The third approach is the most original and, perhaps, radical. “We’re going to have interviews with real-life chefs,” Wolos says. “We break from the narrative to documentary footage that we shot. It’s still to be determined if it’ll be black-and-white but it will have a tonal variety so it’s separate from the prettiness of the fictional story.”

Wolos envisions a mix of San Francisco and celebrity chefs speaking to issues raised by the narrative: the demands of owning and operating a restaurant, what it takes to be a chef, the benefits of cooking school, their favorite recipe and the burden of pressure and stress.

Rich and Wolos have a lot of work, and fundraising, ahead of them. But Wolos, who has directed short films, instructional videos, yoga videos and Web pieces, can’t wait to helm another feature.

“After it was over—actually, I probably got this sensation the first day—jumping into making the movie gave me all this confidence, and reinforcement,” Wolos recalled. “It was exhilarating. ‘I can do this, I’m good at this, I want to do it again’—with what I now know instead of with all this worry and fear that a first-time filmmaker has.”

Wolos, who teaches classes at San Francisco Film Society and Bay Area Video Coalition in camera orientation and shooting digital video, acknowledges that he got a lot of help on Trattoria from the local film community. So I asked him if, in return, he had any advice for novice directors.

“It took a long time to get my first feature off the ground because of my fear of doing it wrong, or just not being ready,” he declared. “Those filmmakers out there thinking about making their first feature film, I think they should do it. Don’t wait unit you know everything, taken every film class, read every film book.”

Notes from the Underground
TCM presents Elmer Gantry (1960) with Shirley Jones on hand at the Castro on April 20. Tickets are free and available beginning April 5 at … The 3D version of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, supervised by Industrial Light & Magic, opens in theaters February 10, 2012. Each year through 2017 will bring another episode converted to 3D. I’d say somebody’s counting on 3D televisions being pretty popular pretty soon.

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