Rocky Costanzo will admit he wasn't exactly Mr. Congeniality in school.
"I was kind of a bully," said Costanzo. "I wasn't really bad, but it was peer pressure to impress your friends by being a jerk."
Though Costanzo, 41, of Huntington Beach, hasn't been in high school for 23 years, he directed a modern-day movie on how teens deal with a school shooting.
Costanzo believes that even with the violence in the movie, it conveys a distinct anti-bullying message, that the gunman's tendencies were blunted by kindness shown to him.
"Ditch Party" is about a group of students who are mysteriously invited to skip class and go to a party in the school's abandoned administration building when chaos erupts in the halls. The students barricade themselves in a room and wait for help. Little else can be said without giving away too much of the storyline.
"This does not glorify the shooter," Costanzo explained in his office at Hourglass Pictures in Huntington Beach. "The focus is on the kids in the room and their perspective on handling the tragic event."
To produce the teen thriller, Costanzo reunited with a former classmate turned successful Hollywood actor. They hadn't spoken in more than a dozen years.
'Oh my God, he's made it'
The future director met the future actor and producer at Marina High School.
The year was 1987, and freshmen Costanzo and Noel Gugliemi, or simply Noel G., shared an interest in acting. The two befriended each other and started making home movies using Costanzo's mother's camcorder.
The hobby turned into work for Costanzo. As a teen, he served as an extra for three seasons on "The Wonder Years." It was while working on the comedy-drama that he discovered a love of filmmaking. He would sneak back on stage during breaks so he could view the making of the show.
But while Costanzo continued his focus on making movies and appeared on "Beverly Hills, 90210," the two friends grew distant. He lost track of Gugliemi — until 13 years ago.
Costanzo was sitting in a downtown Huntington Beach theater in 2001, watching "Training Day," when he happened to see Gugliemi's name listed in the credits.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, he's made it,'" Costanzo said. "And I knew I had to get a hold of him."
So Costanzo did what any fan would do by looking up Gugliemi's agent. The two reconnected, and Gugliemi appeared in a few of Costanzo's low-budget films. But then there was another gap until last year, when Costanzo got a call from Gugliemi. He wanted to make a movie.
Gugliemi, who frequently portrays criminals and gangsters, is known for his acting in "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Fast and the Furious" and "Bruce Almighty." He presented to Costanzo the idea of producing an updated version of "The Breakfast Club," where kids are forced into one room, but they had to come up with a reason the students would be corralled other than serving detention.
Gugliemi knew location moves are a big expense in making a movie, so if the two shot in one spot, they could keep the budget low. They talked about the sensitive issue of school shootings and how, in the movie, they wanted to show students' reactions to death staring them in the face.
"It was a movie about anti-bullying," Gugliemi said by phone Thursday. "I believe the movie has a positive message because it's saying don't bully kids in school and learn to love one another."
By last summer the two collaborators had a plot, actors and the confidence to move forward. The cameras started rolling Sept. 13. With permission from the Lynwood School District, filming began at Marco Antonio Firebaugh High School. The principal, staff and students participated in the making of the film.
The cast includes Gugliemi, playing a janitor, Daeg Faerch, whose credits include the remake of the horror film "Halloween," and DeeDee Rescher, known for her appearances on TV's "The Nanny," "The King of Queens," and "Days of Our Lives."
Costanzo said the most challenging aspect was the pre-production, when he had to pull film permits and arrange many meetings to discuss the film's direction. But he was thrilled to realize he had come a long way from those days of using a VHS camcorder. Now he had a Red Epic camera, a high-performing tool for digital cinematography. And working with Gugliemi — now on a professional level — brought back pleasant memories.
"It was really fun, because it was like going back in time where I got to direct him," Costanzo said. "There was a moment when we looked at each other on set and we both shared a look like, 'Can you believe it?'"
Spreading the message
Gugliemi, who speaks at probation camps, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and high schools to promote non-violence, said he understands the issues teenagers are facing today. He grew up homeless and described himself as an ugly kid with stringy hair and an acne problem. He got picked on, until he joined a gang.
But things turned around for him when he turned to religion. His message to students is about working hard and persevering through difficulty.
"The only way you can fail in life is if you quit, so don't quit and keep pushing forward," Gugliemi said. "God first."
The film is in the editing stage and slated for release in the fall of 2015, with special advanced screenings already being discussed. Costanzo said he hopes to screen the film at high schools, including a visit back to Marina High. He said it was Gugliemi's idea to film "Ditch Party" at an inner-city school because the students don't have the opportunity to be in movies.
For now, the filmmaking partners want to see how the movie does at festivals before they discuss future projects with each other.
"Here we are, fast forward and we made a real film," Gugliemi said. "It was really fun working with a friend."
Costanzo said he hopes audiences will think about the film and continue to talk about it. But there's a deeper message that he and Gugliemi want students to take away.
"I want the kids to know to just be nice to people," Costanzo said.