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‘Apocalypse Love Story’: Movie making in a time of coronavirus

They kiss.

Actually, the script calls for them to kiss twice.

A little girl and a little boy, Samantha and James, fictional survivors of an unnamed ecological apocalyptic event – their relationship is at the heart of an as-yet-uncompleted film called “Apocalypse Love Story,” which tells the tale of a worldwide tragedy … and the whole movie was shot while, in real life, a worldwide tragedy was happening.

But the kiss … that was a huge moment.

“Ew,” said Kayden Tokarski, 11, who played Samantha, and she never before kissed a boy. “I can’t believe I had to do it 20 times.”

Kayden and Byron Pierre McCray Jr., 10, starred in the movie, shot during the pandemic. They took coronavirus tests before principal photography began. They put masks on at the end of every scene. The crew practiced social distancing at locations in Pasadena, Los Angeles, Laguna Niguel and Barstow.

The pandemic and social unrest over racial inequality played huge roles in the film. The cast got changed because of the former, and the script got changed because of the latter.

“I’m just one of several people who are overcoming the pandemic,” said director Justin Wilder Neese, 33, of Highland Park.

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Neese has spent $20,000 of his own money (a figure he believes will grow) to get the film finished. Then, he’s banking on word-of-mouth to entice a distribution company to give the film some kind of release.

“I never really believed in fate,” he said, “but something tells me this is where I’m supposed to be.”

Change of plans

He studied biology in college.

That seems like so long ago for Neese, who got his degree from College of Charleston in South Carolina.

When he came to Los Angeles in 2014, he had no idea he would end up making films. He was working as a waiter when a friend suggested he make some extra money by taking a job as a production assistant. He was working on another film when he saw an abandoned and nearly demolished house.

That gave him an idea.

In January 2020, Neese sat down to write the script for his first feature film. It took him three weeks to write the tale of two kids who find each other after just about everyone else in the world has been wiped out. Then he took out an advertisement on a casting website, and he picked two children to star in “Apocalypse Love Story.”

He was about to start shooting when the pandemic hit. The mother of the two actors (they were brother and sister) was really concerned about her children and herself being exposed to the coronavirus, and she started making demands about safety precautions on the set.

Neese thought his set was safe enough. They couldn’t agree.

He decided to stop filming.

But he wasn’t going to let the coronavirus squash his dream.

During the shutdown, he rewrote the script. This time, he made the two lead characters of different races.

“That made the film into something so relevant,” he said.

Kayden, who is white, and Byron, who is Black, accepted the lead parts and began filming in June.

Young stars

Kayden Tokarski is a sixth-grader at Aliso Viejo Middle School, and someday …

“I want to be interviewed on the red carpet,” she said.

She has wanted to be an actress since declaring “I want to do that” during an episode of “Good Luck Charlie” on the Disney Channel when she was 4 years old.

“In my mind, I thought no way,” said Kelly Tokarski, Kayden’s mom, who lives in Laguna Niguel and works as a public relations specialist.

When Kayden was 9, she auditioned for an educational film made by Erin Runnion’s Joyful Child Foundation. She got a minor role. She was hooked.

Since then, Kelly has been helping Kayden chase the dream. She has a camera set up in their house for shooting auditions. She has appeared as a background actor in “American Housewife,” “The Mandolorian” and “Modern Family.”

“Other moms have told me,” Kelly said, “she is not meant to be in the background.”

When she was finally cast as Samantha in “Apocalypse Love Story” she asked her mom to take her to “Outback Steakhouse” for dinner.

Byron Pierre McCray Jr., who lives in Long Beach, has been a working actor since he was 6. He’s 10 now, and he’s more into playing football and watching WWE. He attends Luther Burbank Elementary, a school for gifted children.

Byron took the role in “Apocalypse Love Story” despite the horrible idea that he had to kiss a girl.

“He said, ‘Love? … ugh,’” his mother Raichera McCray said. She knew a co-starring role in a feature film would be “a great addition to his resume.” So she bribed him by allowing him to play more Fortnite if he would agree to make a movie this summer.

And he’s such a good actor, he was able to pull off the kiss.

“It was so freakin’ cute,” Raichera said. “It was so romantic … but he was so grossed out. He would wipe his mouth and roll his eyes.”

For the moms, watching their kids show emotion and grow up a little during the filming was something they will never forget.

“At the end of the filming, I was in tears,” Kelly Tokarski said.

“It was destined for all of us to come together,” Raichera McCray said.

‘No difference’

Justin Neese launched a Go Fund Me page to raise money for the film.

He made $60.

Like the coronavirus, it didn’t stop him.

He figures he needs to spend about $15,000 more to get the film edited and marketed. He’s going to try to start a social media campaign to get the film noticed by distributors.

He may enter it in film festivals.

He thinks the message of the movie – tolerance – will make the film popular when people get a chance to see it.

“We need to look at each other the way these kids do,” Neese said. “When it comes down to it, there is no difference between people.”


Source: Orange County Register

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