Acclaimed film framed by writer’s experience at Middlebury College
MIDDLEBURY — A Mormon student at Middlebury College can feel almost as out of place as a 20-year-old Hasidic Jew running the illicit drug ecstasy from Amsterdam to New York.
Award-winning screenwriter Antonio Macia, who graduated from Middlebury in 2000, is well acquainted with the feeling of isolation that goes hand-in-hand with both scenarios.
This Thursday, Sept. 30, Macia will return to his alma mater to introduce the screening of his Sundance Film Festival-selected film “Holy Rollers,” the story of a Hasid youth whose drug-dealing neighbor lures him into the ecstasy trade.
Though “Holy Rollers,” Macia’s second film, has already gained him wide recognition. The crime-drama/comedy stars Jesse Eisenberg (who will play Mark Zuckerberg in the upcoming film “The Social Network”) as Sam, the confused young man who is grappling with issues of faith vs. blind faith and his impending manhood, within the confines of his rather isolated, Hasidic community in Brooklyn.
The film was screened earlier this year at the prestigious Sundance festival, a place that, while still at Middlebury, Macia never imagined he’d find himself just 10 years down the road.
As an undergraduate, Macia, who earned a degree in International Studies, thought he would eventually pursue international law or finance. Aside from Acting I, Macia never took the time to fit in a film or writing course.
It was not until he went abroad his junior year to Paris and Madrid that Macia rediscovered his childhood passion for the arts and realized his desire to be a screenwriter.
“Every free moment of my senior year I was working on screenplays, short stories and other things in my dorm room on the top floor of Hepburn,” Macia recalled in an interview last week.
Going abroad was not the first break that Macia took from the small Vermont campus. Upon completing his first year at the college, the Stamford, Conn., native began his two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When Macia returned to Middlebury to continue his undergraduate education, he felt much older than his classmates.
Both his mission and his routine religious practices also left him feeling a bit on the outside.
“I always remember having breakfast by myself on Sunday mornings in Proctor while everyone else was still sleeping, but I was getting ready to go to church,” he said. “There was always only just a handful of students going to church on Sundays. I always felt like kind of an outsider — never ostracized — but I always felt like I was just a little bit different.”
Macia’s acting and writing career really started to get off the ground when he attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University the summer between his junior and senior years. When he returned to Middlebury, he said, everything just felt a bit smaller.
“Middlebury felt a little bit different in that I was just really excited to get finished and go out there and explore the world,” he said. “I had always realized that Middlebury was a small community. But I was ready to be a part of the theater community in New York, and the burgeoning art scene there. I wasn’t completely over the place by any means, but I was ready to move on — I knew there was a big ocean out there.”
But there were no hard feelings, Macia added.
“It wasn’t that I was just ‘over it,’” he said, “I always enjoyed that academic stimulation that I had there, but socially, I was pretty much done.”
Immediately after he was handed his diploma, Macia packed up his Subaru and drove to Brooklyn. He booked three acting gigs in commercials right away, and set to work on his first screenplay.
“The first script that I wrote was picked up right away,” he said of “Anne B. Real,” his first foray into the screenwriting world.
“That was really a magical time,” he mused.
“Anne B. Real” was filmed in 2002, and was released in 2003. Macia filled the years following the production of his first film with a residency in New Mexico and various writing-related odd jobs.
When Macia began work on his second project, “Holy Rollers,” things had changed. He was living in Los Angeles, and had sidled away from acting to focus more on his writing career. Work on the film began when producer Daniel Abeckaser and director Kevin Acsh approached Macia with a kernel of an idea based on stories about an Israeli drug dealer who used Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn as drug mules.
“As soon as they talked to me, I was invested,” said Macia. “They had a notion of a film, and I helped them find a way into the story. I was really interested in doing the movie from Sam’s point of view.”
Macia admits he has a thing for telling stories from the perspective of someone whose side of the story isn’t usually told. “Holy Rollers” is not a typical crime-drama in that it relies on an “insider’s point-of-view.” Macia emphasized that he was really interested in looking at a Hasidic sect from the inside out, and not the other way around.
“Holy Rollers” tells a story of Sam, a 20-year-old Hasidic Jew who feels isolated from his community when he begins running drugs. Macia’s own experience within the insular Middlebury community, he said, helped inform his development of Sam’s character.
“I think that my experience at Middlebury definitely shaped that,” he said. “There was always a part of me that felt a little isolated, especially as I became more comfortable in my own religious beliefs.”
Macia is thrilled by the prospect of returning to Middlebury to screen his film to both the students and the larger community.
“I’m really excited to see how they react,” he said. “One, because it’s a window into a totally different world, which I think will be totally exciting. To many, it’s going to feel like a foreign country.”
Although he admits the concept of the film could be jarring in some ways, Macia is confident that Middlebury residents will be able to connect to the more universal themes of family and faith versus blind faith that infuse the film.
“It’s all about dealing with how to raise your children a certain way, but the world wants to interfere,” he said. “I think that people in Middlebury will react strongly to the film.”
But Macia is especially excited to see the reaction of the students who now call his former campus home.
“Students have questions,” he said. “For a lot of kids, Middlebury is their first time away from home.”
These questions, Macia said, are similar to those that Sam wrestles with in the film.
“They were all raised in different ways, and now they have to make choices about if they’re going to stick to those original decisions,” he said. “In order to survive at Middlebury, you want to make friends, so maybe you end up compromising some of your choices.”
“Holy Rollers” will be screened at Dana Auditorium on Thursday, Sept. 30, at 7 p.m., with a Q&A to follow.
“I think people are surprised by — not its didactics — but the spiritual element to it,” Macia said. “It’s not a message, but a reminder. It’s really wonderful seeing audiences respond to that and really having to ask themselves some questions about their own spirituality. It’s important to have those forums and those discussions. Sam is going through these same changes, but he’s having to figure these things out for himself.”
Reporter Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].