Immaculate Perception: On the Sarasota set of movie director John Pocino’s latest labor of love


Published Dec. 21, 2009

John Pocino, left, shooting a scene from Perception

Beautiful people gather on the dance floor at Ceviche, dressed to the nines and shaking their hips to the Latin guitar stylings of Lotus Fire. The scene looks much like a usual Saturday night at the popular downtown Sarasota night spot, except the martini glasses are filled with water, everyone is moving their mouths without speaking and John Pocino is walking through the crowd with a production camera as local songwriter Danie Hollobaugh sings the theme song to the film being shot, a tune she wrote. It’s just another night on the set ofPerception, a new movie being filmed in Sarasota and directed by Pocino.

The project began about three months ago when local comedian Steve Grabo approached Pocino with a 10-minute script about a stalker who hangs his victims like puppets, roughly inspired by the book Coma by Robin Cook. The basic premise of Grabo’s script involved a killer who kidnaps movie stars thinking they are girl-next-door-types like the characters they play, but once he captures them he finds they have tattoos and black nail polish and are not the wholesome girls he envisioned. So, of course, he kills them. “You never actually see him kill anyone,” says Pocino. “There’s no graphic scenes. You know there’s been a murder but you don’t see it. It’s a thriller.”

When Pocino started looking for a cast and crew he went to local friends and actors first: “We started having auditions and getting people that were talented, so we decided to expand it. It kept getting bigger and certain people couldn’t commit to a longer film. So we had to find new actors and write new parts. You can’t do a scene if you can’t get people to come back. We missed two deadlines because of it.” The original release date fell in November.

While the filming of Perception has been particularly spontaneous and patched together, it doesn’t stray far from Pocino’s usual movie-making mantra. “I’m hanging out talking to somebody, I see something and I ask them to be in the movie. Just like that. I see something. I do it. All the films we’ve talked about just happened. I don’t know why… We had a philosophy when we started this about 17 years ago: treat everybody the same, whether they have money or not. Give everybody a chance. If you have an idea for something and you can do it, let’s do it. Everybody deserves a chance to have a dream fulfilled.”

Pocino has directed 50 independent films, mostly shorts up to an hour long. Lionsgate bought the rights to five of them and he believes they’ve used ideas from three. Perception will be Pocino’s first full-length feature — about two hours long. His directing style is a little unorthodox compared to most productions: He’s basically putting Perception together as he goes. “The script keeps changing. Nobody gets a copy of their part until a couple days before their scene. If you show them the whole script people start calling up saying, ‘How about this and how about that?’”

If Pocino’s on-set style relies on spontaneity, that may be extension of how he got into the industry in the first place: on a bet. While working as a fireman and paramedic in his home state of New Jersey, he and some of his fellow rescue workers found themselves watching As the World Turns. “I don’t know why we had it on. We came back from a shooting and walked in the door and it was on. I made a comment about some actor on a soap opera. If you know anything about firemen and cops, they like to bet. It’s a macho thing — ‘I can act,’ whatever. You know? I was a big hot dog; we all were. I said I could do better. So that’s how it started.”

Pocino proved himself by scoring a double role, playing a preacher and a judge in The Rimers of Eldritch. “I did well and they asked me to come back and play a convict in My Three Angels. I got on the front page of the entertainment section of the Wall Street Journal.” Although Pocino had a wife and two jobs at the time, he found himself drawn to acting. “I got my stockbroker’s license and my insurance license, quit my jobs and started putting on my own plays. I’d buy the rights and put the actors together. I just wanted to act so I put them on myself.”

Film was the obvious next step from theater, and soon Pocino’s interest shifted from acting to producing and directing. “Basically, the breakout is when I do everything on my own. I don’t play well with others, as you can probably tell.”

Pocino has earned a reputation as a stern director, and he’s proud of it. “I hate doing the business, because you’re never right. I’ve gotten yelled at all the time from managers and agents when I fire the actors. I’m just trying to get a film made. I have no personal resentment. I don’t care. I want to make my movie. If you can’t do it or you can’t make it, I’m letting you go. There’s a movie business food chain: investors, producers, directors and then actors. Now the actors can come on top when they bring big money in. Everybody below that is expendable.”

Showing up counts for 90 percent of success with Pocino, and after a rough start he is impressed with the work ethic and acting talent he’s seen from Perception’s patched-together, all-Sarasota cast. “Dayle [Hoffmann] showed up with cupcakes on my birthday, so I put her in [a previous project]. Don’t get me wrong: She’s talented. The Prince [Mario-Max Prince Schaumburg-Lippe of Germany] was here on something else and he asked to be in the movie. I never said, ‘No,’ to a prince before so I wrote that part for him. Steve Grabo, I’ve worked with him before in a comedy, but the role he’s playing is like Dexter, and he’s really doing a great job. Garie Jean Williams is awesome. Patti Linn, you can’t even tell she’s acting.” Pocino will be shooting with his Sarasota stars through January, and is aiming to release Perception in DVD form come April.

Once this project is done with, Pocino will be moving up. He recently entered the realm of big-name actors after forming a connection with an L.A. casting agency. He has been taking full advantage of the relationship: “I have two films that I’m in talks with. One is called Glacier Lake. I’m finding funding for it; it’s a $1 million budget. The other is called Dead Lawyers. I have Kevin Pollak, Jennifer Sciole and Billy Zane signed on. You know how I got them to look at it? You ready for this? Trade secret: MySpace. Kevin Pollak has a MySpace. I sent him a synopsis and he wrote me back and said, ‘I am interested. Send the script to my agent.’ I sent it to his agent and he wouldn’t talk to me. I told Kevin, ‘He’s got the script but he’s not talking to me.’ Ten minutes later I got a call from his agent. That’s how you do it. Go to the actors. That Entourage is exactly what it is. You know Ari? That’s what I deal with on the phone — all the fucking time.”

One actor that Pocino knows well is Patrick McCall, who unexpectedly shows up during our interview. McCall plays a Florida businessman in the new Golden Globe contender Up in the Air, starring George Clooney. He also plays a DA in a wheelchair in Perception. “Big-name actors have their own agenda,” says Pocino. “I can’t really talk to them. They usually have a manager and an agent. But the one thing they all want to do is keep working. To be an actor you have to be a little self-centered. If you’re not, I don’t think you’ll make it as an actor. That’s why I invited Pat. I think Pat is very unusual. He’s successful but he’s low-key.” McCall speaks up with a jolly actor’s voice: “You mean this interview isn’t about me?”

I ask Pocino if working with bigger names might change his directing style: “No, I’ll still be an asshole. The difference is the actors. You can get a professional actor and explain the role to them and they come back with it. They can do it. Professional actors are on a different level.”

Between big-money deals and all-local indie flicks, Pocino doesn’t really have a preference. He just wants to keep making movies. “Money’s not important to me. I do things from the heart. When I say something I mean it. That’s why I don’t play well with others.”

Photo courtesy John Pocino

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