The peak of Corey Foxx's acting career came in 1999, when he was cast as an extra in the live-action Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle movie. A featured performer proved unable to deliver his one line in the appropriate French accent, and when Thomasson tried to give the guy pointers, he was selected to deliver the line instead. Thomasson claims he has been approached by adoring fans who recall this brief screen appearance.

His agent was mostly useless to him, though, so Thomasson started looking online for available roles. He submitted his headshot for the lead role of a deranged missionary in Godsend. Though Thomasson's photos resemble the teen-idol look of the '90s (think Johnny Depp's 21 Jump Street hair), Costanzo found them sufficiently scary.

"He looked pretty evil, we auditioned him, and he did a really bad job," Costanzo recalls. Thomasson blames his Texas accent for sinking the deal, but he did manage to score a supporting part as one of the killer's victims. "He was a really nice guy, and I felt bad, so I got him another part," says Costanzo.

Rocky Costanzo, ready for your close-up
Russ Roca
Rocky Costanzo, ready for your close-up
From Left: Chris Wolcott, Costanzo and Thomasson on their home turf in Huntington Beach
Russ Roca
From Left: Chris Wolcott, Costanzo and Thomasson on their home turf in Huntington Beach

Thomasson saw in Costanzo the same drive and efficiency he had seen in Rocky & Bullwinkle director Des McAnuff. "I got my degree at the University of Texas in business, so I'd always had a business mindset," says Thomasson. "I'd stay after and help tear down sets and patch stuff up and just be talking to [Rocky]. I finally impressed him enough that he let me come onboard." (Oddly, McAnuff hasn't directed a movie since—Costanzo, with four films, has been a lot more prolific.)

"I needed him because I'm not a business guy at all," says Costanzo. "All I wanted to do was make films. And he was the one who was very persistent in getting us incorporated. He pushed for the office as well. Before this, we were working out of our homes."

The partnership didn't happen immediately. After Godsend, Thomasson returned to Texas, and Costanzo decided to attempt his first feature in 2000. Recalling another film-school lesson that "if you're not going to do a horror film, you need to do something that's going to be controversial or disturbing," he became inspired by a novel called Return to Innocence, the one and only published work of fiction by a South Carolina lawyer named Gary M. Frazier. Return's lead character, a supervisor at a home for troubled youth, is open to the idea of man-boy love and guilty of covering for an actual molester . . . yet we're asked to sympathize with him when he's falsely accused of molestation himself. Initially appalled by the book—he says he threw it down after reading a couple of chapters—Costanzo kept coming back to it and gambled that audiences might do the same. Frazier agreed to write the screenplay for deferred payment, and the entire project cost around $10,000.

The film unfolds like a stage play and is shot in black-and-white with very simple editing. "I wanted to make the film as if you're reading the book," says Costanzo. "And obviously in a book or novel, you're reading lots of dialogue, so that's really what the film is, just pure dialogue. Even color was like an intrusion on the subject matter."

The style is a very deliberate choice, one that's counterintuitive for an art that generally relies on the rule "show, don't tell."

The courtroom sequence that makes up much of the movie was partially shot at the historic Santa Ana courthouse over a weekend. Thomasson—who returned from Texas to play a bailiff and at that point became Costanzo's business partner—remembers having no trouble obtaining the location. "We said we were independent filmmakers, and they were very helpful."

But Costanzo tells a different story. "I think we actually lied. I think we told them we were film students at the time, and we weren't," he says. "You do whatever you can to make that movie, even if it does mean lying."

*     *     *

Return to Innocence
was screened at several film festivals in 2001 and 2002, but it failed to find any interest with theatrical distributors. So Costanzo and Thomasson began the process of getting their movie in stores. "We had to find someone to make the DVDs—we didn't know how that worked—but we lucked out and found a company in Orange County," says Thomasson. "And we lucked out that Gary, the author and script writer, was also an artist, so he did all the artwork, the menus, everything."

Then they had to figure out how to get their DVDs into stores—everything from Wal-Mart to little mom-and-pop video operations. Two companies kept popping up, Baker & Taylor and Ingram. Both were willing to supply the stores, "but that's all they do," says Thomasson. "They make it available to retailers, but they don't advertise it."

This phase of distribution—packaging the DVD, doing the artwork, marketing it—would be handled by LifeLine itself. Thomasson posted an ad on the Internet Movie Database (which, in 2003, cost just $10,000). On the day of its release, Return to Innocence was featured on the main page, which got the film tons of notice.

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