Surf City fits the film festival bill

Surf City fits the film festival bill
Brian Barsuglia is the director of the SoCal Film Festival. (KEVIN CHANG, HB Independent)

Midway through the shoot of "The Toy Soldiers," Erik Peter Carlson set off on a quest for a location that would match the vision he'd crafted lovingly on his storyboard.

In layman's terms, that meant finding the right bathroom.


The director needed the right dimensions for an intense scene involving his teenage cast, and the facilities at the Moonlight Rollerway, a skating rink in Glendale where much of the action was filmed, didn't suit what he had in mind. So Carlson went scouting for the ideal lavatory, and when Briton Saxton, Huntington Beach's film and sports commissioner, pointed him to the city gym, he found his answer.

"Right when we walked in, it had a very similar layout to how I storyboarded it," Carlson said. "We walked in and needed a big, open space where the wall where the character would lean up against [would be] and basically the majority of the talking would be happening, and that wall had to be facing the entrance to the bathroom. And it had to be a distance thing, so there could be equipment in there. We had to do some dollies and a lot of other things, so it was a size matter."


When "The Toy Soldiers," a gritty coming-of-age drama set in the 1980s, screens in public next month, that bathroom may inspire some shocks of recognition in the audience. Carlson's film will play Oct. 2 in the SoCal Film Festival, held each year at the Huntington Beach Central Library, and some of the people who facilitated its production may be in attendance.

Carlson, who lives in New York, is far from an Orange County boy. But despite using brief establishing shots of Santa Monica for his film, he sought a cheaper and less-crowded location for dialogue scenes, and Surf City proved amenable. In addition to the gym restroom, the city's beach and the contours of its pier — the latter used as the backdrop for a brutal assault — featured prominently onscreen.

At one point, an "HB" logo is briefly visible on a seaside bench. Carlson said with a laugh that he missed that during production, but given the circumstances, the image can serve as an anniversary gift of sorts.

In 2005, director Brian Barsuglia, whose credits include the horror films "Zombie Farm" and "Dementia: An Experiment in Terror," launched the SoCal Film Festival at the library's theater. This fall marks the festival's 10th go-round, and celebration — for multiple guests of honor — will be the tone throughout the five-day event.


This year, for the first time, Barsuglia plans to host a red-carpet entrance before every program and a question-and-answer session afterward. As festivals go, think of it as the equivalent of a Robert Altman ensemble picture: plenty of stars getting equal treatment and no one towering as a headliner over the rest.

Part of the reason Barsuglia has time for all those red carpets is because the festival is showing about a quarter fewer movies than last year. That was a conscious decision on the part of the organizer, who wanted to devote more attention to each item on the schedule.

"That's one of those things, just from having gone to a few festivals over the last couple of years," said Barsuglia, who by day teaches English at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. "One of the things I wanted to bring back was, rather than try to show as many movies as possible, which I've done in recent years, to kind of cut back the number of movies that we're screening and really focus on the event around each movie. So they get a chance to do the red carpet, have the Q-and-A. Audiences can connect with the filmmakers and have a chance to really learn about the process of each movie."

This year's schedule comprises about four dozen films, including features, documentaries, music videos and shorts. The sports documentary "Mecca II" opens the festival Oct. 1, with surfers Ricky Whitlock, David Suhadolnik and JD Lewis taking part in the post-screening panel; the festivities will wrap up Oct. 5 with round-table discussions about screenwriting and navigating the festival world.

True to his event's name, Barsuglia likes to spotlight Southern California — and Huntington Beach — when he can. Including "The Toy Soldiers," three films on this year's docket were shot in Surf City; Russell Emanuel set the documentary "Restoration of Paradise" at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, while Autumn McAlpin used seaside locations, plus a few prominent local surfers, in the short film "Shadow."

The SoCal Film Festival is far from the only annual event of its kind in Orange County, where the Newport Beach Film Festival draws high-profile industry crowds every April and the Irvine International and Silent River festivals launched within the last half-decade. Unlike the Newport event, which spans half a dozen venues, Barsuglia's brainchild holds all its screenings at the library theater.

Initially, at least. The week after the festival, most of the films on the program can be viewed online at, and Barsuglia throws in an additional 60 offerings. For Saxton, who handles film permit requests consistently throughout the year, the festival helps to celebrate the city's cinematic heritage.

"We're really happy to have them here," she said. "We like to showcase different areas of art and culture in Huntington Beach, and there's a lot of passion that goes into that festival. Brian definitely puts a lot of effort forth, especially considering he has to work a full-time job on top of it. It's a work of passion, and I think it shows through."


If You Go

What: SoCal Film Festival

Where: Huntington Beach Central Library, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach

When: Oct. 1 through 5

Cost: Events range from $8 to $20; $40 for all-festival pass