“Gold Star” arrived in the Valley for the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival, and Victoria Negri not only directed the picture, but she produced it, wrote the screenplay and also played the lead named Vicki. In the movie, Vicki’s father, Carmine (Robert Vaughn), suffers a stroke, and she commutes between New York and Connecticut to see her dad but then reluctantly falls into a caretaker role.
Victoria took great care in crafting “Gold Star”, her first feature film, and she graciously found time to speak with the Phoenix Film Festival for an insightful 30-minute interview. In real life, Victoria’s father ran into similar health issues, so she explains her inspirations to make this movie and describes the significant differences between Vicki and herself. Regrettably, Vaughn died in November 2016, and “Gold Star” turned out to be his last film. Victoria opens up about her experiences with Vaughn, reveals where “Gold Star” is heading next and much more.
PFF: Vicki seems disconnected and unwilling to open up with her dad. Perhaps it is because she is taking on a caretaker role or seeing her dad in a less healthy state is proving too difficult to process. Why is Vicki feeling this way?
VN: Obviously, “Gold Star” is a really personal film, (but there are) differences between what I actually went through and what (is) coming up with this character. In real life, I was very close with my father. I was there for him every day, when I could be there to take care of him. (Although), I witnessed a lot of people in my life - close with my dad - who couldn’t bring themselves to even see him when he was sick. It was painful for me to witness, and I was interested in exploring what that’s like. What is it like to not be able to watch somebody in the last stage of their life? My father couldn’t speak or communicate that well, so that made it difficult.
I really wanted to explore, with Vicki, a character who is avoiding this looming presence of death. She’s in complete denial. She’s trapped by her inability to decide what to do in terms of her father. So, she’s living in between these worlds, a life in New York and a life with her family in Connecticut. Should she be there for them? If not, what should she be doing?
All of that (becomes) exaggerated, because she’s in her early 20s. So, she’s young and hasn’t even figured out who she is yet. To look at a parent and lose who (he or she was) is extremely shocking and difficult for somebody who probably isn’t the most mature person.
PFF: So, Vicki’s experience was certainly not yours.
VN: It’s very different. Obviously, it was very difficult to see my dad struggle, and I was hopeful that he would maybe recover. I (remember) thinking, ‘Oh, my 80-year-old father can bounce back from this.’ That’s one level of denial, but I was really interested in (exploring) the people in my life who (weren’t there).
PFF: If Vicki took truth serum, what would she say to her dad?
VN: “I’m sorry that I didn’t get to know you better.”
I think kids are selfish. Even me, and I think that I am much different than my character. I heard my dad tell the same stories over and over, and I have so many regrets (about) not asking him more questions. Now that he’s gone, I wish that I could talk to him about “this”. You take people for granted, so I think if she took truth serum, then she would realize that. It’s not quite truth serum, but I think that so many people have regrets in that way.
PFF: Vicki meets Chris (Jacob Heimer), and he seems to hit it off with Carmine. On one hand, Vicki appreciates Chris. She likes him but also resents him too, because he seems to get along so well with her dad. Why is it that our friends, colleagues or total strangers can just walk in and get along with our parents, when we may not?
VN: That’s such a great question. Why is that? I guess that there’s no pressure. There’s no pressure trying to please anyone. (They) can just be themselves.
Vicki is never herself around her father. She’s herself around Chris, but not her family. So, yea, I think it’s that. A total stranger can walk in and not have that burden.
PFF: Are there one or two moments that you had with Robert Vaughn that stand out?
VN: The scene (when) I am sitting next to him on the beach. It’s a really emotional moment for both characters, and I used to bring my father to that beach all the time. I asked Robert if he wouldn’t mind wearing my father’s red beret in the scene, (and he did).
I was intimidated by him at the beginning of shooting, because he’s a legend, and this is my first film. I was incredibly nervous. So, this is the first big scene, and I just remember sitting next to him on the bench (at the beach) and something clicked. An entire afternoon on the beach, I just sat with him. We looked at the water, and I let the crew set up behind me.
He told me about his fear of drowning. I felt really comfortable with him, because we’re having this moment in a place that was really special with my dad and me. I brought my father there after his stroke in his wheelchair, so it’s really similar. I remember acting with Robert during that scene, looking at him and thinking of his career, and who he is just fell away. He just became Robert, a surrogate father to me. That was a really powerful day.
And other stuff. Fun things.
He’d give me all of these nicknames. He called me Mighty Mouse, because all of those caretaking scenes. They are really physical. I move him from a chair to the wheelchair, and I boost the chair up a step (in another scene). I had to do that like 10 times, so yea, he called me Mighty Mouse. He was just fantastic, and he interacted with everyone. My sister was on-set, and he was asking her questions about (our) family and flipping through my parents’ wedding albums.
I could go on and on, but I think the beach day was the most special day. Definitely.
PFF: Did he give you input on the father/daughter relationship, or did he play it straight and go with your vision?
VN: He played it straight and went with my vision. Yea, he was really asking a lot of questions about what I went through with my dad.
I remember right after we cast him, he asked, “If your father had a mantra, what would it be? What was the thing that was his guiding principle that I can latch onto?”
I said, “I think it would be mind over matter. He was a very determined person.”
So, we carried that through and thought about how he would play the character. Yea, he was extremely trusting of me. As questions came up, he would ask them within scenes, especially because he has no dialogue.
He would ask, “If I could say something, what would I say?”
We would talk about it together, but he just really listened, paid attention and played off of me and Catherine (Catherine Curtin). I was blown away, that he trusted me that much.
PFF: How cool was that?
VN: Yea, it was really cool [laughing]. He had no ego. He was really there to help me make the greatest film that I could, and he was excited about how challenging the role was.
PFF: I believe that Robert died before he saw the film. Is that right?
VN: Yea. So, I sent Robert’s wife a DVD a few months before he passed away. I knew he was sick, but I didn’t know how sick he was. They kind of kept that under wraps from me, until he passed away. His manager called me (when he died) to let me know, before they announced it publically which was the sweetest thing. I was incredibly honored that the (family) did that, and I didn’t have to see it on the Hollywood Reporter or something. I went to his funeral and spoke with his wife afterwards, and she said that she brought the DVD to his hospital room, (but) he wasn’t well enough to watch it.
So, I don’t know. I’m really torn about it. It’s strange. I feel like that I have no catharsis in so many ways. I had this amazing relationship with Robert on-set. We spoke a few times on the phone, and he mailed me a Christmas card. It continued up until he got sick, and (then) it was obviously radio silence, and then he passed away.
I was looking forward to celebrating with him at premieres. I don’t know. I guess every kid goes back to wanting their parents to say, “Good job. I’m proud of you.”
I think that Robert kind of became a father figure on-set, (and) I was so hoping that he would watch the film and be proud of it. Obviously, I never got that. I think - and I hope - that he would be proud of it. The biggest reactions to the film - any moments in the film - are from him, the subtle moments of him without words. That’s why he wanted to do it, for that challenge. It’s been a strange journey with so many levels of loss layered onto this film for me, but I am proud of it, and I think he would be too.
PFF: In the “Gold Star” sequel, do Vicki and Chris live happily ever after in Connecticut?
VN: I think it takes Vicki a while to figure (things) out. Maybe she bounces around more and decides to come back to Connecticut. Maybe Chris is still available, maybe he’s not. She probably, eventually comes around, but she probably runs away again. I don’t know that she gets the closure that she needs for a while.
PFF: I totally see that.
VN: I think she needs to find herself, before she can do that.
PFF: Where is “Gold Star” heading next, and how was your Phoenix Film Festival experience?
VN: The film is playing at The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival opening night on Wed., June 7, and then we are up for a lot more film festivals after that. I’d like to play through the fall, because that will give us a year on the festival circuit.
The Phoenix Film Festival. I have to say that my conversations at the Phoenix Film Festival were just incredible. I was standing in that lobby for so long with people and just talking. It was really refreshing. You go to some film festivals, and you have to work so hard to get anyone to come to your screening, but people at the Phoenix Film Festival just want to see good stuff. You walk into that lobby, and you see full queues of people waiting to see films. It was really incredible.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.