Rocky's Road
The founder of Huntington Beach-based LifeLine Entertainment has made four feature films, but he still can't quit his day job

If you happened to be at the Huntington Beach Public Library on March 29, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd made a wrong turn off the freeway and ended up at a Hollywood movie premiere instead.

Gold-painted columns adorned the library's entryway, from which a red carpet was unfurled and flanked by fans and paparazzi. As limousines pulled up with the guests of honor—publicists had promised celebrities such as Dane Cook and Tom Green—large spotlights rotated upfront, their beams barely visible as the sun hadn't yet set.

Green and Cook never showed, and many of the photographers were hired by the filmmakers themselves. But the important thing was to create an impression, and indeed, the auditorium was packed with cheering fans, who first enjoyed a horror-themed slideshow that parodied the inane onscreen quizzes often shown at corporate-owned movie theaters. Viewers were invited to guess the horror movie poster and learn tips on how to survive a horror movie ("If your children speak to you in Latin or another language they don't know, shoot them at once"). Then came the main event: the latest film from director Rocky Costanzo, a suspense chiller titled Amhurst. The crowd seemed to love it.

Chances are you've never heard of Costanzo or Amhurst. Yet, at age 34, Costanzo and the company he heads, LifeLine Entertainment, have made four feature films, all available on (and direct-to) DVD. LifeLine's swanky Huntington Beach suite looks like the ultimate bachelor pad, all dark colors and candles, equipped with PlayStation 3, and augmented with a fridge fully stocked with such novelty sodas as Bubble Up and Rat Bastard Root Beer.

LifeLine has been successful enough that it's no trouble to pay the rent on such a place, but Costanzo and his associates have yet to turn enough of a profit to quit their day jobs. By day, Costanzo hauls asphalt for the city of Huntington Beach. Chief Operations Officer Roy Thomasson handles car-damage management for Avis. (Their third partner, Chris Wolcott . . . well, we don't know much about him. He's listed as the chief financial officer, and Roy says he does "accounting and stuff." But Wolcott avoids talking to the press altogether. "He doesn't really like the media thing and being interviewed, so he didn't wanna participate," says Thomasson. After this story was turned in, however, Wolcott appeared for our photographers. "We kind of forced him," Thomasson admits.)

LifeLine's website touts it as "Orange County's very own independent film company," with the goal of "bring[ing] forward festival-award-winning U.S. independent feature films and focus[ing] on rare, unique and sometimes edgy titles featuring up-and-coming filmmakers." To date, however, LifeLine has exclusively released titles by exactly one filmmaker: Rocky Costanzo.

*     *      *

Costanzo was born in Newport Beach and raised in Huntington Beach. His father, Larry, worked for the city of Huntington Beach, also hauling asphalt. The younger Costanzo started in the business as a child actor, with small roles on various TV shows, most notably a popular Fred Savage sitcom.

"I always get asked about The Wonder Years, and it always gets printed, and it makes it look like I was part of the big cast, like I was a star of the thing. That's not the case at all!" he says. "I was merely an extra, and I did some photo-doubling and stand-in work for the older brother [played by] Jason Hervey."

It was while hanging out on the set and observing Daniel Stern, who voiced the show's narrator role and directed a few episodes, that Costanzo says he felt a "turning point" and decided the place for him was behind the camera. In 1998, at the age of 17, he signed up for a course at the Hollywood Film School, hoping to learn aspects of directing that weren't immediately obvious to an on-set observer.

But that wasn't what he got. "I wanted to learn the technical side of film—camera angles and lighting—and unfortunately, that class didn't really give me a lot of that," Coztanzo says. "It was more about stuff that I already knew. The rest has just been self-taught." Even now, he readily admits he's "a filmmaker that doesn't know a lot."

One thing he did learn from the class was the horror genre is an easy sell, so early the next year, he set out to make what became the first LifeLine production. (The company name, he says, "was created to show how we as humans walk the same line from birth to death.") It was a short called Godsend, shot over eight months with equipment borrowed from a Time-Warner public-access affiliate in Costa Mesa. One of the TV station's employees facilitated the loan. Costanzo looks back at the short and cringes; he doesn't even have a copy of it anymore. But in the process of making the "no-budget" short that he says "looked like crap," a fruitful friendship was made.

*     *     *

Texas native Roy Thomasson, 38, served in the Army on active duty for two years and in the reserve for eight, seeing action in both Panama and Iraq (during the first Bush administration in the early 1990s). It wasn't until he was hit by a personal disaster of the type described in country-music songs—"I lost my job, my wife left me, the cat ran away with the dog next door type of thing"—that he decided to take his severance check and move out to California to become an actor. Seeking representation, the then-28-year-old called up the first agent he found in the phone book; after sweet-talking him out of more money than would seem reasonable, the agent determined that Thomasson needed a new name. Thomasson had always liked the name "Corey," at which point the agent randomly opened the phone book and aimed his finger at a random surname: "Foxx." Thus was born Corey Foxx, and even back in 1998, Thomasson knew that a smart first step would be to register the domain name coreyfoxx.com (still online, though it hasn't been updated in a long, long time).

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.

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 IMDB.com main page, which got the film tons of notice.

Reviews of the film ran the gamut. Aaron D. Hoag at E! Insiders called it "a gut-wrenching, stomach-turning, yet ultimately redeeming movie that hits you with base, raw emotion," while Film Freak Central's Travis Mackenzie Hoover considered it "an uncomfortable chore to sit through with no real intellectual payoff."

Frazier was satisfied with the film version of his novel, though. "I wasn't expecting too much from the final product, but all in all, I think Rocky did a remarkable job given the limited resources he had to work with. The actors all did commendable jobs, as did everyone else who worked on the project."

The movie even caught the eye of a better-known Hollywood director. An actor who came in to audition for Costanzo mentioned that Jeepers Creepers' Victor Salva was a fan. Costanzo was impressed that a filmmaker he'd heard of was giving him respect—until he was informed, during an interview for this article, that Salva's interest in the subject matter may be more than merely aesthetic, since Salva did prison time for acting on some man-boy lusts of his own. "Oh—I didn't know!" says Costanzo. "That's probably why he liked the damn thing. He's probably, 'Oh, little boys in underwear!' Well, that's not really credible, then."

Return to Innocence made approximately $35,000 and was sold to several East Coast retailers and Amazon.com, on which it was the No. 3 best-seller for seven months—in the Netherlands.

They had hoped for better results. When instant fame and fortune failed to materialize, Costanzo got more ambitious. He decided his next project would feature union actors. Titled 11:11, it would be the story of two childhood friends who meet again as adults and find their lives have taken very different paths. He managed to shoot the childhood sequences in the summer of 2004, but then disaster struck: The investors backed out. (Thomasson won't say who they are or how much they put up, even though they screwed him; he insists on honoring their nondisclosure agreement.) Costanzo actually went to their Orange headquarters to try to talk them out of it, only to discover "they weren't even there anymore—they just literally packed up and left. At that point, I really wondered if filmmaking was really worth it. I started to have mixed feelings about my life—if it was even worth living."

But he soon changed his mind. "The thing was, we had a camera and we had our own editing system," he says, "so we decided to just make a cheesy slasher film."

An expansion of the Godsend short, Hallowed was both Costanzo's tribute to his cinematic hero, John Carpenter, and an exorcism of his childhood fears when door-to-door Christian missionaries would come to his home. The very basic story of a crazed killer was shot in various OC locations that were also used in the original Halloween.

While a fun flick, it is almost infuriatingly truncated, ending before the protagonist can have a final confrontation with the villain. "You have to leave an opening for a sequel," Thomasson says.

Costanzo elaborates a bit more: "The lead actor bailed on us halfway through."

That actor, an unknown named Rich Lava, helped to give the filmmakers access to some underground tunnels in the Anaheim area where they really weren't supposed to be shooting, and at a certain point, Lava thought Costanzo was somehow going to publicly spill the beans as to the secret locations. "To make a long story short, he protested and left," recalls Costanzo, "so we threw Roy in his place. After that, all the behind shots were really Roy."

Lava proved impossible to contact even when his royalty checks started coming in; Costanzo believes the actor may have been driving a cab in Los Angeles. The Weekly checked with the LA Taxicab Authority, but no one named Rich Lava is currently registered with them.

While Hallowed is Costanzo's least favorite of his own full-length films, it's also his most successful.

"It was me setting up the lights, doing the audio, being the cinematographer, everything," says Costanzo. "Roy was there, but he's not a filmmaker, really. He's a good producer, and when it comes to distribution and networking, he's great, but he's not a hands-on filmmaker. We whipped up Hallowed—and, surprisingly enough, that's the only film so far that's been bought by an actual distributor."

Though LifeLine have the means to distribute films themselves—and have done so on every other project—Costanzo and Thomasson don't enjoy that part of the process and were happy to have a subdivision of Universal take care of all the marketing and DVD production.

*     *     *

For his next feature, Costanzo went in a completely different—and more personal—direction. He had been friends with the Fountain Valley-based Goth-rock band the Last Dance ever since a colleague dragged him to a performance in 1999. Later, he would set up an event at the Galaxy Concert Theater with the Last Dance on the same bill as a screening of Godsend, knowing the band's fan base would give his short film a larger audience than he could gather. Costanzo bonded with the band over their similar experiences as artists, he says, since they also maintain day jobs while putting out albums and touring.

Costanzo and Thomasson approached the band with the idea of a documentary in the fall of 2004. "Depeche Mode did a documentary called 101, and I liked how it was an actual story that followed something instead of just jumping around like a lot of music documentaries do," he says.

A few months later, the LifeLine boys met with the Last Dance members again to pitch to the band the entire idea, hoping Thomasson could swing some big investors. "The plan was to have our own mobile production truck with five camera guys, and we were going to not only follow them on tour, but also get them recording their new album and everything that led up to it," Costanzo says.

The band were in favor of doing it, and in February 2005, Costanzo was invited to start filming their recording sessions.

But the funding never materialized, and on Aug. 22, the night before the tour was to start, Costanzo called the band to tell them the project was off. An hour later, guitarist Rick Joyce called back and told him to pack his stuff. When Costanzo showed up at Joyce's house the next morning, "they had about $1,500 for me for gas and this and that. I had enough money for tape stock, and we owned the camera, and Roy worked for a rental-car company, so he gave me a free minivan, and away we went."

Though Costanzo seems disappointed in the low-tech feel of the final film, Almost Beautiful is by far his best work as a director. The band members have natural charisma, the slo-mo effects Costanzo favors work better in the music-documentary form, and his shot compositions—mostly done on the fly—are more artful than anything in his previous work. And with an overabundance of footage, he was forced to make tougher editing choices.

Unfortunately, consumers don't seem to agree. "Almost Beautiful hasn't come close to breaking even yet," says Thomasson. "It hasn't been as successful because it's about a Goth band. We tried to market it so it's not about the Goth thing—it's about a struggling band trying to get out there—but we just couldn't convince people to watch this movie."

For his part, Costanzo says, "It's my first documentary, and it's my last documentary." The Last Dance lead singer Jeff Diehm thinks the low-budget approach worked, saying, "Fans used to only big-budget or MTV-style films might not think it's up to standards, but I think it has amazing credibility as an underground filmmaker doing a documentary about an underground band."

*     *     *

As business partners, Thomasson and Costanzo are a study in contrasts. The former, wearing a permanent grin and hyper-caffeinated, is exactly who you want selling your product, but one wonders how he meshes on a set with the mellow Costanzo.

Costanzo is surprisingly blunt about their relationship. "He bugs me. I'm not gonna lie," he says. "[Thomasson's] a great guy, and he's definitely proven to be an asset, but he comes off like a used-car salesman sometimes. He's very optimistic and thinks we're bigger than we are, but he shoots for the stars, and I can't fault him for that."

As an example, when working on 11:11the first time around, in 2004, Costanzo says he told Thomasson he was looking for a Tobey Maguire "type."

"He went after Tobey Maguire! And he believed we were in a position to actually cast Tobey Maguire," Costanzo says. "I was like, 'Roy, he's not gonna do our film. We can't afford him.'"

Costanzo's a bit more realistic—or cynical—in a way that's reflected by LifeLine's logo, which features silhouettes of a man in various stages of being, from infancy to death. He has no illusions about where he fits in the cycle.

"I think we're old enough now that our heads aren't in the clouds as much as they were when we were younger," he says. "The reality of this is that you've got to work really hard and catch a lot of breaks. So it's not like we're shooting for the stars right now. We enjoy it, we love it, and if we can make a living doing it, then that's the greatest thing in the world."

The work comes at the expense of a personal life. Costanzo enjoys working with children, he says, in large part because he doesn't have any of his own, but he doesn't anticipate ever having the time to start a family, either.

"My parents got divorced when I was young, and to me, family means spending time with your wife and kids, and I just don't have the time to get involved in that." It may not be coincidence that all of the antagonists in his movies are wounded and abused children, though it's a coincidence Costanzo says he didn't notice until the Weekly brought it up.

Up next, he plans to finish 11:11, retooled in such a way that he can bring back the same young actors to play their older selves. "The two friends—the leads in the first part of the movie—reunite as adults 20 years later, so they're supposed to be thirtysomething years old now," he explains. "But that has to change. I have to turn it into something where they're now 16 or 17 instead of 20 or 30, so it'll be a challenge. But we've got to finish it."

There's already been a lot of interest, purely because of the title. Costanzo took it from a person he knew telling him to make a wish when the clock turns 11:11, he says, but he was unaware it's a significant number in numerology circles, a belief espoused by the likes of infamous spoon-bender Uri Geller. LifeLine gets e-mails nearly every day from conspiracy theorists anxious to see what's coming.

"I think it would be our biggest-selling movie ever," Costanzo says. "I could put a short out right now, 32 pages of script, but I don't want to do that. I want to make the film we set out to make." Amhurst, meanwhile, should be hitting DVD in the fall.

Will Costanzo ever make a movie that really breaks through and allows the company to become the full-time focus of its partners? Thomasson estimates it would take $2.6 million to achieve that. And head-not-in-the-clouds Costanzo is realistic about the prospects for their movies.

"I'm proud of them, for what we went through, which was hell, to get them made and released on DVD. But I also understand we're not gonna make a Pulp Fiction or something of that caliber," Costanzo says. "But there are little moments in every film where I think it all comes together, and the goal is to make a whole movie like that."

Surprisingly casual in his delivery, Costanzo adds, "I dunno. I might die before that happens."

lythompson@ocweekly.com

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